Monday, May 17, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Are Indians really in love with statistics? Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Are Indians really in love with statistics? Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

16 May 2010 Indians love crunching numbers. Before live coverage of
cricket, statisticians were regulars on sports pages of newspapers.
They have moved to TV channels — proving that Indians don't tire of
cricket statistics. When MSD is run out, statisticians dig up
instances of former Indian captains also being run out.

If a No 11 batter enters double digits when chasing an ODI target –
statisticians are ready with details of the number of times this has
happened in the past. Electronic Voting Machines abbreviated counting
of votes in India almost a decade ago. Earlier, ballot boxes were
opened over a couple of days when TV channels ran live programmes for
60 hours or so. Results trickled in and anchors, pundits and reporters
impressed viewers with in depth knowledge of the Indian 
social maze.

They used shock and awe tactics flooring viewers with numbers about
psychological regions and constituencies. They had numbers for
everything – economic profile, schools and colleges, households with
electricity or access to clean water in each constituency. But more
importantly, all knew the caste profile right down to the smallest
administrative unit.

People became familiar with caste names like Ahir, Vanniyar and Kolu.
They learnt Marathas were a community while Marathwada a region in
Maharashtra and the two had little in common. People were also told
that caste profiled in different regions in states differed thus
exhibiting different political behaviour. Election analysis on TV and
newspapers ensured Indians becoming amateur sociologists 

Caste was traditionally significant in India. Its significance
increased after 1990 when recommendations of the long-forgotten Mandal
Commission were implemented. The decision of job reservations for OBCs
also spawned a new power elite dominated by OBC leaders. Upper Castes
leaders who hitherto dominated politics were forced on the backseat in
every political party.

In 2006, the National Sample Survey suggested that percentage of OBCs
was much lower than 52 per cent as given by Mandal Commission. Figures
of NSS were corroborated by another survey – National Family Health
Survey, which pegged the non-Muslim OBC population at 29.8 per cent.

It was clear that India's caste matrix needed a fresh look.

No significant debate preceded the 2011 Census launched in April. Now,
due to demands by political leaders across the spectrum, government
will take a call on whether or not to add caste enumeration when
physical counting is done in February next year. If government decides
in the affirmative, it will set in process an exercise whose outcome
will be the most keenly anticipated in recent times. No one knows
which way the dice will roll. OBC leaders think their numbers will
swell and silence whispers that the 52 per cent figure
 is inflated.

Upper Caste leaders, less boisterous in demanding caste-based
enumeration, see a chance to reverse the belief of a tiny minority
lording over a huge majority for centuries thereby making them
eligible for 
positive discrimination.

In India identity-based politics has a stranglehold but several
contentious issues can get a quick burial if a scientifically
enumerated picture of social composition is available. But the ongoing
census does not generate great confidence. The fear of the State as
Big Brother is a colonial remnant. Governments have done precious
little to earn confidence of people – especially in rural areas.
People are wary of parting with personal information to the unknown.
There are 2.5 million of such unknown enumerators who are not trained
in eliciting information from the skeptical.

Enumerators also have not been taught how to prevent inflation of
figures and suppression or distortion of information on employment,
education and economic status in the event of caste enumeration.

The government cannot opt for caste enumeration because it is
politically expedient without adequate planning. Slipshod caste
enumeration will cause fresh fissures because the numbers will be
contested when the pack of those entitled to government benefits is
shuffled. The Pandora's box can be opened only if proper insulation is
in place. Indians' love for numbers 

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a political analyst based in India. For
comments, write to

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