In October 2015, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Dr. Sandeep v. Union of India, while recalling its stance in 1984 in the case of Dr. Pradeep Jain v. Union of India & Ors., lamented the reality of reservations being given preference over merit. The court urged (only in an advisory capacity) the Government to remove reservation in all institutions of higher education (in context of super specialty medical courses), in order to make merit the primary criteria for admissions. The rationale it gave was that improving higher education is in the general interest of the nation.
In the light of the above judgments, other than several others preceding them and the recent outburst in demands by some communities for inclusion into reserved category, the reservation bogey is here to haunt us again making the time ripe and opportune to take stock of the conundrum and attempt to ascertain the way ahead…
The reservation policy was initiated as a temporary provision (for initial ten years) for SC/STs in 1950. It has now expanded its coverage and contents manifold over the past six to seven decades. What reservation on the basis of caste is completely oblivious to is that even in the so-called forward classes, there are members who are deprived, preventing us from assuming that every member of the community is forward or is at least well taken care of by those forward. The feeling of being sullen and resentful also develops when at times despite ability and hard-work, those in the unreserved category witness somebody more affluent getting an easy pass because the latter belongs to a reserved category. Such resentment can create a snowballing effect. The problem is bound to escalate again and again, unless this core issue is addressed.
Thus, castes which have traditionally been seen as economically/politically powerful are now making desperate and often violent demands for reservation. These include the Jats in North India, the Patels in Gujarat, the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, the Marathas in Maharashtra, etc., seeking inclusion in the OBC (Other Backward Classes) category. It has been suggested to attribute this to the broken economic model India currently faces. These middle castes are up in arms because they are not interested in farming and the cities have no jobs to offer, primarily due to the failure of the government to cater to the increased demographic dividend which has 63.4% population in the working-age group. Despite this humongous working-age group, the whole organized sector of the Indian economy provides employment to only 8-9% of the workforce of India.
Data provided by the National Sample Survey Office shows that the proportion of individuals identifying themselves as OBC has increased steadily over the years. From 36% of the population in the self-identified OBC category in 1990-2000, by 2011 this has grown to 44%. Combining this with 9% ST and 20% ST population, the total proportion eligible for reservation comprises 73% Indian population. Further adding to this, the new claimants under the OBC category may easily make the percentage 80%. It is herein that lies the need to re-examine the reservation policy.
In Haryana, the Jats are not just the principal agricultural landholding caste but also politically the most powerful group (at least traditionally so regarded, notwithstanding the recent Manohar Khattar government whose cabinet has only two Jats). The 1989 Mandal Commission Report excluded most of the Jat community from the OBC category (barring two small subgroups called the Gutka Jats and the Chillon Jats) and at the time of notification, these two subgroups were excluded as well. In fact, Chaudhary Charan Singh, one of the greatest Jat leaders who served as the Prime Minister of the country in 1979-80 is believed to have averred then that Jats are a proud and hardworking community with no need for affirmative action to ensure their advancement. Later, the community even participated in the 1990 agitation against extending reservations to OBCs.
However, since the mid-1990s, the factors that have possibly led to demand for inclusion in OBC category, include the fragmentation of agricultural land held by them, the sluggish pace of reform in agriculture, the castes that Jats believed to be beneath them in the economic ladder swiftly brushing past them in their way to the top, etc. Despite being the landed castes, they are on tenterhooks, anxious and agitated to see non-farm income(s) increasing manifold compared with farm income arising from the lands they are tied to. Education is definitely not their fortress, hence reservation seems to be the easiest way to get a bed of roses to a government job. They have the social confidence and the political dominance or at least social mobilization skills, owing to which they believe they can bend the State to get their demands met and that they will suffer no social consequences or costs because of taking this route to mobility.
The NCBC (National Commission for Backward Classes) has looked twice into the matter, in 1999 and in 2010/2011, evaluating the Jats’ insistence to be placed on the OBC list and rejecting it both times. However, the UPA Government nevertheless issued a notification in March 2014, including Jats in the central list of OBCs in 8 states only to be quashed later by the Supreme Court which held that Jats did not fit the Mandal definition of backward classes, whether educationally, socially or economically. Before this, Haryana had also introduced a quota for five castes, including Jats in 2013 based on the K C Gupta Commission’s Report, whose survey was held to be faulty and biased by the SC. The High Court at Chandigarh also stayed Haryana’s grant of reservation.
Since the 1931 Census, the only effort at collecting data on different castes and their socio-economic circumstances was undertaken by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011. However, even this data has not been made available or usable. It is thus high time that we have a thorough, transparent, inclusive and democratic survey of all castes, to accordingly reform and restructure the reservation system, bearing in mind that such positive discrimination/ affirmative action is only temporary and has to be done away with at some point in time. It is time that we aim to exclude the entire creamy layer from reservation and attempt to develop the capabilities of the excluded and deprived beyond offering them admission to higher education or doling out jobs to them on a platter. There may be a gradual transition from the principle of preference to that of support and focus may be reserved for the truly deserving beneficiaries.
What we are witnessing today is a combination of the Mandalisation of politics and liberalization in the economy. Benefits of reservation seem to be largely concentrated with certain groups enjoying monopoly, from generation to generation, irrespective of the significant improvement in their lot over the years. Is this consistent with the Preambular social justice? Is it not high time that the creamy layer norm be made applicable to SC/STs or at least some limitations be imposed on the way benefits accrue to those in the creamy layer? It may be stipulated that the benefit can be utilized only once in 20 years, thus allowing for the advantages to reach even the sections that have hitherto been excluded from their ambit. This would ensure that the same individual is not permitted to obtain both college education as well as a government job by using the same eligibility criterion, nor can one obtain an initial posting as well as promotion using the same criterion.
We need to ask why is it that reservation has become a matter of political quotas rather than truly pulling up the disadvantaged, the original pristine reason for which the policy was put in place? Political antics are often myopic, thinking no beyond than an upcoming election. But the need of the hour is to look at the big picture of the economy which will help grasp the core issue underlying the reservation problem. Are we creating enough jobs to accommodate a substantial portion of those dissenting? Do we have an education system which is effective in imparting necessary skills so as to enable employability? Even if we talk about those “forward classes” which may be assumed to have fair access to education system in India, is the education they are receiving equipping them to last through the jobs they get? How long will it be before agriculture is made truly viable by mechanization, etc. of that sector? Relisting and reprioritization of economic goals is a must. You can lead a horse to the water-hole, but you can’t make it drink water. However, what we witness here is an astonishing amount of spoon-feeding, to the point that the very idea of reservation seems to be discredited. Affirmative action must lead to empowerment, not crippling.
Thus, it is imperative to re-examine the situation holistically. It is time that exit strategies be thought of, divorced from politics and wedded with pragmatism and those truly deserving reservation reap its benefits while the gap between the aspirations and realities of the other left-behind groups also be addressed by re-visiting our economic priorities.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)