NEW DELHI // With a visit to the residence of the Indian president, Pratibha Patil, on February 9, the Indian census commission has begun its massive exercise of counting every one of the billion-plus people living within the country's borders. But for the first time in independent India's history, enumerators will, in the census' final phase later this summer, ask for respondents' caste - a query that continues to draw debate many months after the government decided to include it in the census.
India conducts its censuses once every 10 years and, as its population continues to climb, each time the logistics become more impressive.
The 2011 census has been called the largest peace-time mobilisation in the world, and its statistics suggest why. According to figures from the census commissioner's office, the enumeration of India's millions will cover 7,742 towns and 600,000 villages. It will send out an army of 2.7 million enumerators - larger than the population of Qatar or Estonia.
Impressively, the government will spend only Rs18.33 (Dh2.3) on the counting of each person, which also makes this the country's most inexpensive census. All counting is expected to be completed by March 5.
"In 2001, we got preliminary data within a few months and all the detailed reports within a year or two," recalls U V Somayajulu, who serves on the executive council of the Indian Association for the Study of Population. In that census, much of the data entry work was done manually; this year, Mr Somayajulu said, every questionnaire will be digitally scanned "and we'll have the data even sooner".
The demand for caste to be included in the census data emerged last summer from leaders of a category of the population classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This category comprises thousands of castes and subcastes, layers of society that have long been disadvantaged by the caste system.
Whether a caste is classified as an OBC or not depends on the governments of individual states; an OBC caste in one state may not be an OBC caste in the neighbouring state.
To complicate matters further, no firm idea exists of how many people fall into this broad category. The last census to count castes was conducted in 1931, well before India became independent; successive censuses did not include caste because, as Mr Somayajulu said, "it was considered too sensitive a question to ask".
But if the question is sensitive, it is also volatile, because independent India's solution to the historic oppression of many castes has been to implement reservation - the practice of earmarking quotas of government jobs and seats in educational institutions solely for backward castes.
For a caste to earn an OBC status thus implies far greater access to education and employment. Reservations quotas are still worked out largely on the basis of the caste proportions from the 1931 census.
Quotas make up 49.5 per cent of government jobs and educational slots, just below a ceiling of 50 per cent mandated by the Supreme Court.
Leaders of the OBC castes claim that their numbers are far in excess to that surmised by present reservation quotas, and that the ceiling of 50 per cent is unfair. Last year, for instance, Chhagan Bhujbal, a prominent OBC leader and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician from the state of Maharashtra, stated at a public event in Mumbai that OBCs "constitute 54 per cent of the population".
In the absence of statistics, Mr Bhujbal said later last year to the newspaper DNA, there is "an inability to ascertain the progress card on backwardness among the OBCs".
From the point of view of the demographer that he is, Mr Somayajulu admitted that he was not in favour of including caste in the census.
He has seen, in his own field surveys, how respondents get apprehensive about sensitive topics such as caste and income. "Many times, they don't even know their caste very accurately," he said.
"I'm worried that it will affect the quality of the rest of the data that is collected."
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a prominent commentator on caste, said that he had "no problem with the caste census. After all, we count cows and chickens in this country, so why not castes?" But he called the OBC leaders' claim to more reservations "questionable", and he saw the inclusion of caste in the census largely as a political move.
The sensitivity of caste enumeration was displayed most famously after a government commission, set up in 1979 to consider quotas, recommended reservations for OBCs of 27 per cent of all government jobs and educational admissions. This was in addition to a 22.5 per cent reservation that was already in force for another category of the population, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
When the Indian prime minister in 1989, V P Singh, attempted to implement these recommendations, he was faced with violent student reactions across the country. A number of students set themselves on fire to protest the increased quotas, but in 1992, the Supreme Court upheld most of the commission's recommendations.
The commission had estimated that 52 per cent of the Indian population belonged to this backward category. This figure came in for considerable criticism; another national survey, for instance, arrived at an estimate of 32 per cent in 1999-2000.
Mr Prasad is quick to point out why political parties, across the ideological spectrum, agreed to the demand to count castes. "They may be realising that, slowly, the importance of regional parties and of caste-based parties are waning, and the Congress and the BJP want to grab that constituency," he said. "There's an emerging power vacuum among the OBCs, and the feeling must be: 'Let's grab them.'"