Poverty in India has been a subject of intense academic, administrative and political debate for several decades. Many Indian economists have built illustrious careers in the pursuit of defining poverty. And, the various criteria and cut-off lines they have recommended have often led to heated debate in the public domain. The Socio-economic and Caste Census (SECC) that was initiated in 2011, partial results of which have been released by the Government on July 3, is another attempt to identify the poor through objective measurable criteria. The data that has become available through this intensive exercise shall probably be of help in settling the academic debates over poverty. More importantly, it shall help the Government target various welfare measures towards the most needy households and groups, which is the main objective of this exercise.
Before looking at the grim picture of the prevailing poverty that SECC presents, it is important to understand the background of this massive exercise. In the years preceding the regular decennial Census of 2011, there were vociferous demands for expanding its scope to include the question on caste. The last time the Indian Census collected data on caste was in 1931. The Census of 1941 had to be abridged in many respects because of the ongoing World War. And, after Independence, a conscious decision was taken not to count numbers of different castes because it was felt that recording such numbers would perpetuate caste. However, caste has not only remained a reality of the Indian social situation, but it has also acquired greater salience with different caste groups, especially the large and politically powerful group of what are called the OBCs, demanding special privileges on the grounds of historical and continuing social deprivation. In the absence of any count of castes after 1931, such privileges have been based largely on extrapolations from that old data. In the preparatory phase of Census 2011, it was mainly the OBC leaders who insisted that the Census must count caste to capture the present numbers and socio-economic status of different caste groups.
However, there was an equally strident opposition to the counting of caste from several quarters. In any case, at the time this discussion was taking place, it was already too late for including the question on caste in the regular decennial Census of 2011. Therefore, the then UPA government, under great pressure of its OBC constituents, decided to undertake a separate socio-economic and caste Census. Around that time, there was also an intense discussion in the Government about targeting of subsidies, and therefore it was decided to design the socio-economic part of the Census as a measure of deprivation and to use it for formally identifying and recording the households eligible for different kinds of welfare support.
Objectives of the SECC
Thus the Socio-economic and Caste Census (SECC) has two distinct objectives. First, to rank the households based on their socio-economic status, so that various Governments “can objectively prepare a list of families living below the poverty line in rural and urban areas”. And, second, to make available authentic information on the caste-wise breakup of the population of the country and to provide the socio-economic profile of various castes.
The Relevance of Integral Humanism
Against the backdrop of recently released rural household survey results, the philosophy of integral humanism propounded by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya assumes more significance than ever before. For, he was very clear in his perception that the barometer of overall development of the country lies in how well the “lowest of the low” lives.
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The data now released addresses only the first objective and that for only the rural population of India. The data on caste for rural population has not been released. And, no data on urban population has been released yet. SECC was to be conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in the rural areas and by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in the urban areas. The Census organisation is involved with both and the SECC has been conducted in the manner of a regular Census. Originally, it was expected to be completed by December 2011; later the target date was changed to May 2012. Now in July 2015, three years after the due date, we have been able to get only partial data for the rural population of India.
SECC is a detailed public register of rural households
As we have seen, one of the two main objectives of SECC is to help the various Governments prepare lists of households eligible for public support. To facilitate this objective, the SECC specifically allows the socio-economic data to be identified with the name of the household. This non-confidentiality of the data is what differentiates the SECC from the regular decennial Census. Much of the socioeconomic data collected through SECC is also collected in the regular Census. But that data cannot be used for identifying households on any criteria. The data of the regular Census is confidential; by law, it cannot be publicly associated with a particular household or a person; only aggregate data can be used for administrative and academic purposes. This is part of the reason why the SECC had to be conducted separately from the decennial Census.
To serve the purpose of preparing authentic lists of eligible persons, the SECC also requires the data collected during the enumeration process to be placed before the Gram Sabha, where claims and objections on the exclusion or inclusion of any household under a particular criterion may be raised. The data that has been published by the Ministry of Rural Development has gone through this process and the detailed lists of the households with the names of the head of the household and other members have been put on the Government website.
This makes the SECC 2011 very different from the regular Census and from the other surveys of poverty, including by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which have been carried out so far. SECC 2011 is not merely a survey or a census; it is an authenticated register of the names and socio-economic status of all households and individuals in the country.
