PATNA: The Patna high court dismissed on Tuesday a batch of PILs challenging the validity of the Bihar caste survey, terming the state government’s initiative “perfectly valid and legally competent”, and paving the way for the stalled exercise to resume after almost three months.

The verdict delivered by the division bench of Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Partha Sarthy means the interim stay ordered by the HC on May 4 automatically stands vacated.

The bench upheld the Nitish Kumar government’s contention that the Collection of Statistics Act, 2008, empowers it to conduct such an enumeration exercise in the interest of social justice. It also found substance in the state government’s submissions citing assembly debates and the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in the Indira Sawhney case pertaining to the rationale for reservation based on caste.

“The aim and purpose of the caste survey is to identify Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes so as to uplift them and ensure equal opportunities — not only by affirmative action, but also providing employment, ensuring admission to educational institutions etc,” it said.
“Such endeavours are in the nature of compelling public interest, which overrides the right to privacy…hence, such surveys cannot be brushed aside.”
The bench also distinguished a caste survey from a census, observing that the former couldn’t in any way be construed as “a coercive exercise” to divulge citizens’ personal data since information such as age, sex, parentage, residence, etc, were already in the public domain. It said the “legitimate” objective of the government was to provide “development with justice”, as outlined by the governor in his address to both Houses of the state legislature.

A total of 12 writ petitions had challenged the legality of the caste survey announced on June 6, 2022, on the grounds that it was a census in the garb of a survey. The petitions argued that the state government had no legislative competence to conduct a census, which was the exclusive domain of Parliament under the Census Act of 1948. They also contended that such a survey was tantamount to violating the fundamental right to privacy of an individual.
Another point raised by the petitioners was the viability of the projected survey expenditure of Rs 500 crore from the state’s contingency fund.
The May 4 interim stay on the caste survey had been clamped by a bench of Chief Justice Chandran and Justice Madhuresh Prasad after the Supreme Court asked the HC to consider, decide and dispose of a plea filed by the organisation Youth for Equality at the earliest.
“The state has no power to carry out a caste-based survey, in the manner in which it is fashioned now, which would amount to a census, thus impinging upon the legislative power of the Union Parliament,” the judges had said.
The first phase of the survey, which started on January 7, was over months before the verdict. The second phase had commenced on April 15, wherein information about the caste and socio-economic condition of citizens was being collected.

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