The road to development of India as a whole is no longer caste-coded

Rajesh Shukla    October 23, 2023

OPINION I The Economic Times

Political parties in several states are gearing up for Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 too are not far away. It’s not surprising then that many of them have started to beat the drum of caste-based census, the demand for which has been opposed by every ruling party. The Bihar caste census is a major salvo that has been fired by the Opposition which maintains that such a census is needed to provide data on economic disparities that exist among different communities and particularly the marginalised castes. After all, the logic goes, in the absence of data on welfare indicators, it is not possible to craft policy initiatives.

PRICE has been collating data on several parameters linked to the economic well-being of Indian households for the past several years. The caste identities of respondents in our surveys are self-declared, as respondents voluntarily provide the information of which caste they belong to. Our reports (PRICE’s ICE surveys conducted in 2014, 2016 and 2021) have consistently shown that caste in itself is not as important a determining factor as various caste-warriors make it out to be. One of the biggest differences in incomes emanates from the state or regions in which families are located, and that holds true for all caste groups.

But before we get into the reasons for that, let’s look at some of the facts that emerged from the ICE 360 survey (2021). Of India’s estimated population of 141 crores for 2021, nearly 44% (62 crores) of the population belongs to the OBC group while the share of the General category population is 24% (35 crores) followed closely by the share of SC population (23%, 33 crores). STs population make up for the balance of 9% (12 crores).

After removing the population impact, Tamil Nadu ranks in the first position with about 68% OBC population in the state followed by Bihar (64%), Uttar Pradesh (51%), Rajasthan (46%) and Madhya Pradesh (42%).

This distribution also becomes very relevant when we look at who all benefitted through various government welfare schemes. Most of these schemes are designed to help the economically poor, rural or vulnerable people in the society without discrimination of caste, religion and region. According to the findings of the ICE 360 Survey (2021), among all castes, OBCs were the major beneficiaries, receiving the maximum share of funds allocated under the following government welfare schemes included in the survey below.

  • Out of every Rs 100 disbursed under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme in 2020-21 OBC beneficiary households received Rs 54 versus Rs 21 by general category, Rs 20 by SCs households and the remaining Rs 5 by STs.
  • OBC’s share of the total cash transfers through the PM Jandhan Yojana was 49% in 2020-21 and 32% for SC households. In contrast, the share of general category households was 13% and 6% for ST households.
  • 47% of benefits allocated from government schemes for senior citizens, widows and physically disabled people was received by OBC beneficiary households in 2020-21, compared to 31% for SC, 18% for the general category and 4% for STs.
  • The largest group to benefit from MNREGA was OBC (38%) followed by SC (35%). The figures for the general category and STs were 15% and 10% respectively.
  • Nearly 53% of benefits accruing from the Ayushman Bharat Yojana or PM Jan Arogya Yojana was received by OBC beneficiary households followed by 44% SC, 2% general category and hardly 1% ST households.

This clearly shows that better governance and implementation of developmental programs can serve the people better. However, there are still issues such as the identification of potential beneficiaries that need to be further rationalised.

Now, if we take a look at how the different caste groups perform in terms of the key parameters of households’ economic well-being -education levels, occupations and incomes - it becomes clear that the gap between the marginalised castes and the general category has shrunk considerably.

The top 20% income quintile (Middle class and Rich) is dominated by general category households (28%) followed by OBCs (18%). There are 14% SC and 15% ST households in this category. The bottom 20% income quintile (poor) is not surprisingly dominated by 28% ST and 24% SC households, followed by 22% OBCs and 18% General category households. However, in the three middle income quintiles there is not much difference in the percentage of households among the various caste groups. Clearly, the assumption that counting the poor is synonymous with counting of the lower caste groups no longer holds true.

At the lowest rung of education levels (illiterates and primary) SC and STs dominate with 50% and 56% respectively. The share of OBCs in this category is 42% while that for the general category is 31%. At the matric, higher secondary and graduate and above levels, the share of OBC is only slightly less than that for the general category: 16% vs 18%; 23% vs 25% and 18% vs 25% respectively. This indicates that the SC and ST groups have still got some catching up to do. However, OBC households are almost on par with the general category.

Another significant revelation is the caste diversity at the occupational level. At the top of the rung - that is the salaried group - the general category scores the biggest share with 24% but OBCs at 20% and SCs at 19% and STs at 17% are not far behind. Interestingly, the share of households that are self-employed in agriculture is almost equal for ST and general category (22%) and OBC (20%). The non-agricultural labour segment, however, is overwhelmingly dominated by SCs and STs at 34% share each, while shares for OBC and general category are 25% and 16% respectively. Thus, once again, there is evidence to show that caste diversity among different occupations and industry sectors has been growing.

Equally interesting is the big improvement in the attainment of education levels across all caste groups. So, in the case of SC households, just 13% were headed by people who had studied till at least higher secondary in 2004-05—as compared to a much higher 25% for the OBC and 36% for general category households. This rose to as much as 32% in 2020-21. While around half of OBC and general category households in 2020-21 were headed by people who had studied till at least higher secondary by then, the gap has steadily fallen significantly.

The picture that emerges is not one of significant deprivation of lower caste households. In fact, in order to truly arrive at a realistic picture of the well-being of the lower caste communities we have to take into account where the majority of these households are located and the economic opportunities that are available to them.

With a large chunk of lower caste households stuck in low-income states, this is bound to impact the economic well-being of these groups. It’s imperative that the poorer states focus on better governance at the local level, infrastructure, and creating an ecosystem that is better able to deliver the fruits of development and create opportunities for weaker sections of society. Gone are the day when lower castes were synonymous with desperately poor communities. The road to development and economic well-being is no longer caste-coded.