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Quota Quagmire

The crisis has not ended -- it has begun. Is it beyond the capacity of our politicians to devise social and economic criteria for affirmative action, which would not require caste and community divisiveness?

Quota Quagmire
Quota Quagmire
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

In the recent crisis unleashed by the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, one incident was symptomatic. As the Gujjars laid siege to Delhi and blocked the highways, two policemen guarding one spot armed only with lathis, under strict orders by superiors to avoid confrontation with the Gujjars, were brutally lynched to death by a mob. Why were they made to guard a post against a violent mob without arms or sanction to act? Because one party was attempting to divert Gujjar support to itself away from its rival. That is why the Gujjar violence received tacit support from politicians of one party. The Meena threats against Gujjar villages in Rajasthan received similar support from the other party.

Gujjars and Meenas who lived peacefully as neighbours for decades are today at daggers drawn. Lifelong friends have developed visceral hatred for each other. As politicians play their games, the nation is being torn apart. Those who think the crisis has ended need to re-think. The crisis has begun. It will spread to other states, among other communities. Sociologists are poring over data to determine which caste fits which category. Politicians and media are busy analyzing recent political moves for the blame game. Why don't they see the big picture?

Around a hundred years ago, the Gujjars, along with Yadavs and Ahirs, were claiming they were Kshatriyas and sought recognition as an upper caste. Today they seek demotion from OBC status to that of a Scheduled Tribe. Why? Because the Rajasthan Jats recently scaled themselves down to become OBCs and hogged reservations. What led the proud Jats to do this? Land-owning Yadavs in neighbouring UP were OBCs benefiting from quota reservation. The Mandal Commission categorized Yadavs as backward in Bihar and UP but forward in Haryana. So much for considering caste as a rational criterion for reservation! Years ago Choudhary Brahm Prakash, an Ahir, succeeded in categorizing Delhi Yadavs as educationally backward. The educational limitation was soon forgotten. Yadavs became backward for all practical purpose.

Already in Rajasthan, OBC castes of Raibaris, Rawats and Sahriyas are inspired by the Gujjars to seek ST status. The Meenas who have hogged ST reservations were arguably never entitled to be a Scheduled Tribe. In Karnataka, Deve Gowda has already announced his intention to restructure the reservation pattern of OBCs in the state. He wants to reduce the quotas of the Kuruba and Idiga castes in favour of other communities. Rest assured this will generate tension in Karnataka. Rest assured that other states will follow with their own formulae for redistributing reservation quotas. As politicians, experts and media pundits earnestly work out the arithmetic for equitable quota reservation among castes, do they ever consider that there are over 3000 castes in India? How many thousand mutinies must India endure before the truth dawns on them, that caste-based reservation is horribly flawed? Is it beyond the capacity of our politicians to devise social and economic criteria for affirmative action, which would not require caste and community divisiveness? This is what protesting students recently demanded. This is what commentators, including this scribe, have long demanded. Students and commentators may be ignored. What about the warning issued by the Supreme Court?

While staying implementation of 27% reservation quota in educational institutes on March 29, the Court said:

"It has to be noted that nowhere else in the world do castes, classes or communities queue up for the sake of gaining backward status. Nowhere else in the world is there competition to assert backwardness and then to claim we are more backward than you."

The judges warned that society was being dangerously divided. Their warnings fell on deaf ears. The Gujjar episode is one proof of that. Apart from the erosion of self-respect which caste-based reservation introduces is the mutual hatred among castes and communities that it unleashes. But, despite the recent Gujjar caste trouble, do politicians learn from such crises? They continue to scatter promises on quotas like a fistful of crumbs for beggars to fight over.

How far politicians have traveled from reality became painfully evident from a recent speech of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, delivered at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The PM's speech attracted wide criticism, but for the wrong reasons. The PM deplored the elite's ostentatious consumption. He suggested scaling down the salaries of top business executives. Critics claimed that politicians lived more lavishly. They wrote that by scaling down salaries there would be loss of talent. The entire debate was irrelevant. The PM's speech was suitable for drawing room dilettantes concerned with aesthetic life styles. The measures he suggested were unrelated to the real socio-economic problems facing the nation. From an economist of his caliber the speech was indeed disappointing. But the disappointment arose from reasons quite different from those advanced by his critics.

In his speech, the PM drew attention to the gulf between India and Bharat. There is indeed one India of consumers and another of survivors. The first requires a market economy in which official intervention may be further reduced. The latter requires a separate approach in which the government alone can initiate progress. The two Indias deserve therefore two different economic strategies. Fortunately, both strategies are perfectly compatible. Reforms might suit the consuming class. The surviving class needs a master plan to build roads, manage water for irrigation and for potable use, generate electricity, spread literacy and primary education, and organize health care for every village. This can be initiated only by the government after its priorities are altered. It would not only lay the infrastructural foundation for genuine rural development, but also, in the process, generate enormous productive employment.

Today, India is perched on a powder keg. During the last decade the economic growth rate has increased significantly. But disparity between the rich and the poor has actually widened. This has happened at a time of growing awareness due to the spread of media. A vast majority of people have consequently developed growing aspirations in a system which offers them shrunken opportunities. That is why there is a dangerous new edge of violence in demands such as those made by the Gujjars. Such demands and agitations will continue to spread unless and until requisite purchasing power is created in rural India.

This can be accomplished most quickly and effectively through a massive, efficiently organized nationwide plan to build rural infrastructure. Every paisa obtained from disinvestment of public undertakings should have been reserved solely for this plan as seed money. One thought the PM would dwell on some such scheme. Instead, he devoted his address to the salaries of business executives!


Rajinder Puri can be reached at rajinderpuri2000@yahoo.com

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