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A) The tools for counting

As the 2011 Census approached, demands for inclusion of data on caste in Census reached a crescendo. P. Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister at the time, was opposed to collecting caste data and blocked it by claiming that it was logistically impossible for the Census, but caste information could be collected via the planned Below Poverty Line (BPL) Census, later renamed the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC). Hasty inclusion of the caste question in the SECC has resulted in largely unusable data. The government tasked former NITI Aayog chairman Arvind Panagariya to look into this, but the effort has stalled. Consequently, if we want information regarding the size and characteristics of various castes in India, we must continue to look to the Census of 1931.

It is hard to imagine that the 2021 Census will not face another slew of demands for collection of caste data. It also seems likely that once again we will be unprepared for a full caste census. If we really want to collect data on caste in India and not let the discourse about Indian society be shaped by the political exigencies of colonial India, the time to plan is now.

An ongoing argument

Should we collect data on caste? Some would argue that the simple act of asking about caste creates a chasm within society. Part of this resistance comes from reaction to the preoccupation of colonial administrators-turned-arm-chair anthropologists who saw caste as the defining feature of Indian society. Colonial Censuses, beginning with the first Census in 1871, included questions about caste and used these data to divide and conquer India by first privileging Brahmins as interpreters of Indian culture and then targeting them as the roots of caste-based oppression and inequality.

G.S. Ghurye, the early 20th century pioneer of Indian sociology, reacted sharply by identifying this passion for classification as the source of anti-Brahmin movements. Veena Das, doyenne of modern Indian anthropology, also notes that the colonial Censuses via the process of recording caste generated a conception of community as a homogeneous and classifiable community and thereby influenced the processes of political representation. Consequently, post-Independence Censuses have shied away from including questions about caste.

The challenge for modern India lies in figuring out whether caste-based political mobilisation and strong sentiments for or against reservations would disappear just because we choose not to collect statistics about caste. Patels, Gujjars, Jats and Marathas do not seem to care about the lack of Census data as they demand reservations. Nor has the caste cauldron of Karnataka elections calmed because we can only roughly estimate the size of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities.

What is at stake?

Our political systems, civil society and courts continue to assume that broad caste-based social categories — Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and upper castes — defined largely using data from 1931 Census and a few special purpose surveys continue to shape economic conditions in 21st century India. Without accurate data at a granular level for each of these categories consisting of thousands of jatis (castes) and upjatis (subcastes), we have no way of knowing whether this is correct.

Indian society has undergone a tremendous transformation since 1931. Land ownership that bolstered the power of upper castes has lost its hold. Land fragmentation and decades of agricultural stagnation have turned many upper caste landowners into marginal farmers barely eking out a subsistence. While landlessness, once the bane of Dalit existence, has left the landless better poised to take advantage of rising rural wages, particularly construction wages. Consequently, while at a broad brushstroke the National Sample Survey (NSS) shows that mean consumption expenditure of forward castes is higher than that of Dalits, clusters of poverty persist among forward castes. According to NSS data, the bottom fourth of forward castes are poorer than the top half of Dalits. India Human Development Survey shows that 56% of Dalit children ages 8-11 cannot read but neither can 32% of forward caste and 47% of OBC children.

Economic growth of the past century, combined with strong affirmation action undertaken by successive governments of the independent nation, may have changed relative fortunes of various groups. Some jatis may have managed to pull themselves out poverty and marginalisation, while others may have sunk into it. Hence, it is time to collect data that reflects the current situation.

Collection of caste data is not easy. The SECC asked interviewers to write down the name of the caste exactly as articulated by the respondent. By some reports, it has revealed as many as 46 lakh castes. Sometimes the same caste is spelt in different ways, at other times some individuals report their jati and others upjati making it difficult to create mutually exclusive categories. One cannot help but sympathise with the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation which were asked to tack on a question about caste at the eleventh hour in the SECC without any preparation.

However, we have nearly three years before the Census of 2021 and are fortunate to have data from the SECC and technologies rooted in machine learning at our disposal. It would be possible to set up an expert group that uses the SECC data in conjunction with other data sources such as matrimonial advertisements and State-specific Scheduled Castes/OBC lists to make a comprehensive list of castes and condense them into meaningful categories via machine learning tools. These categories could then be validated by domain experts from the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) institutions in various States to come up with a district specific list of castes that would cover more than 90% of individuals in any given district. Interviewers could use this precoded list to allow respondents to self-classify with a small residual group’s responses being recorded verbatim and categorised later. This is very similar to the technique through which occupational and industrial classification systems are created.

