Just months before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Narendra Modi government has introduced 10 per cent reservation in government jobs and seats in higher education, based on ‘economic’ backwardness.
There are two obvious factors that have shaped the government’s move. The government’s performance over the last four years has been abysmal in the area of job creation. The BJP won the 2014 polls promising in its manifesto 25 crore jobs over a 10-year period — or 2.5 crore new jobs a year.
On the ground, though the job data is sketchy, growing joblessness is Narendra Modi’s Achilles heel. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that from 2016, when unemployment was 4.7 per cent, the figure has edged up to over 6 per cent in the calendar year 2018. The more immediate panic for the BJP is the drubbing it got in the assembly elections in three Hindi heartland states; and rising employment among the educated youth in Chhattisgarh shaped the huge swing away from the BJP in that state.
The haste and legal unpreparedness is not really a bother for the BJP government. It is more interested in sending a message to the upper castes — like the agitating Marathas in Maharashtra or the Patels in Gujarat who it considers as its vote bank — that some space is being created for them too. Whether it will pass the constitutional muster that it is over and above the 50 per cent caste-based reservation is also of distant concern.
The policy of reverse discrimination through providing quotas in jobs and education for those who need a leg-up — socially and culturally discriminated ‘scheduled’ and other backward castes and adivasis — has been hotly debated for long. The Communists as late as the 1980s blindly held on to the theory that poverty was a result of ‘class’ discrimination and ‘caste’ was only a kind of cultural deviation in the Indian context.
It was the Dalit movement of the 1980s and the re-reading of the thoughts of B R Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Periyar that brought to the fore that caste was more pernicious, more deep-seated than earlier imagined. It was not only that the poorest were among the backward castes; but that after 40 years of Independence and ‘reservations’, the social and cultural discrimination suffered by the ‘Dalits’ was alive and kicking. It is seen in the segregation in education and festivals; and in the assignment of filth-related jobs. ‘Reservations’ could not annihilate caste; but they were a small panacea to a much larger challenge.
‘Reservations’ as a social instrument has evolved over three phases. Post-Independence saw the completion of the first cycle of reservation for the ‘untouchable’ SC and tribes of the approximate percentage of their population — 22.5 per cent.The Mandal Commission broadened the scope by identifying the need for reservation for the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). This was legalised by former Prime Minister V P Singh in 1992, with additional reservation of 27 per cent for OBCs.
And now, we have ‘reservations’ in the general category based on being ‘poor’ economically! On close examination, is this a real category that faces discrimination on the basis of merit? Or has it been created to please the ‘poor’ of the forward castes who otherwise have a fair access to jobs and education?
As Nobel laurate Amartya Sen put it, economic quotas shows up the “muddled thinking” of the current government. If reservation is extended to the whole population, then what is left of reservation, he had asked in an interaction with PTI. Perhaps, the most equitable option is to continue the current caste-based reservations, but with an aggressive exclusion policy of the ‘creamy’ layer.
Finally, where are ‘economic’ quotas headed? Even the biggest optimist will see it is going to be an administrative nightmare. Those who are not ‘poor’ and are ineligible are defined as those who own 5 acres or more, have a residential plot of more than 1,000 sq ft and or/own a 100 yard plot in a notified municipal area. How are these assets going to be identified and certified?
Unless there is strong growth and job creation in the economy, these measures will remain palliatives. Reservations and quotas in government jobs account for not more than 4 per cent of the total jobs in the economy. Quotas to end social and economic discrimination will only have meaning if the long-standing demand to include the private sector is implemented. Following liberalisation, government jobs are on the decline, accounting for just some 175 lakh as compared to the private sector, which has pushed up the count from 88 lakh to 1.2 crore (Economic Survey 2016-17). But then, is there any intent in government to go beyond palliatives?