Caste census lessons for new government in Bihar - Hindustan Times
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Caste census lessons for new government in Bihar

Feb 20, 2024 10:04 PM IST

Reservations alone can’t alleviate economic deprivation. They must be complemented by the increased availability of jobs and strong inclusive growth.

The Bihar caste census (BCC) has been an eye-opener in many ways. Backwards and marginalised communities together constitute nearly 85% of Bihar’s population, greater than what the government presumed. Hence, the new Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government will need to work harder than before for such communities.

Patna, Bihar, India - Aug . 02, 2023: Enumerator staff collect information from residents for a caste-based census in Bihar after Patna High Court rejected a petition against the survey, at Phulwari Sharif in Patna , Bihar,India, Wednesday, July, 02, 2023. (Photo by Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Patna, Bihar, India - Aug . 02, 2023: Enumerator staff collect information from residents for a caste-based census in Bihar after Patna High Court rejected a petition against the survey, at Phulwari Sharif in Patna , Bihar,India, Wednesday, July, 02, 2023. (Photo by Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

The challenge is massive, as the BCC shows every third family in the state is poor — the poverty line being a household income of less than 6,000 a month (BCC’s own presumed estimate). A third of both Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) and Backward Classes (BCs) are poor, while 42% of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households are poor. Among the Forward Castes (FCs), too, a fourth of the households are poor. The BCC showcases a failure of affirmative action, despite parties that promised social justice holding office, and despite three decades of economic reform. Thus, the Bihar government must make poverty alleviation its top priority.

Bihar’s poverty landscape is dominated by EBCs and BCs, who make up 61.4% of all poor households in Bihar. Even though FCs account for just 15% of the total households in the state, they account for 40% of the households in the highest income category (over 50,000 per month). Social stratification can lead to significant economic inequalities. Thus, in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha and 2025 Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections, the BJP-JD(U) government will be challenged by the Opposition to not abandon the cause of inclusive development. Otherwise, chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar and the BJP risk compounding the anger among ordinary Biharis over the CM switching sides.

We know that economic inequality further accentuates educational and employment disparities. Again, FCs have an outsized representation (relative to their population share) within the pool of the state’s graduates, post graduates, doctoral researchers, and chartered accountants. Thanks to their dominance of higher education, they account for nearly one-third of the government and 45% of the organised private-sector jobs in Bihar. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Tejashwi Yadav had fought the 2020 Vidhan Sabha elections on the plank of providing government jobs. The young opposition leader reminded the assembly about this in the first House sitting after the swearing-in of the BJP-JD(U) government in the state. Yadav and the RJD will drive home that advantage now. Bihar has just kicked off its school teacher recruitment examination 3.0, and the police constable re-examination is also expected soon. However, this is just a start on filling the government job vacancies.

The BCC shows that just 4% of the households in Bihar earn more than 50,000 per month. Bihar’s net per capita income (2021-22 current prices) is the lowest in India, at just 47,000 vis-à-vis 4.7 lakh for Goa, 2.7 lakh for Telangana, and 2.6 lakh for Karnataka. The state government has to work towards remedying this.

Although Bihar has been achieving high economic growth for some time now, this won’t be sustained if human development doesn’t rise in tandem. The southern states have been frontrunners in human development, and have consequently enjoyed high economic growth and per capita income. The Bihar government must earnestly work on developing human capital by increasing access to good health and higher education, and by reviving jobs.

Based on the BCC’s poverty and social inequality findings, Bihar reiterated its demand for special status. Although the Centre has always dismissed the request, it remains to be seen how the BJP being back in power works out for the state, in terms of securing additional funding for poverty alleviation.

In light of the BCC, the state government increased the reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs from 50% to 65%. Reservations alone can’t alleviate economic deprivation and inequality. They must be complemented by the increased availability of jobs, industrialisation, agriculture support, human development, the promotion of a decent quality of life, and strong inclusive growth.

Santosh Mehrotra is a research fellow at the IZA Institute of Labour Economics, Bonn, and Rakesh Ranjan Kumar is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Migration and Development, Kerala. The views expressed are personal

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