Should there be a premium on remaining backward?
Not very long ago, the Supreme Court held that reservation of seats to certain communities was not a Fundamental Right. Indeed, but everyone would agree that the issue of reservation has come to occupy centre space in Indian polity. Given the contentious nature of the subject, we need to examine whether reservations are serving the ends of social justice. We also need to see its impact on merit and the quality of service delivered by the government. Almost everyone agrees that there are practical problems associated with implementing reservation based on economic criteria.
- Given this background, the following questions need consideration:
- Is there an alternative way to uplift those who are socially and economically backward?
- Are reservations serving the ends of social justice?
By ANIL SWARUP
Reservation politics has always been at the forefront of Indian polity. The reverberations may not always be as strong as they were in the late 1980s or early 90s but the governments (both at the Centre and in the States) continue to compete with each other in using this as a tool to garner as much political mileage as possible, oblivious, perhaps consciously, of the implications of such moves. They are now going much beyond the original Constitutional mandate for providing reservation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
On November 30, 2018, the Maharashtra legislature passed a Bill proposing a 16 percent reservation for Marathas under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) category. This was upheld by the Bombay High Court though it found 16 percent reservation to the community ‘not justifiable’ and asked the State government to bring it down to 12 percent in educational institutions and 13 percent in government job appointments. West Bengal too ventured into this business of reservation.
Mamta Banerjee announced a 10 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for economically weaker sections in the general category. This, however, was in tune with the decision of the Central government a few months before that. The irony is that the economic criteria announced by the Central government for ‘economic weakness’ are sufficiently liberal (income below Rs 8 lakhs etc) to accommodate almost 90 percent of Indian households.
The original idea of providing reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes was not merely to improve their economic status but also to address the denial of rights and the oppression meted out to them over the years. 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 against the backdrop of huge unemployment is minuscule. 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 is compelled to compete for limited unreserved seats? If at all there has been social justice through the provision of reservation in government jobs, only the reserved ‘elite’ seem to have benefitted. Moreover, on account of 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 enormous injustice to the cause of those who are truly 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 the reservation has ended up reinforcing this distinction. Even those who 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 get 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 that has been very aptly brought out in a BBC report: “As more and more people sought fewer available government and university positions we witness 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, can reservations at all levels of entry or promotion be justified? All necessary initiatives should be taken to raise the levels of those who have suffered in the past.
Even some handicap can be provided at various entry levels but to push the bar below a certain level to accommodate reservation is proving counter-productive. The focus has to shift to the overall development of those who are considered to be backward to pull them up to the desired levels of competence and skills. Investment needs to be made in improving their living conditions, nutrition, education and the like in a more purposeful manner rather help just a few through reservations. They and the entire society can benefit from this approach.
There are practical problems associated with the implementation of economic criteria for providing reservation. This will be a herculean task and will lead to corrupt practices as has been seen in other sectors that are using this criteria. The Right to Education Act mandates that private schools should reserve seats for economically backward students. However, implementing this provision has been nightmarish. The jury is still out to assess whether this has benefitted the target group.
The tragedy is that while the reservation pie is growing, the job pie is not. This is a recipe for disaster. Jawaharlal Nehru could foresee this in 1961 and, perhaps in a ’non-political’ moment had even gone on to say, “It necessitates getting out of the old habit of reservations and particular privilege being given to this caste or that group”. Unfortunately, reservations are considered such a political necessity that even Nehru would think umpteen times before making such a statement now.
I don’t think reservations will go away from this country in the near future even if there is a strong movement against it because it would not be politically acceptable. However, some of the ideas mentioned above for delivering social justice more effectively and other viable ideas can be explored, should be explored.
Courtesy : CNBC TV 18