Quota is not the cure for the economically backward

Reservation politics is in the forefront, yet again. It seems that the Mandal legacy is still alive and kicking. The reverberations are not as strong as they were in the late 1980s or early 90s but governments (both at the Centre and the states) are competing with each other in using this as a tool to garner as much political mileage as possible, oblivious (perhaps consciously) to the implications of such moves. They are now going much beyond the original constitutional mandate for providing reservation for the SC/STs.

In November 2018, the Maharashtra legislature passed a Bill proposing 16% reservation for Marathas under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBC) category. This has now been upheld by the Bombay High Court though it found 16% “not justifiable” and asked the government to bring it down to 12% in education and 13% in jobs. West Bengal, too, has recently ventured into quota politics with a 10% reservation in jobs and education for economically weaker sections in the general category. This, however, is in tune with the EWS quota passed by Parliament a few months ago. The irony is that the economic criteria announced by the Centre for “economic weakness” are so liberal (income below Rs 8 lakh PA etc.) as to accommodate almost 90% of Indian households within the tiny quota.

The original idea of reservation for SC/ST was to address the denial of rights and oppression meted out to them over centuries, and not merely to improve their economic status. Have reservations served this purpose? In his seminal book, “Falling Over Backwards”, Arun Shourie, with his characteristic attention to detail and meticulous research, points to “the truth of reservation: that they are sleight of hand of politicians.”

In the first place, the overall availability of reserved jobs in the backdrop of huge unemployment is miniscule. Even these vacancies are not filled in a large number of segments. Reservation benefits in senior-level government jobs have been cornered by a select few. How far is it reasonable that a son of a senior civil servant from a backward caste should benefit from reservations while the son of an upper caste peon has to compete for limited unreserved seats? If at all there has been social justice through provision of reservation in government jobs, only the reserved “elite” seem to have benefitted.

Moreover, due to the obsession with reservation in government service, the across-the-board uplift of such disadvantaged sections of society has suffered. The primary objective has been to somehow, anyhow get a government job. This has done serious injustice to the cause of those that are economically and socially backward.

One of the other dimensions of social justice should have been to do away with caste-based discrimination through social mobility. The idea should have been to blur the caste distinction. The emphasis on reservation has ended up reinforcing this distinction. Even those that have benefitted from reservation consider it beneficial to remain “backward” so as to continue to reap the benefits. They don’t get integrated in the social set-up because they don’t want to. The frustrations among the non-reserved categories gets articulated either in the form of agitation to enter the reservation bandwagon or to treat those benefitting from reservation differently. This has all led to a peculiar situation, one that a BBC report aptly brought out: “As more and more people sought fewer available government and university positions, we witnessed the underlying and unwittingly hilarious spectacle of castes fighting with each other to be declared backward.”

In a world of increasing competition and specialisation, reservations run contrary to the requirement of merit. Instead of raising the level of those that are socially and economically backward, we have attempted to lower the bar. This has indeed impacted the quality of delivery. Even if there is some justification for reservation at one level of entry, how far is it just to justify reservations at all levels of entry?

All necessary initiatives should be taken to raise the level of those that have suffered in the past. The focus has to shift to overall development of those that are considered to be backward. Investment needs to be made in improving their living conditions, nutrition, education and the like in a purposeful manner rather than helping just a few through reservations. They, and the entire society, can benefit from this approach.

Now, we have run into another problem. The tragedy is that whereas the reservation pie is growing, the job pie is not. This is a recipe for disaster. Jawaharlal Nehru could foresee this in 1961 and said that the problem, “necessitates getting out of the old habit of reservations and particular privilege being given to this caste or that group.” Unfortunately, reservations have come to be such a political necessity that today even Nehru would think umpteen times before making such a statement.

Reservations won’t go away anytime soon because it is too important for politicians. However, ideas for delivering social justice more effectively can and must be explored.

(The writer is a former Education Secretary, Government of India)

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