Genie’s out already

Collection of data on castes is inherently risky. Politicians have long realised the advantages and disadvantages of capitalising on the sense of relative deprivation among various groups. A caste Census could easily roil the waters in ways that are hard to predict. However, once the SECC was conducted, the genie was out of the bottle. Demands are already rife for the release of these data. Conceding that these data are flawed and looking for better ways of collecting data on caste may be a way of calming the waters before the 2019 election.

It will take courage for a future government to collect data on caste and to use it to rationalise reservation policies. However, without better and more current data, our discourse on caste and affirmative action remains dominated by decisions made by the colonial administration.

Sonalde Desai is professor of sociology at University of Maryland, U.S., and Senior Fellow and Centre Director, NCAER-National Data Innovation Centre.

B) For nutrition security: On undernourishment

The UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report for 2017 has important pointers to achieve nutrition policy reform. At the global level, the five agencies that together produced the assessment found that the gains achieved on food security and better nutrition since the turn of the century may be at risk. Although absolute numbers of people facing hunger and poor nutrition have always been high, there was a reduction in the rate of undernourishment since the year 2000. That has slowed from 2013, registering a worrying increase in 2016. The estimate of 815 million people enduring chronic food deprivation in 2016, compared to 775 million in 2014, is depressing in itself, but more important is the finding that the deprivation is even greater among people who live in regions affected by conflict and the extreme effects of climate change. In a confounding finding, though, the report says that child under-nutrition rates continue to drop, although one in four children is still affected by stunting. These are averages and do not reflect the disparities among regions, within countries and between States. Yet, the impact of the economic downturn, many violent conflicts, fall in commodity export revenues, and failure of agriculture owing to drought and floods are all making food scarce and expensive for many. They represent a setback to all countries trying to meet the Sustainable Development Goal on ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition.

India’s efforts at improving access to food and good nutrition are led by the National Food Security Act. There are special nutritional schemes for women and children operated through the States. In spite of such interventions, 14.5% of the population suffers from undernourishment, going by the UN’s assessment for 2014-16. At the national level, 53% of women are anaemic, Health Ministry data show. What is more, the Centre recently said it had received only 3,888 complaints on the public distribution system (PDS) over a five-year period. All this shows that the Centre and State governments are woefully short on the commitment to end undernourishment. Institutions such as the State Food Commissions have not made a big difference either. Distributing nutritious food as a public health measure is still not a political imperative, while ill-conceived policies are making it difficult for many to do this. The report on nutritional deficiency should serve as an opportunity to evaluate the role played by the PDS in bringing about dietary diversity for those relying on subsidised food. In a report issued two years ago on the role played by rations in shaping household and nutritional security, the NITI Aayog found that families below the poverty line consumed more cereals and less milk compared to the affluent. Complementing rice and wheat with more nutritious food items should be the goal.


1) Inclusion

Meaning: The action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Example: “They have been selected for inclusion in the scheme”

Synonyms: Incorporation, Addition

Antonyms: Exclusion, Omission

2) Crescendo

Meaning: The most intense point reached.

Example: “The hysteria reached a crescendo around the spring festival”

3) Stalled

Meaning: Stop or cause to stop making progress.

Example: “His career had stalled, hers taken off”

Synonyms: Obstruct, Impede

4) Exigencies

Meaning: An urgent need or demand.

Example: “Women worked long hours when the exigencies of the family economy demanded it”

Synonyms: Need, Demand

5) Chasm

Meaning: A profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.

Example: “The chasm between rich and poor”

Synonyms: Breach, Gulf

6) Anthropologists

Meaning: An expert in or student of anthropology.

Example: “Some anthropologists think that members of hunting and gathering societies tend to have more leisure”

7) Conquer

Meaning: Successfully overcome (a problem or weakness).

Example: “A fear she never managed to conquer”

8) Privileging

Meaning: Exempt (someone) from a liability or obligation to which others are subject.

Example: “Barristers are privileged from arrest going to, coming from, and abiding in court”

9) Interpreters

Meaning: A person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally or into sign language.

Synonyms: Translators, Decipherer

10) Pioneer

Meaning: A person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity.

Example: “A famous pioneer of birth control”

Synonyms: Developer, Innovator

11) Doyenne

Meaning: The most respected or prominent woman in a particular field.

Example: “She became a doyenne of the London Irish music scene”

12) Cauldron

Meaning: A situation characterized by instability and strong emotions.

Example: “A cauldron of repressed anger”

13) Tremendous

Meaning: Very great in amount, scale, or intensity.

