This slim volume is an attempt to assess the seriousness with which the Indian state has implemented programmes of affirmative action. The emphasis is on detailing the various components of such programmes and examining their effectiveness through published data. While the aim is laudable, it needs to be said at the outset that the work has fallen between two stools — its analysis is not incisive enough to hold the interest of an informed reader, nor does it serve as an introduction to the interested but essentially lay audience.
First, let us see what the book's strengths are. There are data on a spectrum of issues relating to affirmative action such as the status of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Other Backward Classes in political institutions from the local bodies to the StateLegislatures and Parliament, and in relation to parameters like literacy, education, and employment. The information is collated from authentic sources. In this sense, it will be useful for any student who wants to have a quick access to data. Of course, there are other such books. But this indeed is a positive feature.
Another positive element relates to the questions it raises for further inquiry. But then, the work has important limitations here. Principally, Niranjan Sahoo makes no attempt to situate his analysis against a large canvas such as the changes that have taken place in the economy and the role of the state, which is getting diluted.
With the state ceasing to be the main employer of the educated classes and with the market-friendly paradigm quite firmly in place, the policy of ‘positive discrimination' (a term that is, at least in the opinion of this reviewer, more appropriate for the Indian context than ‘affirmative action') confronts new challenges.
To be fair to him, the author does make a reference to this aspect as well as to the relative neglect that the various other forms of positive discrimination have suffered compared to reservation in employment, which has occupied the centre stage for too long. The work would have turned out to be much more impressive, if only the entire analysis had been housed in this framework.
There are other problems as well. The author rightly discerns a north-south divide with respect to the policy of reservations. But he fails to observe that in Karnataka, for instance, the displacement of Brahmins as the hegemonic class led to the emergence of ‘hegemony' by the dominant among the backward classes, which in turn triggered a protest movement of sorts in the late 1960s — and this was utilised astutely by Devaraj Urs.
Also difficult to comprehend is Sahoo's bland assertion that in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala the OBCs outperform the upper castes in higher education and in accessing jobs. The root of the problem must lie in the author's inability to make nuanced distinctions among the OBCs. In States like Karnataka, this is a major issue.
There are some interesting, indeed sometimes insightful, observations. One such is that the STs perform better than the SCs in higher education, although, disappointingly, no attempt is made to take a closer look at it. This also goes for the data on enrolment in higher education, course-wise and caste-wise. Elsewhere, some of the information provided is difficult to digest. For instance, his statement that the IITs have been providing reservation for the SCs and the STs “since 1973 as per the constitutional provisions of 15 per cent for the SCs and 7.2 per cent for the STs”. There appears to be some confusion here, between a constitutional mandate and (presumably) a government order, since the percentages are not constitutionally mandated.
Among the interesting issues raised for discussion is the one relating to the woefully small number of SCs/STs securing positions in the non-reserved category — therein lies the “true test” of empowerment.
On the whole, the book is useful in some ways but falls short in offering compelling insights.
RESERVATION POLICY AND ITS IMPLEMENTATION ACROSS DOMAINS IN INDIA: Niranjan Sahoo; Academic Foundation, 4772-73/23 Bharat Ram Road (23 Ansari Road), Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.