A Critique on the Process of Identification of Poor Under the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011

Shantanu De Roy


The data of Socio Economic and Caste Census
2011 (SECC 2011) was partially published by the Union Rural Development
Ministry on July 3, 2015. The Ministry of Rural Development of the Government
of India had initiated the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 in June 2011
for both rural and urban areas. Information on large number of social and
economic indicators was collected from households across the country. The three
stated objectives of SECC 2011 were following:

·  Ranking
of households according to their socio-economic status thereby enabling state
governments to prepare a list of families living below the poverty line.
·    Caste
wise population enumeration of the country.
·   Ascertaining
socio-economic condition and education status of various castes and sections of
the population.
A total of 17.91 crore households were surveyed
in rural India. Data released from SECC 2011 shows dismal economic condition of
rural economy in India. Substantial sections of population in rural areas are
leading a life of acute distress, misery and economic insecurity. Almost 56 per
cent of households in Indian villages are landless, in that they did not own
agricultural land; about 51.14 per cent of households received major portion of
income from manual casual labour; 44.52 per cent of households lived in Kuccha
houses; only 5.4 per cent of population has passed higher secondary level of
education (10+2) and 3.5 per cent of population are graduates; only 9.68 per
cent of households were employed in salaried jobs and members of almost three
fourth of total number of households (74.49 per cent) has a monthly income of
less than Rs 5000.[1]
These figures have shown not only acute destitution in Indian villages but have
also exposed the hollowness of claims of policy makers in India regarding
improvement in living standards through higher growth rates that the Indian
economy had witnessed in recent past.
Usefulness of the
While SECC 2011 data has produced some glaring
evidence of deprivation and distress in rural India, the issue now is whether
the data is authentic to meet its stated objectives. Saxena (2015) had argued
that SECC 2011 has under-estimated the number of poorest of the households in
rural areas. He has argued that the estimation of poorest of the poor does not
tally with other government sources of data. He mentioned that 20 million
households, who should have been included in the list of below poverty line
families, were excluded due to deprivations being narrowly defined. On the
other hand, he had argued that over-reporting on the number of rich households
whose number was reported as 70.5 million. These are all valid reasons to
question the authenticity of SECC 2011 data, particularly on the question of
identification of poor families, these are no means the only one.
The survey for SECC 2011 was done between June
30, 2011 and December 31, 2011. In other words, the data, when it was published
was more than 3 years old. Meanwhile, the numbers under different
socio-economic indicators is bound to change. Thus, by the time the government
starts making a ranking of socio-economic status of households and prepares a
list of families living below poverty line on the basis of data collected in
2011, more families can become worse/better off in terms of their access over
resources. However, due to lack of updated data, these families will
automatically be excluded from the list of families who are living below
poverty line. In other words, identification of ‘poor’ in urban as well as in rural
India will be defeated. Thus, exclusion of large number of potential
beneficiaries from government schemes is a realistic possibility if at all the
state governments in India prepares a list of below poverty line families in
2015 or later on the basis of SECC 2011 data. This essentially implies that an
important stated objective of the SECC 2011 will be defeated. By the same
logic, the third objective of collecting (reliable) information on
socio-economic condition and education status of various caste groups will be
defeated since the figures across socio-economic indicators will change with
time. A way to tackle these problems is to undertake SECC surveys after regular
intervals; say for instance after every 5 years or may be lesser than that.
However, is the government willing or serious in collecting and updating the
existing data so that actual beneficiaries are not excluded from government
schemes that are specifically meant for the poor people in this country? As of
now, we have not heard anything from the government on conducting SECC surveys
at regular intervals.
Is correct identification
of poor families possible?
In SECC 2011, rural local bodies, Panchayati
Raj Institutions, were involved in the following ways,
v During
the process of collecting information in villages, “enumerators can be
accompanied by members of Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha and other citizens to
ensure that data collection is done in a fair and transparent manner”…
thus collected will be made public. It has been mentioned that, “all data will
be read out in the Gram Sabha and Panchayat following the draft publication
list being printed. Additionally, at Gram Sabha meetings, the names and
responses of each household will be read out and all objections raised will be
taken care of.[2]
Panchayati Raj Institutions can play a crucial
in identifying correctly the beneficiaries of government schemes. In other
words, the actual beneficiaries of government schemes in a village can be
identified by a democratically elected Panchayat. Issues like identifying socio-economic
status of households in a village, identification of households in the village who
need pucca houses, identification of households in need of clean drinking water
facilities, identifying households who need toilets and so on can be properly