Example: “Penny put in a tremendous amount of time”

Synonyms: Enormous, Immense

Antonyms: Tiny, Small

14) Bolstered

Meaning: Support or strengthen.

Example: “The fall in interest rates is starting to bolster confidence”

Synonyms: Strengthen, Support

Antonyms: Undermine

15) Eking out

Meaning: To use something slowly or carefully because you only have a small amount of it.

Example: There wasn’t much food left, but we just managed to eke it out.

16) Poised

Meaning: Be ready and prepared to do something.

Example: “Teachers are poised to resume their attack on government school tests”

17) Brushstroke

Meaning: The way in which a plan or idea is explained.

Example: “She described the project in very broad brushstrokes”

18) Affirmation

Meaning: The action or process of affirming something.

Example: “He nodded in affirmation”

Synonyms: Assertion, Declaration

Antonyms: Denial, Refutation

19) Marginalisation

Meaning: Treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.

Example: “He worked hard to eliminate social and economic marginalization”

20) Articulated

Meaning: Express (an idea or feeling) fluently and coherently.

Example: “They were unable to articulate their emotions”

Synonyms: Express, Voice

Antonyms: Bottle up

21) Verbatim

Meaning: In exactly the same words as were used originally.

Example: “Subjects were instructed to recall the passage verbatim”

Synonyms: Literally, Exactly

Antonyms: Loosely, Imprecise

22) Deprivation

Meaning: The lack or denial of something considered to be a necessity.

Example: “Sleep deprivation”

Synonyms: Dispossession, Withdrawal

Antonyms: Possession

23) Roil

Meaning: Make (a liquid) turbid or muddy by disturbing the sediment.

Example: “Winds roil these waters”

24) The genie was out of the bottle

Meaning: To allow something to happen that cannot then be stopped.

Example: “When I told her the secret, I let the genie out of the bottle”

25) Conceding

Meaning: Admit or agree that something is true after first denying or resisting it.

Example: “I had to concede that I’d overreacted”

Synonyms: Admit, Acknowledge

Antonyms: Deny

26) Flawed

Meaning: Having or characterized by a fundamental weakness or imperfection.

Example: “A fatally flawed strategy”

Synonyms: Unsound, Defective

Antonyms: Sound

27) Reform

Meaning: Make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it.

Example: “The Bill will reform the tax system”

Synonyms: Improve, Ameliorate

Antonyms: Preserve, Maintain

28) Undernourishment

Meaning: Not eating enough food to continue to be in good health.

Example: “Many of the children are undernourished and suffering from serious diseases”

29) Enduring

Meaning: Lasting over a period of time; durable.

Example: “He formed a number of enduring relationships with women”

30) Confounding

Meaning: Cause surprise or confusion in (someone), especially by not according with their expectations.

Example: “The inflation figure confounded economic analysts”

Synonyms: Amaze, Astonish

31) Stunting

Meaning: Prevent from growing or developing properly.

Example: “Some weeds produce chemicals that stunt the plant’s growth”

Synonyms: Inhibit, Impede

Antonyms: Promote, Encourage

32) Conflicts

Meaning: A serious incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests.

Example: “There was a conflict between his business and domestic life”

Synonyms: Clash, Friction

Antonyms: Harmony

33) Interventions

Meaning: Interference by a state in another’s affairs.

Example: “The government was reported to be considering military intervention”

Synonyms: Involvement, Intercession

34) Woefully

Meaning: Very badly; deplorably.

Example: “They performed woefully to lose 2–0”

35) Imperative

Meaning: Of vital importance; crucial.

Example: “immediate action was imperative”

Synonyms: Vital, Crucial

Antonyms: Unimportant, Optional

36) Evaluate

Meaning: Form an idea of the amount, number, or value of; assess.

Example: “The study will assist in evaluating the impact of recent changes”

Synonyms: Assess, Analyse

37) Dietary

Meaning: Relating to or provided by diet.

Example: “Dietary advice for healthy skin and hair”

38) Relying

Meaning: Depend on with full trust or confidence.

Example: “I know I can rely on your discretion”

Synonyms: Depend, Count

Antonyms: Distrust

39) Cereals

Meaning: A grass producing edible grain that is grown as an agricultural crop.

Example: “Cereal crops”

40) Affluent

Meaning: (Especially of a group or area) having a great deal of money; wealthy.

Example: “The affluent societies of the western world”

Synonyms: Wealthy, Opulent

Antonyms: Poor, Impoverished

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