India: The Perils Of Counting Caste – Analysis


While the unpublished findings of the ‘Caste Census’ in India might not receive serious attention if ever made public, some of the socio-economic data, made available by the same Census, can set the marketing managers and policy makers thinking.

By Ronojoy Sen and Robin Jeffrey*

Ever since some of the findings of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in India, undertaken in 2011, were announced in July 2015, controversy has dogged it. The census was to have been the first to try to enumerate “castes” since 1931. The reasons for its apparent failure are not hard to find.

Perhaps the most important flaw was that the SECC was not conducted by the Census Commissioner of India, which handles the decennial census, but by multiple agencies. The Union Rural Development Ministry was in charge of collecting the socio-economic data in rural areas while the Union Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry was in charge of urban areas.2 The caste census was under the administrative control of the Home Ministry, to which the Census Commissioner reports, but the data were collected by the different state governments.

All this, according to a former Census Commissioner, made the “entire exercise casual and perfunctory with an extremely high rate of coverage omission”.3 Though the United Progressive Alliance government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initially decided that the Census Commissioner would conduct the caste census in 2011, it later went back on its decision.

Not surprisingly the caste data are yet to be released. With thousands of castes and sub-castes prevalent in India, collecting data on caste is notoriously difficult. The issue is intensely political, because various benefits, based on principles of “positive discrimination”, are associated with lower-caste status. And observers of census procedures around the world know that attempts to enumerate people’s “identities” can have explosive results.

The withholding of the census data has become an election issue in Bihar, which is now in the midst of multi-phase state-wide polls and where caste plays a huge role. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his ally for these elections, former Chief Minister Laloo Yadav, have both demanded that the caste census be made public. On 13 July 2015, Mr Yadav led a march to Patna’s Raj Bhavan to press their demand.4 Incidentally, both Mr Laloo Yadav and Mr Nitish Kumar themselves belong to the ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBC), a vast, hard-to-define category that gets quota benefits but has never been counted. A recent agitation in Gujarat by the Patel community showed how contested the OBC classification is.

Put on the back foot by the opposition demands, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union Government has appointed an expert committee, headed by Niti Aayog Vice-Chairman Arvind Panagariya, to collate and classify the caste census data. Even without the doubts about the quality of data collection, the complexity of the task is daunting. According to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the caste census had collected an astronomical 4.6 million different names of castes, sub-castes, clans and tribes. State governments have been given the seemingly impossible task of consolidating these data.5

While the release of the caste data may never happen, the socio-economic data provide interesting insights. The survey identified 244 million households across the country, 179 million of which are rural households. This means an average of about five people per household.

Fast Moving Consumer Goods manufacturers in India have been trying to gauge purchasing power and customer preferences for decades. Indeed, it was a truism in the 1980s that the marketing arm of Hindustan Lever had a better understanding of rural conditions than the Government of India.

The current survey provides fascinating and sobering data about the extent of purchasing power, prosperity and household choices. For example, the long-standing discussion about the size of the Indian middle class is illuminated by questions about household possessions. According to the census, only 11 per cent of India’s 244 million households6 own a refrigerator. However, given the irregularity of electricity in much of India, many families may have gauged that a refrigerator is almost useless unless one has a backup generator. The survey did not ask households whether backup electricity was available to them.

In regional terms, Goa has the largest percentage of households with refrigerators – nearly 70 per cent. It is followed by Punjab and Haryana, both at about 66 per cent. Strangely, Tamil Nadu, now India’s most urbanised major state and a leader on a number of social indicators, has only 32 per cent of households with refrigerators. Less surprisingly, Bihar has the smallest percentage of households with refrigerators – 2.6 per cent. Nevertheless, that amounts to 460,000 refrigerators and a vast potential market for white-goods marketers and for suppliers of cheap, backup electrical power units.

The survey found that in 2011 more than 70 per cent of households owned a phone. For 68 per cent, this meant only a mobile; a further 2 per cent had a mobile and a landline. Puzzlingly, the survey did not ask about ownership of a television set, though it quizzed households about two- wheeled vehicles and four-wheeled vehicles. Only 17 per cent owned a two-wheeler and only 2.5 per cent owned a four-wheeler (presumably a car or tractor).

Among the major states, Punjab households led the way for two-wheeler ownership – 41 per cent. The small state of Goa and Union Territory of Puducherry at 46 per cent and 42 per cent did slightly better. A remarkable runner-up was the distant eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh on the Chinese border, with 39 per cent of households owning a two-wheeler.

Of the major states, Punjab and Kerala led the way among households owning four-wheelers, each at more than 9 per cent. But again, Goa led at 19 per cent, a product presumably of its front rank in the tourist industry.

In collecting data on Scheduled Castes (SCs), the census revealed a remarkable penetration of mobile phones – 67 per cent of SC families nationwide were estimated to own a mobile phone. Fewer than 7 per cent owned a refrigerator, and 11 per cent owned a motorcycle or scooter.

On the basis of these figures, Scheduled Caste households of Punjab appeared better off than those in the other major states. Forty-six per cent of Punjab SC households owned a refrigerator, 75 percent a mobile phone and 28 per cent a two-wheeled vehicle. In contrast, less than 2 per cent of SC households in Bihar owned a refrigerator and less than 5 per cent a two- wheeler. But the mobile phone was widespread: 77 per cent of Bihar SC households were recorded as owning a mobile phone, a slightly higher proportion than in Punjab.

The quality of the “caste” data in this “caste census” is open to question and is unlikely to be taken seriously if it is ever published. However, the survey questions about ownership of consumer goods will intrigue marketing managers in consumer-goods industries and suggest vast areas for expansion. One hypothesis for the paucity of refrigerators in rural areas is the unreliability of electricity supplies. However, Gujarat, which claims the most reliable rural electric supply in the country, shows only 8 per cent of households owning a refrigerator against 15 per cent in Haryana and 14 per cent in Kerala and Punjab’s notable 46 per cent.

Table 1: Scheduled Caste Ownership of Selected Possessions (Rural Households)
Table 1: Scheduled Caste Ownership of Selected Possessions (Rural Households)

About the author:
* 1 Dr Ronojoy Sen
is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and at the Asia Research Institute at the NUS. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Professor Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor at ISAS. He can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected]. The authors, not ISAS, are responsible for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this paper.

This article was published by ISAS as ISAS Brief Number 395 (PDF).

2 See
3 M.Vijayanunni, “Where is the caste data?” The Hindu, July 15, 2015.
4 See

Institute of South Asian Studies

The Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) was established in July 2004 as an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS). ISAS is dedicated to research on contemporary South Asia. The Institute seeks to promote understanding of this vital region of the world, and to communicate knowledge and insights about it to policy makers, the business community, academia and civil society, in Singapore and beyond.

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