When Members of Parliament voted this week, they also, in a sense, certified the true state of the political economy. Indians were informed by the political class that India needs more reservations. The passing of the 124th amendment to the Constitution to enable expansion of reservations by a further 10 per cent deserves to be marked as a watershed moment in the journey of the republic.
The fact that India needs more reservations—seven decades after Independence, in the 69th year of the republic, after 16 general elections, after 12 five-year plans—to deliver on the promises made in the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, is a testament to benumbed politics and the precarious state of public policy.
The genesis of reservations in India was about inclusion. The Poona Pact, signed by Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar on September 24, 1932, led to the reservation of seats in Parliament for scheduled castes and tribes, initially for a period of ten years, later extended through six Constitutional amendments. On May 10, 1951, the first amendment to the Constitution in Article 15 allowed a policy for advancement of “socially and educationally backward classes of citizens”.
The window created for scheduled castes and tribes triggered angst and agitation by other backward classes. On August 7, 1990, V P Singh implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations and included OBCs. On November 16, 1992 the Supreme Court validated the decision with a cap of 50 per cent. On January 9, MPs voted to enable 10 per cent reservation to economically backward classes (EBC). The expedition of expediency has reduced the argument of inclusion into the thesis of political privilege and exclusion.
The cause and consequence of failures to address deprivation and denial is located in flawed crafting of policy. Consider, for instance, the approach to reservations to the economically backward classes. Submissions made in Parliament said the 10 per cent reservation will be available for any household earning less than Rs 8 lakh per year or owning less than 5 hectares.
The definition seems to have been borrowed from the Supreme Court judgement on excluding the creamy layer of OBCs. In effect, the creamy layer of the OBCs is the poverty level of EBC! Little thought has gone into the varying purchasing power of Rs 8 lakh across India. Consider another matrix. The average per capita income of Indians is Rs 1.11 lakh per annum—with Bihar at Rs 38,860 and Karnataka at Rs 1.81 lakh. Again, is the value of 5 hectares uniform across India?
Eligibility criteria across many programmes of the government reflect confusion. The Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojana defines economically weaker section as households earning less than Rs 3 lakh per annum. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is available to those living below the poverty line (BPL). Similarly, the free LPG programme, PM Ujjwala Yojana, is available to women from BPL households. Importantly, in rural areas, BPL is Rs 32 per day, and in urban areas it is Rs 47 per day.
Juxtapose this with the proposed contours of economic backwardness under the proposed reservation. Ayushman Bharat, the health care programme, stipulates six conditions listed by the socio-economic caste census of 2011. Curiously, the National Food Security Act covers two-thirds of 24.7 crore households, while the Ayushman Bharat scheme covers 10 crore households. Is it that those who need subsidised food may not need subsidised health care?
This brings us to the question of jobs in government. There is the saga of 2.25 crore persons, the population of Australia, applying for 90,000 railway jobs. And then there is the fact, raised by this column, of over 2.5 million posts lying vacant in government—for much-needed police personnel, schoolteachers, aanganwadi workers, and in health care and railways (http://bit.ly/1rEHhMo; http://bit.ly/2xw1gTD). For sure, many of these posts are in the states, but despite many of them being ruled by BJP, the vacancies continue (http://bit.ly/2x6frv5). What about more than 4.12 lakh posts lying vacant just at the Centre? And merely reserving posts doesn’t help. In December 2018, Parliament was informed that 28,713 posts (8,223 for SCs, 6,955 for STs and 13,535 for OBCs) in the Centre were vacant as of January 2017.
Much lather was generated for the creation of a judicial appointments mechanism by MPs—without any reference to the reality that over 26 per cent of the posts—that is one in four posts in the judiciary are vacant. The debate in Parliament was intense, with rhetoric about job creation, but lacked specifics. Forget the promise of 100 new cities. The May 2016 Urban Development Ministry directive to provide 3784 Census Towns with statutory urban bodies is yet pending -- do the math at 50 jobs per Census Towns to get a sense of apathy.
The rise of cynicism and scepticism about quota politics is fuelled by poorly crafted policy worsened by apathy in implementation. The question is not whether there is a need to address asymmetry of circumstance and opportunity. The Constitution of India explicitly promises “Equality of status and of opportunity”. Sadly, however, good intent is never enough. The goal of empowerment has been waylaid by placebo politics which has presented quota policies as the answer to failings in governance.