- Of The Book Ambedkar was inducted as chairman, Constitution Draft Committee, after independence in 1947.
- Man Of Law He was the first law minister, but resigned in ’51 when Cong, RSS stalled draft of the Hindu Code Bill.
The Sangh parivar has launched a diatribe against caste-based reservation. It started last year, with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat pitching for a ‘review’ of the policy. That remark boomeranged in Bihar, with Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav exploiting it to the hilt. Yet, Bhagwat reiterated it, saying reservation should help all poor regardless of caste. Lately, he clarified that reservation must stay till discrimination persists.
Despite the denials, this was a muddled attempt to carve a ‘new normal’—not very new actually. “Lately some leaders have repeated the traditional argument of replacing caste with economic criteria for reservation. Let me remind them that one set of policies is meant to remove poverty and another to end discrimination. Reservations are not the same as anti-poverty measures,” says Sukhdeo Thorat, economist and former UGC chairperson.
All poor, regardless of community, can access pro-poor measures such as subsidies. In addition, the scheduled castes and other backward communities face unique disadvantages—lack of education and disempowerment enforced for over 2,000 years of discrimination and greater unemployment. “Reservation addresses these, though it has an anti-poverty element too,” says Thorat.
The Sangh insists that economic impoverishment, across castes, is the same thing. Seen through RSS lenses, reservation perpetuates caste and discriminates against the equally needy from general castes. “Economic poverty and social backwardness are two distinct states, not to be confused with each other,” warns D.L. Sheth, honorary senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. “Poverty is usually a phase, say, when someone middle or lower-middle class becomes economically poor. But social backwardness is a congealed, long-term condition. Inherited over generations, it’s extremely tough to beat because of social barriers,” Sheth says.
Those who believe caste discrimination doesn’t exist can consider recent responses to a flyover that collapsed in Calcutta. Many socially-networked Indians blamed the West Bengal government for not promoting ‘talented’ engineers, hence contributing to the disaster. This is bizarre, as the company building the Calcutta flyover is a private firm, IVRCL. And, in private firms, India has no policy for reservation.
The disparaging comments targeting engineers meant to make the point that technical colleges admitting students on ‘quota’ are lowering standards. “Even if there’s news of a botched surgery, the anti-reservationists question the merit of reserved students in medicine,” says Shehla Rashid, vice-president of JNU’s student union. When these students graduate and seek to enter the workforce, discrimination follows them.
“The public sector, where we were supposed to have reservation, has abdicated and shrunk. The private sector is where students must seek work now, but studies establish that discrimination persists there,” says Rashid. She is referring to Thorat’s landmark 2007 study, The Legacy of Social Exclusion. It showed how Dalit applicants, even if more qualified than those from higher castes, were less likely to be called for job interviews in the private sector.
Many universities, including JNU, have a decidedly different social composition today than in 2006, when OBC reservation in educational institutions was cleared. In 2014-15, JNU had over 51 per cent SC, ST and OBC students, therefore outnumbering general category students there, including students who got in on merit. For the record, JNU is acknowledged (and rated last week) as one of India’s top varsities.
Seen in this light, the Calcutta flyover’s collapse makes a case for more campus diversity through reservation, and for the extension of reservation to private sector jobs—for what use is education without work, where discrimination persists?
There is an argument that OBC reservation be tweaked to exclude communities that have had access to quota for over two or three generations, with the challenge of poverty overcome and other criteria met. The obverse side to this is that disqualifying beneficiaries, in a way, amounts to killing the policy. “Among SC-STs, if at all the wealthier must be excluded, only the topmost percentile could be,” says Deshpande. Sheth, however, believes only OBC groups can be reconsidered thus, and then only to facilitate inclusion of the ‘very backward’. Reservation regularly invites the ‘merit’ counter-argument. Yet, elite caste merit goes unquestioned, despite generations of privilege. “We know there is implicit reservation in the meritorious private sector—we call it nepotism and corruption.”
R.S. Deshpande, national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, says, “Private sector job reservations must happen. We’re fooling the world by calling a Wipro or Infosys private.” Companies don’t just get land at throwaway prices from state governments. They also hire people educated at public cost and get massive tax breaks. Not just that, their expansion created infrastructure that clogged cities. “Companies are reaping huge profits from money spent by the public, government and society on education and land. They must provide reservation as a right, to repay the advantages they secured,” he says.
So far, India has chosen the voluntary route to affirmative action in the private sector. This is unlike the US, Malaysia, South Africa and others, who addressed all forms of employment. “We work to foster entrepreneurship, skilling and education among backward communities. We believe that benefits of entrepreneurship will spiral over time,” says Saugata Choudhury, who heads the affirmative action initiative at CII. According to CII, around 1.2 lakh backward community individuals were hired by firms from April 2011 to June 2015.
The problem is getting intense, as avenues for public employment and government education shrink. Of every hundred jobs, only 20 per cent are public and non-contractual, and therefore open to reservation. The rest, 80 per cent, are private. There are over 220 state private universities, 90 deemed universities and scores of self-financed colleges to boot, which don’t permit reservation. “The base for reservation is getting seriously eroded—government jobs are increasingly contractual and private universities dominated by self-financed students,” says Thorat.
Organised sector jobs are barely eight or nine per cent of employment. Yet, these jobs have a disproportionate impact on those employed, creating a virtuous spiral of secure incomes, safer workplaces and other benefits denied to the disempowered. The rumblings about economic criteria are best left within the RSS.