The Central government’s decision to amend the Constitution to provide for reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions in government service is a welcome move, though it is fraught with risks if implemented without careful thought and adequate groundwork. The SCs and STs are grossly under-represented in the upper echelons of government — as indeed they are in upper management elsewhere — and every effort must be made to undo this injustice brought about by centuries-old practices of social discrimination. However, this issue was before a constitution bench of the Supreme Court in 2006, which ruled that the state had to “collect quantifiable data showing backwardness of the class and inadequacy of representation of that class in public employment” before providing for reservation in promotions. Thus, even now, there is no bar on reservation in promotions. In the 2006 judgment on the extent to which reservation is permissible, the constitution bench had noted that the ceiling of 50 per cent, a concept of creamy layer and the statement of compelling reasons (backwardness, inadequacy of representation and overall administrative efficiency) were all constitutional requirements “without which the structure of equality of opportunity in Article 16 would collapse.” Any amendment then would have to frontally deal with Article 16 providing for equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Otherwise, the legislation might fail before a challenge in the Supreme Court, and would come across as little more than a political ploy to win the support of the weaker sections.
Earlier, on the question of reservation for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, the failure to back up the move with concrete data on backwardness and inadequacy of representation led to the effort being thrown out by the courts. The Union government must not repeat this mistake. Nor should it ignore complications like the sharp narrowing of the pyramid from the level of joint secretary upwards in the Indian Administrative Service. This is where actual data on the under-representation of SCs and STs in senior posts is essential. On the other hand, any quota for promotions should not end up becoming a ceiling for deserving SC and ST officers. There are no simple solutions, but if the government is sincere about making its offices truly representative, all obstacles can be overcome. However, if the government produces a hastily drafted amendment with the sole intention of political posturing, the entire effort would be struck down by the courts.