In a recent development, the Supreme Court of India has refrained from issuing an order that would prevent the Bihar state government from utilizing the data collected through the controversial caste survey. The court’s decision comes in the midst of a series of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the survey. These petitions were filed by Youth for Equality and Ek Soch Ek Prayas, two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that questioned the Patna High Court’s decision in August, which upheld the Bihar government’s decision to conduct the caste survey.
The Supreme Court Bench, comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna and S.V.N. Bhatti, conveyed their stance during the recent hearing, and this article delves into the implications of their decision, the privacy concerns raised, and the broader political context surrounding the caste survey.
The Supreme Court’s Position:
During the hearing, the Supreme Court justices made it clear that they could not restrain any state government, including Bihar, from making decisions based on the data collected through the caste survey. Justice Khanna emphasized that preventing a government from taking action would be inappropriate. However, he also noted that if there were concerns regarding the data, those issues would be considered.
Advocate Aparajitha Singh, representing the petitioners, argued that the state government’s release of caste composition data while the matter was sub-judice amounted to preempting the court’s decision. She contended that the collection of caste details violated the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Puttaswamy case, which recognized privacy as a fundamental right. Singh sought an interim status quo order that would prevent the government from acting on the survey data.
However, the Supreme Court opted to examine the matter more thoroughly, issuing a formal notice to the state government while declining the plea for an interim order to maintain the status quo.
The data released by the Bihar government from the caste survey provides valuable insights into the demographic composition of the state. It revealed that extremely backward classes (EBC) constitute a significant 36.01% of the state’s population, while other backward classes (OBC) contribute an additional 27.12%. Together, these groups make up a substantial 63.13% of Bihar’s population, highlighting the importance of addressing the needs and concerns of these communities.
Scheduled Castes (SC) make up nearly 20% of the population, while Scheduled Tribes (ST) account for 1.6%. The general category comprises around 15% of the state’s population, as indicated by the data.
The Purpose of the Caste Survey:
The caste survey was launched in Bihar in January with the aim of framing policies that would uplift disadvantaged groups. It was temporarily halted in May by the Patna High Court but later deemed ‘perfectly valid’ in an August judgment. The Bihar government asserted that the survey would help achieve ‘Development with Justice,’ addressing long-standing social and economic disparities.
The caste census in Bihar has not only been a matter of legal scrutiny but also a significant political issue. The INDIA bloc of opposition parties has been pressuring the central government to conduct a similar caste census at the national level. While the Congress-led UPA government conducted a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011-12, the data from this exercise was never released to the public.
In Bihar, the call for a caste survey gained momentum last year, receiving support from various political parties, including the ruling Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal. In recent months, this appeal has grown nationwide, with several opposition parties, including the Congress, advocating for a caste enumeration exercise. They hope that such an enumeration will address social inequalities, counter the BJP’s political influence among backward groups, and mitigate religious polarization.
The Legal Framework:
The recent high court judgment affirmed the state’s notification of June 6, 2022, announcing the survey. It stated that the state’s action was valid and in line with its legitimate aim of providing ‘Development with Justice.’ The judgment argued that the survey did not violate privacy rights, as it was conducted in the interest of ‘compelling public interest’ and ‘legitimate state interest.’
The high court also noted that while the term ‘census’ is under the prerogative of the central government, states have the authority to collect data for implementing welfare schemes and affirmative action. The state government justified its survey using the Collection of Statistics Act, 2008, even though the June 6 notification did not mention it.
Challenges in the Supreme Court:
The petitioners challenging the high court’s judgment in the Supreme Court argue that the caste survey infringes upon the right to privacy. They raise concerns about the collection of personal details, including religion, caste, and income, without adequate data protection mechanisms in place. Additionally, they contend that the Bihar government lacks the authority to conduct such a survey, asserting that it encroaches on individual privacy rights.
The Objective of the Survey:
One of the key objectives of the caste survey in Bihar is to advocate for increased reservations for backward classes, based on their population share. This argument stems from the belief that the current quota system may not accurately represent the numbers of these communities in the population. The survey aims to provide data that can support policy changes and greater representation for disadvantaged groups.
Conclusion: “Supreme Court
The Supreme Court’s decision not to prevent the Bihar government from using caste survey data has significant implications for the state’s policy-making and the broader debate on caste-based reservations and representation. While the court has decided not to interfere with the government’s actions at this stage, it has also indicated a willingness to consider any concerns related to the data.
The caste survey in Bihar has sparked discussions not only about privacy rights but also about the need for comprehensive data to address social disparities. As political parties continue to advocate for similar exercises at the national level, the outcome of this legal battle may have far-reaching consequences for India’s social and political landscape.