Debating India

Quotas: A mess made by government

Saturday 3 June 2006, by NAYAR*Kuldip

It is a government-made mess. First, the human resources development ministry sends a circular to the Cabinet Secretariat to provide reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at Central educational institutes, including the Indian Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management and advanced medical colleges. This is done even when there is no demand raised for it. The 93rd Constitutional Amendment, passed earlier in the year, had provided reservations without raising an eyebrow. The government could have stopped at that. But then both the Congress and the BJP wanted to have their vote banks among the OBCs. These are the two parties who are mainly responsible for pushing the pace and its fallout.

When the circular raises a storm, the PMO wakes up, not knowing why the HRD ministry has issued the instruction. Medical students who took the lead to protest against reservations are consulted; some others also. Yes, they have a point of view, it is realised. But before the consultations reach any concrete stage, the government announces its decision to reserve 27 per cent seats for OBCs. North India was already in the grip of the agitation. The government added fuel to the fire. The suspicion is that HRD minister Arjun Singh had an "agenda." It is difficult to imagine him doing anything important like reservations without consulting Congress president Sonia Gandhi. However, it is clear that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among those who also ran. He must have felt embarrassed because he had assured the students that all sections would be heard and accommodated.

Had the announcement for reservations come with the assurance that the creamy layer among the OBCs and the Dalits would forfeit the concessions - such an advice was given by the Supreme Court years ago - the situation might have taken a different turn. The protesters would have felt somewhat mollified. The argument that the creamy layer among the upper castes continues to have access to the best of education, makes little sense. They do not get any advantage from the government. Here we are talking about reservations. And it is regrettable that a particular category in the lower castes goes on appropriating the advantages which should go to the people below. Children of the late President K.R. Narayanan had the best of education abroad, still his daughter got into the Foreign Service through the Dalit quota. The basis for reservations is mainly the discrimination which the Dalits have faced for centuries and still do. The OBCs have also suffered, but not on account of untouchability. It seems that they would have agreed to a lower quota, particularly when their children are getting selected in the general category.

What is surprising is that the ruling United Progressive Alliance - including the Left - has given scant attention to the fact that the nation would be further divided on the basis of caste, a factor that has trivialised society. An outgoing member of the Knowledge Commission has rightly said that, "The government is in the process of making caste the only reality in India." The two members who have resigned from the Commission are not against the principle of social inclusion, but have questioned motives behind the quotas, calling them detrimental to the development of society.

No doubt, the government’s decision will reserve more seats. But the experience about filling such seats has not been too happy. Some 1,100 seats for Dalits and tribals remain vacant every year in Delhi University alone. The task before the government should have been to look for ways to find suitable candidates. The thing which we must take note of is that those for whom reservations are provided, still fall short of the minimum standard. So, ultimately, we are watering down excellence. This may affect our stock abroad. The government is, for some reasons, averse to giving pre-admission instruction to OBCs. Students from the general category are understandably irritated. You cannot justify reservations before them on the ground that they have to pay for the sins of their forefathers who treated the low castes badly. Instead, the government’s assurance to maintain the number of seats available in the general category may help. It has to do more to win back the confidence of the students.

The government must realise that those who are outside the precinct of reservations are like the smouldering fire which flared up in 1990 when the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were implemented and which might take the shape of a conflagration in the future. At the time, it took some years to douse the fire. It may be the same this time. True, students have realised that there is no going back from the reservations announced. But they may nourish a grievance which is not in the interest of the country.

While distributing reservations, there is a case for allotting quota to those communities who have not had any representation in the state. That was what Dr B.R. Ambedkar who piloted the Indian Constitution, assured the nation. This has been awaiting implementation since 1950 when the Constitution began to operate. It means that the concessions for the upper strata of Dalits and OBCs will have to be scaled down. In the present circumstances, it does not seem to be possible because the upper stratum is a vocal lot and attracts media attention.

A better way to deal with the problem would have been to transfer the responsibility of reservation to the states. The South has managed it well, even with reservations going beyond 50 per cent. The DMK government in Tamil Nadu is talking in terms of increasing the percentage. It is different when New Delhi comes into the picture. Reservations then assume all-India importance and vote politics comes into play. It is different with the states and they do not have to enact even a law to have reservation. It can be done through an executive order. The Supreme Court has upheld the legality of such steps in the Comptroller and Auditor General v Mohanlal Mehrotra case.

It is true that the centuries-old stratification of Hindu society has resulted in the worst type of discrimination against the Dalits and the tribals, and neglect of the OBCs. But it is equally true that reservations initially provided for 10 years are going on and on, and there is no prospect of their lessening. It is time to start thinking of doing away with reservations on the basis of caste and have it instead on the basis of economic criterion. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the caste column deleted from admission forms to schools and colleges. The lowering of the reservation quota can be done at the rate of two per cent every year. Thus in 50 years we will wipe the slate clean. What is important is to instil in the minds of the people that India aims for a casteless society, the ethos of our Independence Movement. Top

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