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Can We Rely on Government Surveys?

Just this week the Central Ministry of Statistics, Government of India, released the results of the sample survey conducted by its National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) for the year ending 2005. According to the survey, the following is the breakdown of the national population:

Other Backward Classes (OBCs): 40.94%
Scheduled Castes (SCs): 19.59%
Scheduled Tribes (STs): 8.63%
Other Classes: 30.80%

OBC figure of 40.94% is much less than 52% reported by Mandal Commission Report of 1981. Since this survey essentially aimed at measuring the level of consumption expenditure by different households, the caste/class breakdown may not be of much statistical significance. In fact a similar survey done is 1999-2000 had put the OBC population at about 35% and it is hardly likely that their proportion has gone up by 6% in just 5 years. This new figure is bound to become politically significant, however, given the controversy over OBC reservations in higher education and the Supreme Court’s question to the government on how it had decided on a 27% quota.

According to the survey, 91.4% of STs, 79.8% of SCs and 78.0% of OBCs were in rural areas. Conversely 8.6% of STs, 20.2% of STs and 22% of OBCs were in urban areas while 37.7% of ‘others’ lived in India’s towns and cities.

Booming economic growth reflected in the expenditure of urban India is seen in their spending -- nearly double the amount on average compared to rural areas. Per capita monthly expenditure of people living in urban areas was Rs: 1,052.36 a month ($0.85 per day) against Rs: 558.78 ($0.44) of those in rural areas. With minor exceptions, general level of spending of SCs and STs was lower than OBCs or others, while that of the OBCs in turn was lower than that of “Other Classes.”

According to NSSO survey, spending by rural STs was the lowest at Rs: 426.19 followed by rural SCs at Rs: 474.72, OBCs Rs: 556.72 and others Rs: 685.31 in a month. In Urban India STs spent Rs: 857.46, SCs Rs: 758.38, OBCs Rs: 870.93 and Others Rs: 1306.10 in a month.

Survey highlights the fact that in rural India 64.3% of the population continues to be dependent on agriculture, either through self employment in agriculture (39.4%) or as agricultural labour (24.9%). In urban India, proportion of population in regular wage/salary earning households was almost the same (42% to 42.9%) for all social groups except OBCs (34.3%).

I want to make a few observations on this survey. As this report shows, rural per capita was $0.44. This figure is fairly close to the published results of another study by a government commission last month that showed 78% of the population with daily income below $0.50. However, per capita expenditure and poverty levels are two different things. The per capita expenditure of $0.44 for rural areas appears an overestimation. It is unlikely that when the daily income for over 80% of the rural population is below $0.50, their per capita expenditure can be $0.44 per day. The George Foundation survey of 9 villages in Krishnagiri District in Tamil Nadu (close to the prosperous city of Bangalore) shows that their per capita expenditure is no more than $0.35 per day. Hopefully another study will reconcile these differences.

Mandal Commission Report of 1981 is considered by most people as one of the definitive surveys on the breakdown of castes and classes in India. It is also well known that the rate of increase in population among “lower castes” is higher than that of Other Classes – “Upper castes.” Hence, it is not likely that the OBC percentage of the population could decline from 52% to 41% over the 25 years since the Mandal Commission report was published.

The statistic showing 39.4% self-employment in agriculture and 24.9% as labor in agriculture (total of 65%) is probably erroneous. While some of the labor have a little land of their own, their main source of income is from employment at farms owned by landlords. Based on my observation, only few individuals in every village live on income from their own farms. In the two villages surrounding Shanti Bhavan, less than 10% of the people are self-employed in agriculture. The balance of 55% (65%-10%) of the rural population derives their main income from rural labor (mostly seasonal).

Given the present controversy and dispute over proposed quota for OBCs in educational institutions and in employment, there might be some incentive to reduce the percentage OBC population and increase that of Other Classes. The chances are that OBCs are at least what the Mandal Commission reported – 50% or 550 million people. Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes together are at least 30% or 330 million. The balance of 20% or 220 million is Other Classes. I hope we will find out the truth one day!

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Saravanan said…
Dear Sir,
The details you have given in your blog is indeed shocking,but if this is true(which I surely believe),then there is no point in our shouting that we are among the developing nations ,with our fellow citizen dying of hunger.Why is the Indian Media not interested in this vital issue?

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