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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 41 October 7, 2023

Social and Economic Aspects of Caste Survey in Bihar | Arun Kumar

Saturday 7 October 2023, by Arun Kumar


The need for caste census today is because after independence we adopted the top-down development model. It was thought that the benefits of development would flow from the upper strata to the lower ones. But this hope has been belied with the well-off capturing most of the benefits leaving little for the marginalized sections who are lagging behind in development.

The release of the figures from the caste survey in Bihar have immediately led to the heating up of politics in the entire country. There is a demand for conducting a caste survey in many states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. In Karnataka, the demand is to make public the data of the caste survey conducted in 2015.

Poverty and Population Increase

According to the Bihar survey report, the largest population in the state belongs to the extremely backward class (EBC), constituting about 36 percent of the total population. While the Report makes clear the situation in Bihar, it does not tell us the situation in the entire country. That would require a national survey. Therefore, now the pressure will increase on the Central Government to conduct and make public the data at the national level. That is the only way the caste composition of the total population can be known. This is required to make policies which can enable equitable shares in employment and education to different sections of the population.

The increase in proportion of extremely backward classes in the total population of Bihar should have been expected because of the prevailing poverty among them. Those who are poor, have more children due to several reasons, like, lack of education and awareness. Most importantly, for their social security in old age. The poor do not have savings, hence children constitute their old age social security. To ensure at least one child survives till their old age, they have more children. Also, more children mean more earning hands in the family. As people become more prosperous, people produce fewer children. The economic condition of middle class and the well-off is relatively better, so they have fewer children and their population grows less.

The question arises what is the likely consequence? Upper caste people are worried that since extremely backward castes constitute a higher proportion of the population, their demand for reservation will increase.

Growing Unemployment a Crucial Factor

I believe that if we had given more importance in employment and education to the extremely backward castes from the beginning, the situation that has arisen today would not have arisen. If jobs are available in sufficient numbers, reservation does not make any difference. Reservation becomes critical when employment generation is weak. When there is lack of adequate employment, a dispute arises over reservation as to who will get how much employment. At present, due to large unemployment among the educated youth and few available government jobs, the demand for reservation has increased.

The problem has been growing because after independence we have adopted the top down and trickle down policy. The result has been that the upper sections of the society have cornered most of the benefits while the marginalized sections have received very little benefits. Disparities have grown and so have expectations thereby raising the level of conflict in society. Use of more advanced technology in every sector has displaced labour and contributed to increasing unemployment. The Agriculture sector which has the most employment (46%) in our country has seen increased use of tractors, harvester combines, threshers, potato digging machines, etc. thereby reducing the need for employment and displacing workers. This is also true of manufacturing and services, like, banking.

Impact of Government Policies

Government is also fueling this change by promoting the growth of the capital intensive organized sector at the expense of the unorganized sector (which employs 94% of the workers). For example, the government reduced the tax rates on the corporate sector, rolled out the PLA scheme, while cutting allocations to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Allocations to education and health sectors have also been kept low and cut, even though both these sectors generate more employment. Due to these policies, most of the investments are being made in big projects, like railway freight corridor, where human labor is being replaced by big machines.

The result is the rising inequality, frustration, alienation and sharpening conflict in society. Therefore, the parties pursuing social justice politics for the lower classes and the people themselves have been demanding greater reservation for the backward castes according to their proportion in the population. Now with Bihar’s caste survey becoming public, the demand for conducting such surveys in other states and nationally will become more vociferous. The demand will also arise that the maximum limit of reservation which is fixed at 50 percent by the Supreme Court should be increased. But reservation will be only for a few million jobs while the need is for work for tens of millions. So, the real issue is generation of enough employment and good education for the children of the poor.

Political Implications

Opponents of caste survey argue that those castes which have a lower proportion in the population will start competing to increase their population by bypassing family planning policies. But I don’t accept this. Around the world, as family prosperity increases and education levels rise, people have fewer children. The well-off families with less share in the population are already sending their children abroad for education and employment and this may accelerate.

Bihar’s caste survey data is bound to impact national politics. All political parties would like to use it in their own way and Mandal-Kamandal politics will intensify in the country. But, the situation for BJP has changed compared to the 1990s since in the last few elections, it has wooed the votes of backward castes. The issue of reservation and demand for an increase in the maximum prescribed limit of reservation will intensify. The ruling party will be reluctant but in view of the electoral arithmetic, it will also not oppose it vociferously. It will hope that the Supreme Court may not agree to increase the limit. Further, it will try to divert the public attention towards issues like, Sanatan dharm, terrorism and the threat from China-Pakistan.

The lesson is that when socially correct policies are not implemented in a timely manner, social strife and alienation spread and the nation is forced to implement sub-optimal policies.

(Author: Arun Kumar, Retired Professor of Economics, JNU. His latest book is ’Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of the Coronavirus and the Road Ahead’. 2020)

[This article is based on a translation from Amar Ujala, October 4, 2023]

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