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India's Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was meant to tell us where we stand on various socio-economic indicators, and most importantly, on caste. The information released last month left many disappointed as the socio-economic indicators of various caste groups were held back – what we got was socio-economic data for rural households by state, and for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households among them.

The census, conducted in 2011, the first since 1931, is based on a comprehensive door-to-door enumeration across the country. It throws up valuable insights into the socio-economic status and living conditions of rural households, identifying various parameters of deprivation, as also some startling facts – like Bharat being synonymous with Krishi or agriculture.

Of the country’s total 243.95 million households, 179.16 million or nearly three-fourths are in rural areas. However, only 30.1 per cent of rural households depend on cultivation as their ‘main’ source of income. A majority – 56.25 per cent – owns no agricultural land, and 51.14 per cent derive sustenance from manual casual labour. The incidence of landlessness is the highest among the Dalits or scheduled castes, 67.27 per cent of whom reported manual casual labour as their primary income source.

It is obvious that in a country with such high incidence of landlessness and dependency on manual casual labour, the creation of gainful non-farm employment should receive top priority in public policymaking. There is evidence that such non-farm job generation did happen over the past decade. National Sample Survey reports show India’s total agricultural workforce to have registered a decline from 259 to 228 million between 2004-05 and 2011-12 — the first time in history — even as the size of those engaged in non-farming sectors rose from 198 to 239 million. Among other things, it helped raise rural wages and living standards, which is captured in the SECC data.

But fact remains that deprivation levels in rural India are far too high. The SECC data points to the main earner in 74.49 per cent of all rural households drawing a monthly income below Rs 5,000. This ratio is even more for states like West Bengal (82.47 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (83.52 per cent), Odisha (87.88 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (90.79 per cent), not to speak of Dalits (83.56 per cent) and Adivasis (86.57 per cent).

True, the numbers are for 2011. Besides, there may be a tendency for survey respondents to under-report incomes for fear of losing entitlement benefits. But even after adjusting for these, one can safely assume that the earnings of three-fourths of rural India are nowhere close to what can guarantee existence beyond basic survival.

No wonder, fewer than five per cent of rural households pay income tax. Even among rich states, like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this number hovers around the five per cent mark.

What the Union government chooses to do with the data is as yet unclear. But it would be prudent on its part to release caste-wise information on socio-economic indicators, unlike the decision to hold back potentially embarrassing new information on the status of malnutrition among children, contained in a survey commissioned by the previous government through UNICEF.

Given the public mood in recent times, the numbers may be hotly contested, but even angry debates represent a democratic right that must not be curtailed. Moreover, the data would allow for framing better policies of affirmative action.

Lest we forget, there are no secrets that time does not reveal.

-- Editor

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