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India to conduct first caste census in 80 years

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will carry out its first caste census in 80 years, in a controversial decision that could define how political parties campaign for votes and help government schemes offering quotas to lower castes.

A census official (L) marks a house after collecting details from a village resident during first phase of the census at Hatkhuwapara Village, near Guwahati April 1, 2010. REUTERS/Utpal Baruah/Files

After weeks of political wrangling, India’s cabinet agreed on the survey, which will record the name, address and caste of the country’s 1.2 billion plus citizens at a projected cost of 30-40 billion rupees ($645-860 million).

Caste identity is central to modern India. There are scores of caste-based political parties and many state institutions must offer quotas to lower castes for employment and college places.

Supporters have stressed the need for data on those deserving of government assistance, while critics say caste has no place in a country with ambitions of becoming a major world power.

“After considering various options, based on the responses of various political parties a separate house to house enumeration of caste will be done from June 2011 to September 2011,” Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement in New Delhi.

The census will take place after the ongoing population census in February is completed.

India’s caste system, which is determined by birth and which fixes social standing, has been condemned for creating an oppressive hierarchy and denying large sections of the population fair access to education, health and jobs.

Recording of caste was abandoned after Indian independence in 1947, to help smooth the growth of a secular state. Caste discrimination is banned under the constitution, but social barriers still lurk despite government mobility schemes.

Appealing to caste during elections is illegal in India, though many caste-focused parties hold power in some states. The census results may lead to a growth in these kind of parties.

“More caste-focused political players will emerge to meet the demands of each caste. Certainly this census will complicate Indian politics, further divide the country and polarise political parties,” said social analyst N. Bhaskara Rao.

Reporting by Henry Foy; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sugita Katyal