Politics Of Reservation

No Race for 60, Marathon for 40

Bibekananda Ray

Way back in 2002, during a social visit to Los Angeles, we called on a young Bengali couple in Pasadena. The husband was a post-doc researcher in Caltech University that has a number of Nobel laureates on its staff. When I jokingly remarked to the wife that Caltech's gain was India's loss, she shot back: "In India, brains are consigned to drains but not in the USA!" : . She narrated, how, after doing M. Sc. from Kolkata Presidency College and Ph. D. from IIS, Bangalore, her husband did not get a proper job in India and was forced to seek one in the USA, where he has since been honourably employed and settled.

The anecdote came to my mind when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 7th January that henceforth an additional 10% of number of seats and vacancies in higher education institutes and in Central government would be reserved for 'economically backward', or the poor candidates, in general category, i.e., upper castes, over and above 50%, or more, reserved for SC, ST and the OBC. He said, for the first time, reservation for seats and vacancies in higher educational institutes and the government is being done, which all parties wanted but none dared to introduce. Coming four months before the Lok Sabha election, it looked like a sop for voters in the upper castes. Opposition parties, including the Congress hailed it and in next two days, the NDA government brought in, and got passed, a Constitution amendment bill, the 124th, in the two Houses, incorporating the provision in Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution as they did not permit reservation on economic grounds. Expectedly, a PIL was filed and admitted in the Supreme Court on 10th January but before it was heard, the new bill came into effect after President's assent, taking the total reservation percentage to 60. That is, 60% of seats and vacancies in colleges, universities etc. and in Central government will be filled by SC, ST, OBC and upper caste poor candidates and only 40% through regular competitive tests and interviews etc. It will not extend to the non-government private sector, as it is now subjudice, following Allahabad High Court striking it down in 2011.

In the new bill, the 'economically weaker' section means families (to which applicants belong) having less than eight lakh rupees (about 67,000 per month) as yearly income, up to five acres of farm land and a residential house of not more than 1000 sq feet (93 sq metres) on a plot up to 200 yards (183 metres) in a non-notified municipal area. If these parameters are fulfilled, 10 aspirants of upper caste families in a hundred will be taken in, even if they do not qualify in written tests and interviews for admission in a college or university, or for landing on a government job. Thus, 40 extra-ordinary recruits through highly-competitive tests will have to work alongside 60 mediocre or ordinary entrants from reserved categories in a mismatched ambience. When they become due for promotion, or in-service training, the 40 hapless will be considered after 60 reserved candidates have been accommodated; adverse CRs will not count, as they do for 40. Thus, they will be 'second-class citizens' and trail behind reserved incumbents for no fault of their own but because of their ancestors who historically got precedence over the lower castes and backward classes whom they did not even touch for ages; no politician has any sympathy for them. Surprisingly, the criteria for 10% are far above those for BPL people; families earning eight lakh rupees annually and holding five acres of farm land are far above the poor. Does it not violate the Constitutional principle of 'equality before law'? The so-called 'historical backwardness' of the SCs, STs and the OBCs which was cited in the Constituent Assembly debate in 1946 no longer exists after seven decades of special attention to them. Its advocates deemed reservation as 'temporary facilitators of change' which was to be gradually shed as India moved toward a scientific milieu that could wither away caste. If 10% additional reservation was granted to the BPL families in general category, it would have made some sense. Just as a running stream becomes swifter when narrowed by boulders or impeded by barrages, the new quota provisions will render qualifying tests and interviews to fill up 40% seats and vacancies in education and government stiffer than now and many eligible candidates will not qualify. Only the extra-ordinary from general categories will succeed but will be 20 less than the reserved incumbents who are notionally mediocre or ordinary. On 19th January, Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman announced 10% reservation in the infantry (jawans), probably to divert people's attention from the news of massive all-opposition 'United India' conclave on Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata, from where Mamata Bannerjee gave a call to oust the Modi regime in ensuing Lok Sabha election. No reservation is permitted, or exists, in the defence forces; a constitutional amendment may be necessary.

Quotas existed before Independence too. The Maharaja of Kolhapur introduced 50% reservation for non-Brahmin and backward classes in 1902 in the princely State for free education and jobs. The British Raj introduced elements of reservation too under the Government of India Act of 1909. In the Round Table Conference of 1932, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, proposed a 'Communal Award' to provide representation for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans. A number of seats, to be filled by election by them alone, were reserved for the 'depressed classes', later classified as STs and SCs.

The reservation issue figured prominently in the Constituent Assembly debates in 1946 and a whole part (Part V) was devoted to it in the Report. After Independence, the first to introduce reservation was the Ministry of Education in British India, which in 1954 reserved 20 percent of seats for the SCs and STs in educational institutions by relaxing for them minimum qualifying marks for admission by 5%. In 1982, it was specified that 15 percent and 7.5 percent of vacancies in public sector and government-aided educational institutes should be reserved for them, respectively. In 1980 the Mandal Commission's report recommended 27% reservation for the OBCs in Central services and public sector bodies but only in 1990s its recommendations were implemented.

The Constitution did not lay down any percentage of reservation but left it to governments until the Supreme Court pegged it at maximum 50% in 1992; it was deemed a Fundamental Right, governed by two Articles- 15 and 16. Two Clauses were inserted later; Champakam Dorairajan v. the State of Madras case led to incorporation of a clause as Article 15(4): "Nothing in this Article or in Clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizen or for Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes." Clause 16(4) laid down that "Nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the appointments and posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which in the opinion of the State is not adequately represented in the services under the State."