Incidentally, while SECC allows all other data to be placed in public domain, it specifically prohibits the disclosure of caste and religion of the household. This is odd. All the data, including the data on religion and caste, is being placed before and read out in the Gram Sabha. Benefits are being extended to different households specifically on the basis of their caste and religion. Then what is the point in keeping this data secret?
The broad outline of rural poverty
From the above, it is clear that the significance of SECC is not in providing the broad outline of rural poverty, but in giving detailed household level information about the poor and the deprived. Much of the broader picture is already available from different sources. But since this broader picture is what has occupied the newspaper space, let us briefly describe the aggregate data. According to the SECC 2011 data, of the total 24.39 crore households in the country, 17.91 crore are rural. Of the rural households, 30 per cent are cultivators and 51 per cent manual casual labourers. About 10 per cent of the households have a salaried job and 1.61 per cent have an own account non-agricultural enterprise. Among the rest, there are 2.5% servants, 0.23% rag-pickers and 0.37% destitutes dependent on begging and alms.
Of the 17.91 crore rural household, 13.34 crore have reported maximum monthly income of less than Rs. 5,000/- and another 3.08 crore earn between 5 and 10 thousand per month. Only 8.29 percent of the household derive income of above Rs.10,000/-. Only 4.6 per cent of the households pay any income tax.
According to the inclusion and exclusion criteria of SEC 2011, 7.05 crore of the 17.91 crore households stand excluded from consideration of public support and another 2 crore do not fall under any of the deprivation criteria. The remaining 8.69 crore or about 48.5 per cent fall under one or more of the seven deprivation criteria defined in the SECC 2011. These nearly half of the rural households need to be considered by the various Governments for public support in some form.
The numbers are grim, but these are not very different from what is known already. SECC 2011 has, however, provided us with the names and details of all these households.
Is targeting of support efficient?
The Governments now have an authentic database through which to target various kinds of public support to households that they determine to be needy on various socioeconomic criteria. The database of SECC 2011 is said to be fully integrated with Aadhar and National Population Register; the former is further linked to the bank accounts that have now been opened for a large majority of the rural households. The Governments have thus now created the infrastructure to deposit their welfare support directly in the accounts of the needy households. This was being recommended and
attempted as a major reform measure for several years.
But depositing a certain amount of money in the accounts of the needy households is hardly sufficient to help the household overcome deprivation. The issue has been studied extensively. It seems that though this way of disbursing welfare may be efficient in economic terms and may be sufficient for certain purposes, all of the welfare requirements cannot be met in this manner. Particularly, in case of food, education and health, the requirement of direct delivery can never be replaced by the provision of a certain sum of money.
Till now the debate between direct delivery of food and services versus monetary support was largely theoretical, because the Governments just did not have the infrastructure for delivering monetary support. Now that this infrastructure has been created, it is important to have an informed public debate on which of the welfare services may be reduced to monetary compensation. In any case, the Governments must continue to bear the responsibility of physically delivering food, health and education. These three services need to be provided universally; targeting such basic services is likely to cause large-scale deprivation.
Caste and Religion data should also be released
While releasing the socio-economic data, the data on caste has not been released. This defeats the very purpose of SECC 2011. The original purpose of the exercise was to get the numbers and socio-economic profile of various castes in the country. This remains an important objective.
We have been extending privileges to certain large caste groups without determining the socioeconomic profile of the individual castes included within them. Since many of the castes within these larger groups are known to be fairly high in socioeconomic status, the blanket privileges enjoyed by them have been the cause of much heartburn and social rancour. Making public the socio-economic profile of different caste groups would be the best antidote to the ever-expanding demands for special privilege by already privileged groups.
The Government has so far not released the religious data of the regular decennial Census of 2011 also. This, as well as the caste and religion data collected in SECC 2011, needs to be released expeditiously. Caste and Religion are significant components of the socio-economic reality of India. Keeping these important indicators of Indian reality out of the public view serves no purpose.
To conclude, until SECC 2011 we knew that such and such percentage of Indian people is hungry and malnourished. Now we know which particular household in a particular village is likely to sleep without food tonight. Such knowledge would certainly make us exert to expeditiously correct this situation of hunger and deprivation.
Dr JK Bajaj (The writer is Director, Centre for Policy Studies, New Delhi and can be contacted at [email protected])
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