Assessing Vulnerability Within Policy

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Posted by: Aishwarya Bhatia
Category: Governance
Assessing Vulnerability Within Policy

In learning about the various tools used to understand the impact of initiatives on people who need that support, I came across a type of assessment that measures the vulnerability of a household. Immediately, there was a sense of doubt because the definition of vulnerability differs based on the context. In Western cultures, something called caste vulnerability is not applicable, but it has the biggest implications when it comes to the Indian subcontinent.

Hence, to understand how the Government of India defines and understands vulnerability, I began studying the SECC, which stands for Socio-Economic and Caste Census, touted to be a better exercise than the Census to capture a population’s data. However, 2011 was the first and last time that SECC was conducted, and since then, people have advocated for and against its use for a host of reasons.

The scope of this investigation, however, is to figure out how vulnerability is defined in the first place and whether those categories need to be revisited now that 12 years have passed and new vulnerabilities have emerged in the face of acute climate change, threatening pandemics, etc.

But first, let us dive deeper into how SECC was developed.

India is a nation of many identities, and during the British administration, part of their effort was to categorize sects of people, map the various caste divisions, and their implications on people’s lives and livelihoods.

The first SECC was conducted in 1931 and canvassed every Indian family in both rural and urban areas to chart their economic status and specific caste names. The idea was to map inequalities at a broader level, which allowed a nuanced understanding of the system of division foreign to the British.

After independence, the Census as we know it made the final cut under the name ‘Census Act, 1948’, which ‘extends to the whole of India.’ It included the socio-economic and demographic information that was previously covered separately under SECC, thereby removing caste-based identification up until 2011. Some of the primary data collected under the census includes details about religion, caste identities, sex, marital status, and a host of other details, which are listed here.

The natural question that popped into my mind was why SECC was revived in 2011 if the Census captures caste identities.

The SECC website asserts that it is expected “to generate information on a large number of social and economic indicators relating to households across the country,” which is not different from the objective of the Census itself.

Upon further inquiry, I found that every census from 1951 to 2011 provided data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but not on other castes. No reliable estimate of the number of OBCs or other categories within OBCs was available up until 2011 SECC was taken up again.

On analyzing the questionnaire administered to the populations under SECC, the inquiries made revealed how GoI understands and defines vulnerabilities for various castes.

Some of the questions surrounding household particulars asked whether the respondent’s housing or dwelling was kaccha or pukka. Information on the employment and income characteristics was gathered with questions about whether the respondent, as a householder’s head, had a salaried job with other details about monthly income. Owning assets such as refrigerators, telephone/mobile phones, motorized vehicles, and land (irrigated or unirrigated) indicated the kind of economic place they occupy based on a relative scale.

Such details focus on the assets owned by an individual, but it all depends on the answer to the question:

Is any household member:

  • from a primitive tribal group,
  • a legally released bonded labor, or
  • a manual scavenger?

Caste/Tribe status was another field that specifically asked for the name of the caste or tribe they belonged to and if they chose not to belong to any as well.

Other fields included:

  • religion,
  • disability,
  • highest educational level completed,
  • marital status,
  • relationship to the head of the household, and
  • occupation/activity.

Vulnerability assessments, therefore, include details to measure the access people may have to the means that already exist for them. To simplify it, if you have access to a mobile phone, you have the capability to access online banking services. Whether or not you have the financial literacy to access those services is a different question and outside the scope of this investigation.

However, what is interesting is that SECC, as previously mentioned, is said to be better than the Census in capturing the population’s data. Sure, we get to know the statistics and quantitatively understand the composition of our society. However, vulnerability is not limited to the factors listed in the SECC.

In its very definition, vulnerability is described as having two sides:

  • “An external side of risks, shocks, and stress to which an individual or household is subject;
  • And an internal side which is defenselessness, meaning a lack of means to cope without damaging loss.”

From such a definition, vulnerability is clearly a constantly evolving parameter. Let me explain this by using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.

The “external side” of vulnerability is the risk of getting infected with the virus to which all of us were subject. The “internal side” encompasses those who are defenseless to cope with the infection. Those who did not have access to proper sanitation, nutrition, health services, etc., were rendered more vulnerable than the others precisely because they lacked the means to overcome the tragedy.

Climate change has also affected many communities in a disproportionate manner, thereby increasing vulnerability for some more than others. Tribal communities that live in the forests of the Amazon are endangered due to fires in the region, having a huge effect on their livelihoods and existence as a whole.

Countless other examples also exist, but the point remains the same: vulnerability is constantly evolving, and the tools to assess it also need to evolve rapidly. Individual organizations have run vulnerability assessments to understand the risks a section of people face, but for change to be initiated and reflected in the umbrella of policies that enable people to have better lives, the approach needs to change drastically.

Aishwarya Bhatia, Sambodhi 

Author: Aishwarya Bhatia