The reality of 10 percent reservation for ‘economically backward’

Leave aside the rhetoric around reservation, the fact is, it is often the last resort in Indian politics. When the government proposes it around election time, it is often a sign of desperation. It’s a familiar script that has been written many times before: in 1996, for instance, when the government sought to extend Scheduled Caste (SC) status to the SC converts to Christianity, and in 2014 when the government notified Jats as Other Backward Class (OBC) in nine states. It is another matter that after the elections, such proposals of extending reservation to those who don’t have it are either put on the back burner or are struck down by courts.

The stunning speed with which the current government’s proposal to provide 10 per cent reservation for the ‘economically backward’ of the upper castes passed the test of both houses of parliament has not only surprised many, it has also led to several questions being asked about the government’s motive behind the move, the legal challenge it is likely to face and the logical inconsistencies it suffers.

Extending reservation benefits in education and government jobs to forward castes without affecting the rights of the deprived castes in a tearing hurry on the basis of a mere arithmetic test in the lower and upper houses of parliament smacks of political opportunism, which is open to question on several grounds — economic, social, moral and constitutional. Apart from its need and viability, the surprising aspect of the move is the redefinition of poverty itself.

In simple words, given the sheer size of the population, the reservation bill seeks to cover, its passage in parliament just after half a day’s debate is less about economic justice for the financial backward and more about electoral politics. The haste with which the quota bill was passed, while earlier reservation measures have taken several years to cross social, political, legislative and legal hurdles, raises the suspicion that electoral considerations come first for most political parties, while the implications of their contentious decisions are left to civil society to debate and fight over and the courts to intervene and restore constitutional order.

Each time reservation policy has been used as an electoral weapon, it has proved to be a treacherous terrain and had severe consequences. The prime example is the implementation of Mandal Commission report in 1989 which changed the face of Indian politics. The government’s decision to reserve 10 per cent quota for upper castes is widely seen as an attempt to win back the support of general category voters, a core base of the ruling party. Lately, these voters have shown signs of drifting away from the BJP because of its recent overtures to Dalits and OBCs.

The BJP’s backing for reservation for Dalits for promotions and its bringing a bill to overturn the Supreme Court’s order on Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, are believed to have created some resentment towards the BJP among its core voter base. This was evident in the results of the elections in three heartland states recently, which the BJP lost and where it won only 135 seats of the general category, against 249 it had won in 2013. This was a matter of huge concern for the BJP. With reservation for the general category, the party is now looking at wooing back the alienated upper classes in the Hindi heartland, which has around 30 per cent of upper castes votes.

The new law is also being seen as means to pacify the Marathas, Patidars, Kapus and the Jats who have been demanding reservation over the last few years. These castes lag behind the upper castes and are said to have similar status as the OBCs — economically, socially and educationally. With the general elections only a few months away, if things work out as intended, the BJP could end up getting the support of its core voter base without alienating the backwards castes, as the 10 per cent reservation for the general category will be over and above the existing quotas for the backward castes.

It is for this reason that the Opposition challenged the bill, questioning its timing as well as legal standing. There is a Supreme Court ruling that the basic structure of the Constitution does not permit more than 50 per cent reservation. There is no provision for reservation based on economic backwardness in the Constitution, but only on the basis of caste-based discrimination. Moreover, under the constitutional scheme of reservation, economic backwardness alone cannot be a criterion. Therefore, the government’s decision is likely to face insurmountable obstacles laid down by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1993 judgment in Indira Sawhney vs Union of India.

The 1993 judgment related to an attempt by the then Narasimha Rao government to provide 10 per cent reservation for general category citizens based solely on economic criteria. It is the same proposal that has now been moved by the Modi government. The only difference is that the Rao government’s proposal was moved through an executive order in 1991, while the Modi government has chosen the legally more secure way of constitutional amendment.

A day after the reservation bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, it has been challenged in a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court by an NGO on the ground that it alters the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution and annuls previous binding judgments of the apex court. Legal aspects apart, there is no clarity on how the eligibility criteria for ‘economic weakness’ has been drawn up: the cap on annual family income of Rs 8 lakh, the agriculture land ownership at 5 acres and the area of house not above 1,000 sq ft. These criteria are so liberal that they seem to cover almost 95 per cent of Indians not covered by existing reservations.

In absence of data on the number of poor Indians in the upper castes, the government seems to have no clue on how many economically weaker people are going to benefit from the 10 per cent quota. India is a developing country with a huge middle class. It is also the new emerging economic powerhouse. But the new definition of ‘economic backwardness’ makes almost the whole of India economically backward. However, people who earn more than Rs 2.5 lakh a year are liable to pay income tax. This means that the government considers Rs 2.5 lakh income as sufficiently high to make people eligible to pay tax on it, while on the one hand, the government regards Rs 8 lakh family income as economic backwardness.

This contradiction may lead to a new demand that the income criteria be reduced and brought on par with income tax exemption limit, so that the real poor and needy are benefited from the 10 per cent quota. Politically, reservation is a potent tool. But where are the government jobs to employ millions of jobless youth? The BJP has played the reservation card quite well. What remains to be seen is whether people will see it as an election stunt that may not benefit them eventually.

A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.

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