Context: The idea of a caste census is back in the realm of public debate, following the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to establish a commission to collect caste-wise data. 

  • Since Independence, aggregated Census data on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on certain parameters such as education have been collected. 
  • The Centre conducted a ‘socio-economic caste census’ in 2011, in an attempt to link the collection of caste data along with socio-economic data so that there could be a comprehensive assessment of levels of deprivation and backwardness in society. 
  • However, presumably because of the lack of reliability of the data collected, or its political and electoral sensitivity, the caste portion of the SECC has not been disclosed so far. 

Need for a caste census

  • Social and legal necessity
    • Broader caste information is a necessity to capture contemporary Indian society and to understand and remedy inequalities.
    • There is a need of understanding of castes from the local, to the regional and to the national scale. 
    • There is a need to understand the nuances that shape caste and simultaneously the ways in which caste shapes everyday life in India.
  • Affirmative actions: The Supreme Court has been asking States to produce quantifiable data to justify their levels of caste based reservation.
  • The Census of India has not collected caste-wise data since 1931, with the exception of details about SCs and STs. 


  • A large administrative exercise of capturing caste and its complexities is not only difficult, but also socially untenable. 
  • Political and social repercussions of a caste census: There have been concerns that counting caste may help solidify caste divisions in the Indian society. 
  • Difficult to measure: Caste may be context-specific, and thus difficult to measure.  The other concern is whether an institution such as caste can even be captured completely by the Census.

Shortcomings of  Census and SECC

  • Lack of depth: Census is both a data collection effort and a technique of governance, but is not quite useful enough for a detailed and comprehensive understanding of a complex society. There is a lack of depth where some issues are concerned. 
  • There are questions over the ability of SECC to cover the effects of caste as an aspect of Indian social structure in everyday life.
  • Different purposes: Since the Census falls under the Census Act of 1948, all data are considered confidential, whereas according to the SECC website, “all the personal information given in the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) is open for use by Government departments to grant and/or restrict benefits to households”. 
    • The Census thus provides a portrait of the Indian population, while the SECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support. 
    • This difference is significant since it influences not only the methods of collection but also the use and potential for misuse of data.

The SECC, which collected the first figures on caste in Census operations since 1931, is the largest exercise of the enumeration of caste. It has the potential to allow for a mapping of inequalities at a broader level.

What is census?

  • Census is the basis for reviewing the country's progress in the past decade, monitoring the ongoing schemes of the government and plan for the future
  • It is used by the government, policy makers, academics, and others to capture the Indian population, its access to resources, and to map social change. 
  • Census provides detailed and authentic information on demography, economic activity, literacy and education, housing and household amenities, urbanisation, fertility and mortality, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, language, religion, migration, disability and many other socio-cultural and demographic data.
  • The first Census was conducted in India in 1872 (although non-synchronously in different parts) during the reign of Governor-General Lord Mayo. The first complete synchronous Census was conducted in 1881.
  • The decennial Census of India has been conducted 15 times, as of 2011.

How is the census conducted? 

  • The primary tool of census operations is the questionnaire that is developed over the years, taking into account the changing needs of the country. 
  • It is a list of questions that helps the government collect all the necessary details required about citizens.
  • The name of person, relationship to head, sex, date of birth and age, current marital status, religion, mother tongue, literacy status are some of the fundamental questions one can find in almost all census questionnaires.

Who conducts?

  • The responsibility of conducting the decennial Census rests with the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.

Census Act, 1948

  • The Census Act was enacted in 1948 to provide for the scheme of conducting population census with duties and responsibilities of census officers.
  • The Act makes it obligatory on the part of every citizen to answer the Census question truthfully and also penalises for giving false information.

Socio Economic Caste Census

  • SECC-2011 is a study of socio economic status of rural and urban households and assigns ranking of households based on predefined parameters. 
  • SECC 2011 has three census components which were conducted by three separate authorities but under the overall coordination of the Department of Rural Development in the Government of India. 
  • Census in Rural Area has been conducted by the Department of Rural Development (DoRD). 
  • Census in Urban areas is under the administrative jurisdiction of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA). 
  • Caste Census is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs: Registrar General of India (RGI) and Census Commissioner of India.
  • Parameters of SECC: The rural development ministry outlined 20 parameters including availability of a house, an electricity connection, a toilet,, a gas connection, and education level as well as asset position and land holding to assess household status.
  • The updated SECC will be based on the list of households in the country in 2020 being compiled by the National Population Register, and will form the basis of the social registry, which has been in the works for a long time.

Image source: ET