Quotas require a fresh look

It is not easy to defuse the reservation bomb. Neither in Maharashtra, nor elsewhere in the country. It is like the genie which once out of the bottle is hard to be put back. The demand for reservations by more and more sections of the people and in more and more spheres of public services is growing by the day. The other day some brave one sought reservations in higher judiciary as well. If conceded, we may have chief justices appointed on caste reservations. Next frontier to conquer thus will probably be the military. We can see the reservation warriors making a pitch for army, air force and navy chiefs appointed on the basis of caste.

This way, there can be no end to this widely perceived panacea for ending centuries of economic and social backwardness. But is it really the way out? We think not. Before the cancer of reservations spreads and corrodes whatever is left of our system of governance, people of goodwill, wherever they may be, should stand up and be counted for the sake of national integrity and social solidarity. We cannot allow the cancer of reservations to divide us between caste and sub-caste silos mutually hostile to one another and perceiving all others as group enemies. After starting out as a 10-year-old prescription to alleviate the ingrained backwardness of the scheduled castes and tribes, reservations have now acquired a permanency which no government will have the courage or the means to reverse. Indeed, over the years more and more groups have successfully agitated to get reservations. The Mandal Commission reservations drew in more than 27 per cent of the population, germinating a seismic shift in the politics of the Hindi belt.

This led to more and more castes demanding to be added to the list of the Other Backward Castes to avail of the reservations in jobs and educational institutions. As politicians pandered to these groups, other castes left out of the reserved pool rose in protest against being stranded in the job market. The Supreme Court intervention laying down a 49 per cent cap on reservations cooled the ardour for some time, though in Tamil Nadu they got round even this sensible red line, reserving 69 per cent of the jobs and seats in educational institutions. Now, as the on-going Maratha protests for reservations testify, the higher castes are seeking a share in the reservation pie. And the politicians do not have the courage and the wisdom to say no given the SC ceiling. How the Maharashtra Government will get round the constitutional bar remains unclear, though it had earlier set up a committee to examine the issue. Leaders of the Marathas may lack unity and coordination but the periodic eruptions of the protesters in Mumbai, Pune and other major cities and towns in the State have managed to lend urgency to the demand for quotas. Some of them seem to appreciate that it will be hard to breach the SC-prescribed 50 per cent ceiling and therefore demand the community be included in the list of OBCs. Will this not create its own problems, fuelling protests by those already covered in this grouping? Inclusion of nearly one-third of the population of the State in the OBC category is bound to shrink vastly the quota for all others already covered.

The committee formed by the State government could only buy time for the politicians, but the problem is unlikely to be resolved unless there is a holistic re-look at the whole gamut of issues involved in extending positive discrimination to hitherto backward groups. Not only the creamy layer but limiting the benefit of reservations to a single generation can help enlarge the cake for more and more fellow members of the reserved castes. Yet, the leaders of the beneficiary castes are loath to make this small sacrifice for the benefit of their caste brothers and sisters. For example, why the late defence minister Jagjivan Ram’s children and grandchildren should enjoy the quota benefit defies logic. There are tens of thousands who having come up through the quota route, they ought to be considerate enough to clear the way for others less fortunate than them. These and other allied issues ought to be debated afresh by a body of well-respected experts to defuse the caste bomb. Otherwise, the Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in UP and Haryana, Gujars in Rajasthan, etc, are bound to create mayhem and disrupt the economic life of the country to everyone’s disadvantage. Let us not shirk away from the new quota demands. Let us resolve them in a sensible manner, accommodating all interests without creating periodic mayhem in our cities and towns.

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