For the first time, India aims to combine a survey of the population living below the poverty line with information about caste and religion, providing hard data to support or undermine the widely held perception that for many Indians, social background limits economic opportunities.
According to the Times of India, the central government will distribute questionaires regarding "caste and religion" the upcoming census of the number of Indians in the below poverty line (BPL) category, likely to start in July. Analysis will then provide "authoritative data" about how many people from backward castes and how many Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs live below the poverty line, the paper said. In April, a similar pilot survey found that half of India's poor hail from the so-called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes--which include the erstwhile untouchables and aboriginal tribal groups that have been entitled to job and education quotas from the writing of independent India's constitution.
With competing cries for the expansion or the dismantling of the country's system of quotas in higher education and government jobs, there's more at stake than simple curiosity. When job and education "reservations" were extended to include not only Hinduism's erstwhile untouchables (now known as Dalits) and aboriginal tribes but also agrarian castes known as the "other backward classes" (OBCs), there were widespread protests from other groups (mostly high-caste students at elite colleges), and various other groups began agitating to be given their own quotas.
In that context, observers will look to the new survey to settle a simmering argument about the wealth--or poverty--of the OBCs, whom higher caste groups often claim based on anecdotal evidence are too successful to deserve reservations. As the TOI puts it, "The determination of OBC numbers can have implications for future policy making as backwards have argued that reservation in jobs and education should be in proportion to their population. It could also influence government grants for OBC welfare schemes."
But measuring the poor isn't easy, as recent arguments about the Planning Commission's ceiling for BPL families attest. Along with the rather obvious observation that India's huge anti-poverty schemes -- most famously the National Rural Employment Guarantee, which ensures 100 days of paid work to one member of every rural household -- have by and large been derailed by corruption, the World Bank recently noted that India's method for identifying the poor is seriously flawed. The Bank said that over a third of the poorest 10% of the country were incorrectly identified as non-poor in the 2002 BPL census, according to another article in the TOI, and also pointed out serious problems in the methodology proposed for the 2011 BPL census.
Meanwhile, which were the anti-poverty measures that worked the best? The ones that didn't bother trying to identify who falls below the poverty line, such as the rural employment guarantee--where recipients self-select.