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Indian ministries collected caste census data in highly cavalier manner: Top demographer Amitabh Kundu

Amitabh Kundu
By Our Representative
Foremost economist Prof Amitabh Kundu has come down heavily on the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) saying that the information on income that has been collected in the SECC has been done “in a very cavalier manner.” A demographer and an authority on urbanization, migration patterns and labour market, Prof Kundu has especially taken exception to collecting income data of the highest earning member of the family.
“I do not know why the question asked is only for the highest earning member and not for the household”, Prof Kundu, who was earlier with the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is now with the independent think-tank Delhi Policy Group, told Counterview. SECC data were released in early July this year, and they immediately led to sharp reaction from political as well as academic circles about their inconsistency at various places (click HERE to read on SECC data inconsistency).
According to Prof Kundu, the question that was posed to the respondents was not what the income was in a household but “if the income of the highest earning member was more that Rs 5,000.” The economist believes, “With the full knowledge that this exercise is being done primarily to identify the beneficiaries of certain targeted programmes, one can hardly expect a fair reply.”
Suggesting that the Government of India’s National Sample Survey (NSS) and the Census of India are more authentic than SECC, Prof Kundu underlines, “I believe that the households in general have reported a higher level of deprivation (even on literacy) in SECC just because the purpose of the SECC was to identify the targeted population.” Hence, he adds, “Data thus collected can hardly be comparable with other sets collected by the NSS or the Population Census.”
Insisting that India still needs “targeted programmes” for socio-economically poor sections, one reason why the requirement is felt for disaggregating data on different sections of population – ranging from school going children to workers – Prof Kundu thinks, one of the problems with SECC has been that it has sought to combine the collection of caste data with information on deprived sections, which has resulted in “over-reporting of deprivation and vulnerability”.
While favouring an “informed debate” on caste, instead of ignoring it, Prof Kundu believes, the type of data that have been created would precariously lead to encouraging casteism in India. Already, he adds, he has warned the government that combining caste data with Population Census would only lead to “conscious misreporting” different socio-economic parameters.
Prof Kundu shot into prominence recently for two critical reports he submitted to the Government of India – one on the condition of minorities in India the post-Sachar scenario, and on the tangled issue of how to rehabilitate slums in major Indian cities by working out a tenability index. He is known to have told the Union Ministry of Rural and the Urban Development Ministry, responsible for collecting SECC data, that NSSO alone is capable of doing SECC survey, which should be done by doing a special round of NSSO survey.
Prof Kundu’s critique of SECC comes close on the heels of another senior economist, Prof Sujit Bhalla, saying that while Census of India and NSS “have been doing survey/ census work for the last 65 years”, the Ministry of Rural Development, which was the nodal ministry for SECC, “has a reputation akin to the CBI rather than the NSS — that is, it’s prone to be a political organization and not an objective quasi-academic unit.”
“Comprehensive data by the NSS were collected between July 2011 and June 2012 in two surveys — the Consumer Expenditure Survey collected detailed data on consumer expenditures while the Employment-Unemployment Survey collected detailed data on landholdings, individual wages and earnings, as well as the age and education structure of the population”, Prof Bhalla says.
“For all indicators except education, the SECC data seem to be compellingly bad — that is, not worth discussing, let alone deriving any policy conclusions”, Prof Bhalla says, adding, “The SECC data are likely to overstate household income because it reports only the earnings of the highest earning member of the household. One further overstatement in the SECC relative to the NSS: the former is an average for the period of July 2011 to 2013; the latter is for the agricultural year July 2011-June 2012.”
“On average, the SECC 2011-13 income data are likely to be 14 per cent higher (9 per cent inflation and 5 per cent real growth) than the NSS 2011-12 data.Despite the considerable overstatement involved in the SECC, it still reports lower rural incomes than the NSS”, points out Prof Bhalla, who is currently chairman and managing-director of Oxus Investments, a New Delhi-based economic research, asset management, and emerging-markets advisory firm.

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