Reservation for the economically weak is an idea whose time hasn’t come in India. For now, it will jeopardize an already emaciated system of social justice
Earlier in January, India’s Parliament passed a crucial constitutional amendment. The aim of which was to provide 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections of society. And the move elicited only a muted opposition, unlike several other amendments. Only three members voted against the Bill In the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha also did not see much protest against the change in law that left many questions unanswered.
A few political parties criticised the move as BJP’s gimmick ahead of the 2019 elections. Interestingly, though, the Left and BSP voted in favour of the Bill. Despite scattered objections, the political class in general accepted the Bill. Outside Parliament, however, the Bill met with criticism. Satish Deshpande, a scholar on caste, termed it a ‘destroyer’. Many like Deshpande felt the idea of keeping economically weaker sections and socially, educationally-backward sections at par on reservation could prove detrimental to the idea of reservation as a policy in itself. Including economic condition as a criteria for reservation could challenge the idea of affirmative action envisaged in the Constitution.
But call for economic reservation is a new thing. Can it impact the existing reservation policy?
The idea of affirmative action was to bring about social justice to socially and educationally weaker sections of the society. But does the new amendment prove our lawmakers are being succumbed to the mainstream narrative on reservations? A public litigation was filed in SC stating that the new law violates the basic structure of the constitution. There seem to be some enthusiasm in certain circles that this amendment would fail the basic structure tests. But experts feel it might survive the test. Apart from the basic structure test, there is also the question of the ceiling of 50 per cent quotas. The tricky thing is that the amendment does not really talk about pushing the reservation percentage beyond 50 percent. Still, the implementation of the same could see reservation percentage go up. It would also be interesting to see how various States will go about implementing this. Defining an economically weaker section is going to be tough for States. And political parties in power might end up using this for the 2019 election debate.
Reservations are widely criticised in India. Most of the criticism is based on anecdotes. Those who oppose reservations say it has compromised the quality of public institutions. They also say it is an ineffective measure in countering social and educational backwardness. The opposition to reservation has two counts: should we use ‘merit’ as a criteria or ‘income’?. Caste, as the “casteless” urban Indian would tell you, is something that should appear only in matrimonial columns. The casteless caste-blind Indian would often argue for “merit”. This is absurd in a country where a person’s place of birth still determines what he would become in the future. And this is an idea many educated Indians find it hard to digest. As many scholars have noted, this silence is mainly due to the dominance of upper castes in policy making. And that is something reservation is trying to address.
Can we count backwardness in economic status equivalent to the social backwardness? The answer is no.
It is a fact that dalits and OBCs face discrimination even if they improve their economic status. Even in a free market, caste plays a big role in India and discriminations do exist. Bringing in the question of economic status into this debate could sabotage the social revolution, which was the original idea of affirmative action. After globalisation, most jobs come from the private sector which doesn’t have reservation. Education is also getting privatised, making it further difficult for the less privileged from dalit and backward categories. The new proposed reservation could potentially take away another 10 per cent from a pool which is already shrinking. The proposed criteria could bring almost 97 percent of Indian households under the ambit of EWS and that would literally mean that the entire population would be competing for this 10 percent.
It is anybody’s guess as to who would be the winner.
One might say even the 70 years of reservation hasn’t eradicated poverty or discrimination. But that argument comes from an obvious misreading the social context in which caste operates, plus a complete disregard for data. It is evident that the representation of lower castes in government jobs have increased thanks to reservation policies, especially in the lower grade jobs. The argument on efficiency has been proved wrong by a study on Indian Railways conducted by Ashwini Deshpande and Thomas Weisskopf. Indian Railways, by its sheer size is one of the largest entities in the world which has an affirmative action policy in hiring.
It is interesting to note that those who argue for merit is generally silent on the idea of management quota in education. The same bunch has remained silent on the 10 percent reservation for EWS as well. It is not really surprising that those who argue for merit does not feel panicked at the idea of economic reservation and it shows the caste bias of India’s casteless “general” category. Upper castes are able to assume this casteless avatar in arguing for merit, but their actual discomfort is in losing the privileges they enjoy by being more inclusive. It is a question of throwing open the barriers which are designed to discriminate and exclude. Equating social backwardness and economic backwardness would further help a system which encouraged and practiced discrimination with religious sanction over a period of 2000 years.