Quota debate is back

Quota debate is back

Upper castes argue that the system of reservations should be based on economic grounds, instead of caste.

One debate that does not take a backseat even in a busy electoral season is that of reservations. Recently, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi evinced interest in introducing affirmative action in the private sector, which is a move away from caste-based quota-system that we have followed for educational and job opportunities for the Dalits and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

It has often been the argument of the upper castes that they would support a system of reservations if it were to be on economic grounds, instead of caste. They further believe that caste-based reservations only help the well-off sections within the castes getting the benefit of reservations, leaving out the most deserving sub-groups and individuals. What is the real merit of this argument?

Constitution makers of India did recognise the validity of this argument, given that India was one of the poorest countries in world when it gained its Independence. The Constitution under Article 340 did provide a provision to set up a panel to look into the issue of ‘backward classes.’ It very consciously uses the language of classes and not caste.

However, there was no definite meaning or method of identifying which social groups constituted these classes. The first backward classes panel or the Kaka Kalelkar Commission set up in 1953, gave its report in 1955, recommending special benefits to various caste groups that operated like classes in the Indian context. It must, however, be noted that Kalelkar himself refuted the recommendations of the Commission he headed arguing instead that caste-based reservations were “repugnant to the spirit of democracy since in democracy it is the individual, not the family or the caste, which is the unit.”

He instead recommended that all individuals whose family income was less than Rs 800 annually need to get special economic and educational aid from the government.

The point, however, was whether individuals were marginalised due to pure economic logic or was the economic status itself determined by other social and cultural factors of belonging to specific communities, or more specifically, caste groups. In other words, if individuals, belonging to all caste groups, had evenly remained backward then individual or family as the unit would have made sense but if individuals had been marginalised due to their caste position in society, wouldn’t it make sense to remove that caste-based impediment? It is for this reason that individuals belonging to certain castes remained backward in comparison with those from other well-to-do caste groups.

It was based on this reasoning that Kaka Kalelkar Commission identified a list of 2,399 backward groups on the basis of the various criteria including place in trade and occupation, security of employment, educational attainment, representation in government service, and position in social hierarchy.

This was followed up when Janata Party government in 1977 set up the next panel - Mandal Commission - to again look into the feasibility of providing reservations to deserving backward classes/castes. The Commission again emphasised the role of caste in structuring opportunities and backwardness. Though it applied 11 different indicators to identify backward groups, they overlapped with specific caste groups. Finally, the Commission identified 3,743 caste groups as OBCs comprising 52 per cent of the total population.

Quota and RTE

However, the role of special provisions on economic criterion does not end with backward classes commissions. More recently, the Central government under the Right to Education Act reserved 25 per cent of the seats for children from economically and socially weaker sections in public and also private/corporate schools.

What then has been the response of the more privileged upper castes to this provision based ‘purely’ on income? Many of the private and corporate schools have resisted implementation of this provision, again in the name of diluting standards, while the parents of children from privileged upper caste backgrounds continue to lament the prospect of their children studying alongside the wards of their maids and drivers. They instead prefer more homogenised and sanitised schooling system that is equivalent with their social status and everyday life in gated communities and ‘enclaves.’

This move to break this homogeneity is being perceived as undoing the economic and social mobility, represented by the capacity to segregate themselves with the rest of the population groups -- that they have attained over a few generations. Upper castes that have all along argued for reservations on ‘pure’ economic basis now stand as disapproving of RTE as they were of caste-based reservations.

However, the same castes that wax eloquent about merit have little compunction in paying capitation fees in private institutions, which should have been ideally perceived as a ‘murder of merit.’ Similarly, social capital and networking play a significant role in the opportunities that these caste groups land up with and have very little to do either with the merit or proficiency for the jobs they are selected for.

The way forward from here is really a judicious expansion of the net of reservations for religious minorities, women and even the poor among the Brahmins. This expansion, however, needs to be combined with greater investment in public education that should ideally move towards the Common Neighbourhood Schooling system, where all children, irrespective of their socio-economic background, study in these schools.

Children of all caste, class and religious backgrounds need to do their schooling together, simply to understand the nature of diversity and differences in the world. It is through this system that United States today has the highest inter-generational mobility. For this, the public discourse in India needs to move towards accepting an inclusive social system on caste and economic grounds, overcome social prejudices and above-all give up the search to emerge as elites through social separation.

The writer is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi