The founding fathers of the Republic failed to correctly envision its near-future reality when they provided that the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in government jobs and educational institutions will end after a decade, that is, in 1962. It now looks like they will be here in perpetuity. A good and solid case can be made why it was absolutely necessary to provide traditionally weaker and suppressed people, essentially victims of a much abused caste system, preference through reservations.
But the hope of the Constitution-makers that a level-playing field could be reached within a decade was unrealistic. Hence the decision to extend them indefinitely. Meanwhile, other caste groups have clambered on the reservations bandwagon. Those groups feeling left behind brought to bear pressure on the politicians to claim a share in government jobs and educational institutions. Twenty-seven per cent OBC reservations followed a prolonged protest movement by leaders of the then Opposition parties. The churn in northern Indian politics following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which had examined the issue of OBC reservations, soon changed the face of national discourse. The emergence of parties such as Laloo Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s drew their main support from the intermediate peasant castes. After a hiatus of a decade or so, clamour from still new groups for reservations made itself felt. Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana, Rajasthan and western UP, Patidars in Gujarat were soon on the streets demanding reservations. Governments unable to offer resistance any longer soon devised ways to put off, but not suppress these demands.
For instance, the Marathas had agitated for long for reservations but they brought the matter to a head only recently, organising huge protests in Mumbai. The BJP-Shiv Sena government sat up and took note. The result was the Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission. It recommended quotas for Marathas in jobs and education. The Fadnavis Government’s decision to implement the recommendation was challenged in the Bombay High Court which last week upheld it. However, it cut down the proposed quota from 16 to 13 per cent in jobs and 12 per cent in education. This would take the overall quota to 65 per cent in Maharashtra, fifteen per cent higher than the apex court-fixed 50 per cent limit in the Indira Sawhney case.
The court said that “exceptional circumstances and extraordinary situation” justified approval of the new quotas. It further endorsed the “legislative competence “of the Maharashtra government to enact a law enabling the proposed quotas. That in Tamil Nadu caste-based reservations have far exceeded the fifty-per cent barrier is widely known but no court has deemed it fit to nix the breach. The political implications of the Maharashtra decision are bound to be felt in other States in coming weeks and months.
To begin with, the clamour from other groups in Gujarat, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan would soon rise yet again, forcing the state governments to follow the Maharashtra lead. Two, Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis stands to gain in political stature from the successful implementation of the Maratha quotas, something which will give him further electoral heft in the coming Assembly poll. Three, a petition in the Supreme Court is most likely to be filed, seeking a fresh look at its 1992 judgment limiting reservations to fifty per cent. Courts cannot be blind to the changing socio-economic conditions and, in any case, cannot appropriate to themselves the right of the legislature and begin to make laws on their own.
Judiciary should adjudicate, not legislate. However, it is for the wider society to consider where it is being taken by the unending scramble for reservations. Granting that reservations are a reflection of inadequate and uneven socio-economic conditions and opportunities, but the question that policy-makers ought to grapple with is whether slicing the economic cake into more and more smaller bits is the right answer to the demand for gainful employment and educational opportunities. The right solution will be to ensure a much larger cake for it to meet the demands of an ever rising population. At the rate the reservations net is widening, the danger is that it might snap into disutility, pelting merit and efficiency. Quick-fix solutions only push the real problem under the carpet, they don’t address the problem. The key solution is faster economic growth. With economic growth also comes social equity.
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