done by well functioning and democratic Panchayati Raj Institutions. The
overall need of a village can be decided by the villagers themselves through
their participation in Gram Sabhas. However, SECC 2011 undermines this
important role of Panchayats and Gram Sabhas.
Kerala has one of the best functioning
democratically elected system of Panchayat Raj Institutions in India. In a
study on Decentralized Planning Experience in Kerala by the Planning Commission
of India, the following were noted,[3]
(a)   About 66
per cent of beneficiaries of various projects had been demanded through Gram
(b)  According to about 82 per cent of
beneficiaries, projects were taken up based on their demands raised in Gram
(c)  Approved
projects by and large originated from the needs articulated by villagers in
Gram Sabhas.
Thus, under Decentralized Planning Experience
in Kerala, Gram Panchayats through regular meetings in Gram Sabhas can identify
potential beneficiaries in the village. This arrangement also ensures
transparency and accountability in the process of identification of
The role of local self-governments in rural
areas, Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas under SECC 2011, will be limited to
accompaniment of Gram Panchayat representatives with enumerators in the surveys
and reading out responses of households in Gram Sabhas and incorporate
objections raised therein. Beneficiaries under SECC 2011 will be determined on
the basis of indicators decided by Union Government without taking into account
specificities and unique characteristics of village economies, demands and
wants of villagers. Thus, under SECC 2011, ordinary villagers will have no role
in articulating their demands through Gram Sabhas. It would lead to undermining
of a de-centralized form of governance with centralization which is
antithetical to the federal polity of India.
It can be argued that Panchayati Raj
Institutions also suffer from improper functioning. A study conducted in
selected districts of Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh noted certain problems in
the functioning of Gram Panchayats. These include lack of initiatives in implementing
development programmes on the part of Gram Panchayat leadership, arbitrary and
undemocratic functioning on the part of the Panchayat Pradhan/Mukhia, lack of
participation of ordinary villagers in Gram Sabha meetings resulting in
non-assessment of the needs of villagers, dominance of landed and richer
sections of the population in the decision making process in Gram Panchayats,
thereby manipulating proceedings according to the needs of the minority and
cornering disproportionately greater benefits and exclusion of deprived
sections of population like Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST),
Muslims and Women from the proceedings of Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas are
some of the glaring problems in the functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions
in India.[4] All of these, in effect
mean that vast majority of the population will be excluded from the benefits of
government schemes and government sponsored projects.
The way out of this is to improve the
functioning of Panchayats through greater participation of people, ordinary
villagers, in the decision making process. More participation of ordinary
villagers in the decision making process of Gram Panchayats can only be ensured
through continuous empowerment of people. A prerequisite for this is to break
monopoly of power enjoyed by landed sections and rural rich who also belong to
dominant castes in rural areas. Agrarian reform is an effective way to tackle
and break the concentration of power enjoyed by these sections. It is only
through constant empowerment of people that will ensure that the deprived and
marginalized sections of the population, SCs, STs, Muslims and women receive
benefits of government schemes and projects. It can also lead to effective
monitoring of schemes. Decentralized Planning Exercise in Kerala can be a model
to emulate in this respect.
Any kind of bureaucratic ‘top down’ approach
which is, in this context, a statistical exercise is a short-cut approach and a
poor substitute in identifying the really poor and needy in rural areas. In
other words, if the Union and State Governments in India are serious in
identifying potential beneficiaries of government schemes through a list of
families living below the poverty line in rural areas then it should try to
empower people through agrarian reforms and a democratically elected Panchayat
system with adequate representations from marginalized and deprived sections
that constitute the majority in India. In such a context, the importance and
usefulness of a survey like SECC 2011, in terms of identification of
beneficiaries, will increase manifold. Otherwise, no matter how sound the
method of this survey is, bureaucratic top down approaches will only add to the
long list of failures in terms of identifying poor families/households and
thereby will lead to potential exclusion of a substantial section of
marginalized population.
Should incomes be
used as a criterion for automatic exclusion of households?
SECC 2011 did not collect data on household
incomes from respondents. Respondents were asked, (a) main source of household
income and (b) monthly income of the highest earning household member. In other
words, income earnings from different occupations were not derived in the SECC data. This raises serious doubts about the
accuracy of these data. Questions regarding accuracy and reliability of SECC
2011 data on incomes can be raised on the following grounds:
(i)        SECC
2011 data shows that members of only 9.7 per cent of households were employed
in salaried jobs. Assuming that incomes of all these households are stable and
indexed with the cost of living; there are more than 90 per cent of households
whose incomes are not indexed and suffer from fluctuations due to the impact of
