I think the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has a point when he says India’s caste-based reservations should go up for ‘review’. Congressman Manish Tiwari echoed the same feeling when he questioned the relevance of affirmative action in 21st century India. Not everyone agrees. For one, the irrepressible Lalu Yadav acerbically said, “If you have drunk your mother’s milk (maa ka doodh), then have it scrapped.”
India’s dalliance with setting aside seats in educational institutions, in government jobs and in promotions for members of specified castes (notably Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes) is rooted in history. The much revered B R Ambedkar should bear the burden of this cross.
The stated objective was to ‘increase the opportunities for enhanced social and educational status of those communities’ and the constitutional sanction is contained in Article 16 and Article 46. While the Supreme Court had ruled that such reservations should not exceed 50 per cent, Tamil Nadu has reservation up to 69 per cent in which 87 per cent of the population benefits, thus snubbing the apex court. Under our constitutional provision, those eligible for the quota can also compete in the ‘Open’ category.
With the socially backward caste in many a case enjoying affluence and still being entitled to concessions, (the son of the managing director gets into a medical college seat on the strength of his belonging to scheduled caste), the heartburn amongst the “upper” caste is natural. We have reached a situation where following Hardik Patel’s tantrums in Gujarat, the Kerala Brahmana Sabha (KBS) is joining hands with him for an agitation to press for minority status for Kerala’s Tamil Brahmins. Remember, in social hierarchy, down the ages, Brahmins have been the upper caste.
These agitations have the potential to turn inflammatory and need to be handled with care and caution. Sadly, politicians cutting across political lines have used reservations to score petty electoral gains. Additions have been unilateral. V P Singh set the cat among the pigeons by increasing reservations to 50 per cent to let northern India burn thus forever mandalising Indian politics.
We strongly believe that there is a way forward notwithstanding whatever difficulty there may be to deliver it politically. After all, we have elected politicians to do the difficult things for us. Here are a few options:
The first is the absolute soft option. The ‘Open’ category should be left only to those who do not enjoy reservations. This way, for good or bad, the entire population gets a share of representation. Parceling the population is not the best way of selecting meritorious people, but is a lot better than the present position. Another version of the same plan is to rework the numbers for everyone in the proportion of the population. It could see some initial resistance but my sense is that there is merit in it and the courts will clear it should some maverick sound the bugle.
A second option is a medium term hard option. Under this option, each year we should progressively pull out 5 per cent of those who are currently eligible for reservation such that in the next 20 years, caste based reservation is done and dusted off. For instance, if in calendar 2016 fifty per cent of the population is eligible for reservation, then in calendar 2017 only forty five per cent of the population should be eligible for reservation. This would be the 20-year plan.
The third option is the hardest one. This involves throwing caste-based reservations into the trash can and replacing it with income-based reservations. This will ensure that only those who really need governmental support get it and is morally the right thing. The Right to Education Act should be strictly enforced. The income based reservation should be strictly adhered to at primarily school level so that every citizen has an equal opportunity to hone up his skills. Once that is done there should be no scope for reservation in the job place except perhaps for the lowest of the lowly jobs.
The government should work towards setting up and letting the private sector run model schools of excellence into which many of these students could be accommodated. Reservation for promotions should be summarily thrown out of the window.
The moot point is: Will there be public support for this? It is the job of the government to ensure that it happens. Will the politicians be ready to bite the bullet?