The reservations were initially to be in effect for 10 years but by an amendment in 1956 extended for 10 years more, i.e., up to 1970 but as all parties wanted them to continue, the Constitutional provision has been flouted. The Supreme Court in July 2010, allowed States to exceed the 50% limit, if they gave scientific data to justify it. Jagjivan Ram of Congress, himself belonging to a SC (cobbler), was reportedly against continuation beyond 20 years, as merit was on the wane in bureaucracy and legislatures.

Has reservation really ameliorated the SC, ST and the OBCs, as envisaged by Constituent fathers? Albeit, successful reserved candidates enrolled for higher studies and landed in government jobs and eventually prospered, but did they pull up the hapless in the strata they belonged to? Have the professions they entered through reservation been enriched? In other professions, their malfunctioning may not cause much harm but in the life-saving ones, like medicine mediocre and ordinary practitioners could and have indeed done harm by wrong diagnosis and treatment. In 1961, SCs and STs were 15% and 7% of the population respectively and benefited from a range of affirmative policies, like greater representation in politics, State employment and publicly funded education. The census never enumerated the OBCs but they are believed to be between 30-50% of the population. They first began to get reservation benefits in public employment in the 1990's but only recently getting it in higher education. . Other castes not included in the three categories are grouped as 'General' but do not get any reservation benefit. The National Sample Survey reports the current shares of the four groups to be roughly 9%, 20%, 41% and 30% of the population, respectively. The shares for the SCs and STs reported in the 2001 census are 16.2% and 8.2% respectively, so the discrepancy in the two sources for the SCs is considerable.

Some States exceeded the statutory ceiling of 50% reservation. Tamilnadu which raised it to nearly 69 % is now protesting against 10% more, as it may alienate the reserved sections. Three other States have also passed legislations to exceed 50%. Rajasthan under the BJP proposed additional reservation of 5% for Gujjars and four other OBCs, making for a total of 54% on which the Supreme Court refused a stay but asked the government to keep reservation within 50%. Maharashtra, Telengana and Haryana have also proposed additional reservation and are waiting for approval by the Centre or the judiciary. In 2014, Maharashtra proposed 16% reservation for Marathas and 5% for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions but Bombay High Court put it on hold. In the State's public employment, 52 per cent reservation is in place for backward classes under a 2001 State Reservation Act. Telengana Assembly passed a Bill in 2017, giving a 12 percent quota for socially and economically backward classes among the Muslims in educational institutions and government jobs, raising the quota for them from 4% to 12% and the ST quota from 6% to 10%, thereby enhancing reservations in the state to 62%. In 2016, Haryana government passed a bill to provide 10% more reservation to Jats, Jat Sikhs, Muslim Jats, Bishnois, Rors, and Tyagis and granted another 10% to economically backward persons in the general category, taking total reservation to 67%. The Punjab & Haryana High Court, in 2017, upheld 10% reservation for the Jats and five other communities, but stayed the implementation of these new quotas till a commission finalises the quantum.

New recruitment for Central government jobs is under a virtual ban; only ministries can additionally create and fill up 1% of total posts, or recruit 3% of their employees, retiring every year. The NDA informed the 7th Pay Commission that every five years, it would scale down its staff strength by 10%. Many offices are carrying on with contract casuals, comprising even 50% of total staff. In 1994, total employment in GOI was 41.8 lakh, it came down to 37.1 lakh in 2006 and to 33.02 lakh in 2014. In the last year, sanctioned posts were 40.49 lakh but only 33.02 lakh were filled. Viewed in this context, 10% extra reservation is presently eyewash and as Mamata Bannerjee alleges, a bluff. The new quota sounds contradictory too. At present, families earning over 2.5 lakh rupees in a year are liable to pay IT but under the new Act, families earning thrice the amount are deemed 'economically weak'. The bill was formulated and passed in haste and is unlikely to come in force before announcement of the poll. Moreover, there is no guarantee that half or more of the 29 States will have it passed to validate the amendment. Is it the same BJP that opposed V P Singh's move to implement the Mandal Commission's report on the OBCs in 1990?

It is obvious that all political parties want the Supreme Court cap of 50% to further ease so that reservations not only continue but are enhanced to woo more voters. If this populism is not checked, a day may come when reservation may soar to 80%, driving the last nail into the coffin of civil services and legislatures. A power-crazy ruling party with two-thirds or more of majority in Lok Sabha can have any reservation bill passed, even if it has no majority in the upper house. The ruling coalition in the Centre and West Bengal are in a mad race for development, which will accelerate before the announcement for the Lok Sabha poll to net in more voters and return to power. Meanwhile, the prospects of entry in the academia and the State bureaucracy will shrink further and the juvenile brain drain to non-reservation countries for higher studies and jobs will not only continue but will get wider, irreversibly.

 In 1949, wanting to return to India from Wisconsin University, late Nobel laureate bio-chemist, Dr Har Govind Khorana could not qualify for a job in his home State, Punjab. India continues to be at the top countries where 'brain drain' persists. Some 9½ lakh Indian citizens emigrated to the USA in 2013 for higher studies and remunerative jobs, 85% more than in 2003. Their remittances in dollar are boosting the economy but the continuous flight of talents is rendering higher education portals and the civil services abounding in mediocre and ordinary incumbents; 10% extra quota for the poor among upper castes will only wither it more. o

[The writer held senior posts in Ministry of I & B media before retiring in 2001.]

Vol. 51, No.31, Feb 3 - 9, 2019