larger macroeconomic forces. According to SECC 2011, a household can be
excluded automatically from government schemes, if any member of a household
earns more than Rs 10,000 per month even if other parameters of inclusion are met.[5] However, an economy
characterised by the overwhelming presence of an unorganised and informal sector
with no security regarding tenure of jobs, absence of social security enhancing
measures and stability in income, data on income can lead to erroneous
conclusions especially if it is used to target beneficiaries of government
schemes. In other words, income of the highest earning member of a household, declared in 2015 can be lower than 2011,
and hence the concerned household cannot be automatically excluded in 2015, even
if incomes declared in 2011 and 2015 are assumed to be true. However, this may
not happen if exclusion is done on the basis of 2011 data.  
(ii)    Income
is a derived variable.
Moreover, income
is a flow variable and has to be estimated
for a uniformly specified period, unlike assets which are stock variables and
valued at a certain point of time. According to Rawal (2008), ‘
A large number of rural households are self-employed, particularly
in crop production but also in a variety of non-agricultural occupations.
Accounting for these activities is very complex particularly because a
substantial part of the produce is not marketed and a large part of the inputs used
in the process of production are also not purchased from the market. For some
of these products and inputs, in fact, either no markets or only very thin
markets exist. Most rural households are unable to directly report their incomes.
As a result, in the context of rural households, it is necessary that income be
treated as a derived variable. That is, one cannot directly ask the households
what their income over the specified reference period was. Income has to be derived
on the basis of a detailed accounting of output and costs in the economic activities
that the household was engaged in. To achieve this, detailed data have to be
collected on input use and production particularly in activities like crop
production and animal husbandry.’[6]
It can be argued that in a survey as large as the
SECC, it is impossible to estimate
incomes of different occupations and thereby determine the main source of
income as well as household incomes. In view of these limitations, if income of
the highest earning member of a household (>Rs 10000) is used as one of the
criteria for automatic exclusion of households from government schemes, then it
will lead to incorrect exclusion of households on the basis of declared income at a certain point of
time even if the concerned household did not possess other assets used as
criterion for exclusion.[7]    
SECC 2011 data has shown existence of extreme
misery and distress in rural India. However, the data will have limited
applicability in meeting its objectives if data of SECC 2011 is not updated
continuously. In other words, listing of families below the poverty line in
2015 or later based on data collected in 2011 will lead to large scale exclusion
of households who are genuinely poor and needy.
Also, a correct listing of households below
poverty line can be done only by incorporating the Panchayati Raj Institutions that
are not only democratically elected but also has sizeable representation of
marginalized and deprived sections of the population. It is only through
constant empowerment of people in rural areas that that will ensure correct
identification of poor people and beneficiaries of government schemes. Any
bureaucratic top down approach, no matter how meticulously it is planned and
implemented will only lead to failure.  
Household income has not been computed in SECC
2011; data on incomes of highest earning members were collected on the basis of
their declaration at a particular
point of time. Income based criterion can potentially lead to exclusion of
households from government schemes if identification of households in 2015 is
done on the basis of data collected in 2011. This is because incomes of almost
90 per cent of workforce in India are subject to fluctuations and hence can
decline with time. Moreover, income is a derived
variable and has to be estimated. In
view of these limitations, income should not be as a criterion in SECC 2011 for
excluding households from government schemes. 
Foundation (2007): ‘Report on
Understanding Capacity of Gram-Panchayats in the BRGF Districts of Bihar,
Orissa and Chhattisgarh’,
available at
of Rural Development, Government of India (2011): ‘Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 in Rural India’, available at
of Rural Development, Government of India (2011): ‘Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, available at
Commission of India (__): ‘Decentralized Planning Exercise in Kerala’,
available at
V (2008): ‘Estimation of Rural Household Incomes in India: Selected
Methodological Issues’, Draft Paper presented at the Conference on Studying Village Economies in India: A
Colloquium on Methodology,
December 21 to 24, 2008, Chalsa, Jalpaiguri,
West Bengal, available at
N. C. (2015): ‘Socio Economic Caste Census: Has it Ignored Too Many Poor
Households?’, Economic and Political
50(30), July 25, pp. 14-17.

See SECC 2011 available at http://www.secc.gov.in/reportlistContent
the SECC 2011 booklet available at
See for instance, Planning Commission study on Decentralized Planning
Experience in Kerala available at http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/peoevalu/peo_kerla.pdf
for a detailed discussion.
See the Report on Understanding Capacity of Gram-Panchayats in the BRGF
Districts of Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh available at http://www.panchayat.gov.in/documents/10198/370581/Drishtee.pdf.
See the SECC 2011 booklet for a detailed discussion. 
See Socio-Economic Caste Census booklet. 

Dr. Shantanu De Roy is an Assistant Professor
of Economics. He is with the St. Stephen’s Collge, Delhi.