India to conduct census of caste membership

October 12, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

On the Jaipur Street

On the street in Jaipur, India

Much like the United States, India conducts a decennial national census; their next census will be conducted in 2011. As part of the 2011 census, the Indian government is bringing back something that has only been done once before, under British rule in 1931: there will be a second census, conducted after the main census data collection is complete, that focuses specifically on caste membership.

The Indian caste system has a history that stretches back thousands of years. Based in the Hindu religion, it served as the primary means of social stratification in Indian society. Like gender and race, caste is an ascribed status. It is generally believed that there was little to no mobility between castes. The caste system was formally outlawed in India in the mid-twentieth century, but it continues to affect Indian society. Caste status is still closely tied to wealth, power, and education. While members of the lower-status castes (often OBCs, or “other backwards castes”) have seen improvements in education, wealth, and political power (there are seats in Parliament that are reserved for members of these castes), the links between caste status and social status are still very strong. It is for this reason that the government has decided to carry out the caste census; it is an attempt to get a handle on what is really going on with social status in India.

While the United States has never had a formal caste system in the way that India has, there are still strong ties between ascribed statuses like race/ethnicity and gender and social status. In the United States, though, we also believe in meritocracy, which means that people who are born into a lower status are taught to believe that they can climb the social ladder, even though dramatic upward movement is extremely rare.

Which is worse? Being born low-status and knowing that you will stay there, or being born low-status and being taught that if you just work hard enough, you can change your lot in life?


  1. The question that is asked at the end of the article is hard to answer because many people have not gotten the chance to experience both. My educated guess would be that being born in low-status and believing that if you work hard, you can rise to the top is better than not having any hope of achieving the your goal in life.

    • I agree that the latter would likely be preferable. Providing for the fundamental needs of life is clearly a necessary ingredient to happiness. Nevertheless, I want to be careful not to assume that the American values of excess are a good formula to happiness either (not that you are implying otherwise). As Daniel Defoe states in his book Robinson Crusoe, the best road to happiness is the middle one with neither excess nor want.

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