As we came down the stairs rather late in the evening, a colleague of mine had a question. It had been an especially busy news day. Parliament had passed the 124th constitutional amendment Bill, reserving 10 per cent in education and jobs for the economically backward in the general category. The Citizenship Bill hung in balance, as Assam burned. The selection committee (PM, CJI nominee and LoP) met on (CBI chief) Alok Verma.
Unlike the third one, a closed-door affair, the first two played out on TV. But the colleague had eyes on one question: when will this new quota come into being? Will it be rolled out for the coming academic session? I rattled off some technicalia—Article 368, Part III, Article 15(5), no state approval needed, two-thirds majority in Parliament enough... All it now requires, I added with a sage air, is presidential assent. And voila!...10 per cent for ‘upper castes’ will be the law of the land.
But there are things about it that leave this writer, like everyone else, mystified. Yes, for those who fall in classes where education is the only primary capital, the legislation indeed carries an extra ring. It relates directly to livelihood and life-chances, the worry about getting sons and daughters into college—bread and butter, in short. Hence, my colleague was well taken. The haste and curious near-unanimity with which the Opposition supported the Bill set off elation in some quarters, and touched a raw nerve among the rest. Jobs and college seats are a zero sum game, so the issue of reservation always polarises the field. Barring a handful of exceptions, the two Dravidian parties among them, the Opposition used the debate to pan the government and then quietly slipped in an aye-vote.
There’s no doubt that the original reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the later post-Mandal one for OBCs has had a tangible positive effect on Indian society and polity. Indeed, the only complaint is that it hasn’t been deep enough. It has democratised political representation (we’ve had CMs and PMs from non-elite castes) and created a new educated middle class among Dalits, even if millions still remain outside the pale of an equitable distribution of opportunities.
But the striking thing in the political field of late has come from elsewhere. Repeated agitations across India show that large sections of the formerly dominant non-OBC castes—Jats, Patels, Marathas—have slipped down the ladder, and now seek the extra support of reservation to maintain their status quo. And the average poor-to-middle savarna family too has always been complaining about having to shoulder the burden of society and history. All of this means just one thing. The Indian State, in all these years, has only been providing lip-service to its real duty. Which is to create or enable a robust economy out there. Any reservation policy can only have meaning if embedded within that. Only if it creates social infrastructure in the first place can there be access to it. As the week’s buzzphrase went, 10 per cent of zero is still zero.
Educational infrastructure once was built in and reflected the image of middle-class, upper-caste India with a socialist streak. Cheap, reasonably good quality teaching, a manageable elite trickle reaching the gates of higher institutions. Now, none of this holds true. Education is expensive and the quality enhancement not quite commensurate with the increase of cost. Resource availability too is far from adequate, hence the nightmare of high cutoffs, the play of percentages, tough entrance exams, the mushrooming of ancillary rote-learning coaching centres. Seat enhancement, new centres, the entry of private sector—none of this has helped meet the demand. Supply of education, like electricity, is in shortage.
Then, jobs. Even for those fortunate enough to come out of the education jungle with a degree, there’s none. Or too little. Plus, successive governments since liberalisation have been in retreat. The running of departments, Railways, PSUs, teaching, you name it...all domains that once spelt jobs have shrunk. Recent data shows huge unfilled vacancies.
The government already has no money to pay existing wages, to think of hiring more. No upscaling is likely even in employment of doctors, engineers, researchers, other technical personnel. India, of course, needs more police personnel per citizen, more teachers, more university faculty, certainly more doctors and health personnel. But no government can afford to go on a hiring spree. State governments are financially worse off than the Centre. Besides, no government has yet been able to persuade the private sector to even seriously think of ‘affirmative action’ (which translates into non-rigid reservation) in any sector, without the foul cry of the death of ‘merit’.
This being the reality, how does 10 per cent reservation play out? The political class —which includes the entire spectrum from treasury to Opposition and everything in between—seems woefully out of sync with the times. All the Bill does is something psychological (and political): give the ‘poor’ among privileged castes a little less reason to feel besieged and suffer from a sense of victimhood! At least, even if they feel poor vis-a-vis their better-off Gucci-clad caste brethren, they can console themselves with that 10 per cent! At least till the courts step in. As for votes, this could be a game-enhancer or a double-edged sword. However, we have come a long way, a person earning Rs 2,200 per day can be labelled ‘poor’ in the India of 2019!
Political Editor, The New Indian Express