The manner, in which the political parties voted for the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill, providing 10% reservation for the general category in government jobs and educational institutions, economic backwardness as the criterion, shows the bankruptcy of political leadership, devoid of vision and foresight, driven by electoral politics. Modi government brought the amendment to justify reservation for forward castes, reinforcing what the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat wanted on the eve of Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. What surprises is the opposition parties, criticizing and opposing the move as election jumla, not having the courage to vote against the Bill, fearing backlash at the elections and apprehending Narendra Modi could target them during the election campaigns.
The Bill was passed in both the houses of parliament in a day without scrutiny by a selection committee-unprecedented receiving the support of 323 and 165 of MPs from Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively, with just 3 and 7 voting against it. With the dwindling job opportunities in government and PSUs, the reservation policy has lost its sheen. The reservation for socially and educationally backward was meant to correct a historical wrong of social discrimination and oppression suffered by the depressed and low caste people at the hands of caste Hindus. It was a temporary measure, but perpetuated by vested interests.
Today backwardness has become a privilege with the dominant communities like Patidars, Marathas, Jats, Rajputs, Kapus and Kammas- demanding reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. By brining this amendment, the government has made a mockery of reservation, defeating the original objective. It is done in haste, without a survey and data, keeping in view the general elections, due in three months. Modi is already using this as his trump card, as evident from his speech at an election rally in Sangli on January 9. When a person with more than Rs.2.5 lakh annual income can pay Income Tax, how could a person having Rs 8 lakh income, paying 20 % tax, could be considered poor? More than 95% Indian households fall in this category.
Similarly, 86% of land holdings are less than 5 acres. And these are the criteria for deriving the quota benefits. This is absurd and farcical. The ‘stigma’ of reservation is extended to the general category, which used to mock the SCs, STs and OBCs for getting the benefits of reservation in educational institutions and government jobs at the expense of merit. Now everyone is backward-a disgraceful development. But where are the jobs in government and PSUs? Last year some 11 million jobs were lost. And there are 24 lakh posts vacant in government.
The reservation is no solution to unemployment, loss of jobs, jobless growth, and poor quality education owing to decline in public institutions. About 70 lakh unemployed youth are registered with employment exchanges. The BJP had vehemently opposed the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations by VP Singh Government in 1990, which then suggested 10% reservation for economically backward. The proposed reservation is not likely to stand the judicial review. What constitutes economic backwardness? The income exclusion criterion for this quota is the same as for the creamy layers among the OBCs.
If the truly deserving poor have to derive the benefits of quota, let the annual income be less than Rs.2.5 lakh for all categories – that is non-taxable income. Otherwise, only the better off will grab all the benefits of reservation, as it is happening now. The former CJI A M Ahmadi- part of the nine-judge constitutional bench that gave the landmark judgment on Mandal Commission in 1992, capping the reservation at 50%- says, “the government move is directly in conflict with the Supreme Court judgment on reservations. The apex court’s 50 per cent ceiling was to ensure that reservations are not introduced and the limit increased only for election purposes. Economic criterion cannot be the sole basis for determining the backward class of citizens contemplated by Article 16 of the Constitution.
And Justice Sawant of the same bench held the “economic backwardness of the poor among higher castes is not on account of social backwardness.” The proposed quota goes against the basic structure of the constitution that the Supreme Court upheld in the Keshavananda Bharati case 1973. It is important to understand the reasons for the growing clamor for reservation by the upper castes. The agrarian crisis has made the farming community very vulnerable due to poor remunerative price for their products, leading to poverty and backwardness. Added to this, the indiscriminate privatization of education has made the education unaffordable to vast majority of people.
Therefore, making the quality education accessible to all, brining balanced economic development in states and creating jobs for the youth should be the main concern. The youth are not getting jobs partly due to poor quality education and costly private professional courses. The reservation is no substitute for good education by public institutions-schools, colleges and universities — run and aided by the State. The reservation policy is creating an ethical issue. The tag of ‘backwardness’ is undermining dignity, self-esteem and sense of achievement. As the retired Justice K Joseph of SC says, “the minority tag is a hindrance to career progression.”
The “issue of minority tag obstructing merit could be worse if corrective steps are not taken and selections are not based purely on merit without considering caste, creed, religion.” We could see how the students under the SC, ST and OBC category, admitted to institutions of higher learning- like IITs, IIMs etc are treated. The tag of “backward” or “dalit” more often is the cause of their humiliation and suffering. This is percolating into work culture as well. How long should we perpetuate the caste based reservations? The politicians are creating civil unrest in the society by pursuing the politics of appeasement. The reservation is not a solution to poverty, which successive governments have failed to tackle; sooner it is scrapped better for the country. The youth want quality education and jobs and not quota.
G Ramachandram is a professor of Political Science, retired principal and an independent author.