In mission to trigger review of State OBC lists, NCBC hits a wall of absent socio-economic data

The Commission’s work is now being cited by PM Modi to attack Congress’s social justice platform. But in the NCBC’s way lies a hole of absent socio-economic data on OBCs — something that the Congress manifesto promises to plug with a socio-economic caste census  

May 04, 2024 11:24 pm | Updated 11:47 pm IST - New Delhi:

The Congress’ social justice plank has been the promise of a nation-wide socio-economic caste census. File

The Congress’ social justice plank has been the promise of a nation-wide socio-economic caste census. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

For the last one year or so, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), under the chairmanship of former Union Minister Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, has been focused on triggering a pruning of State OBC lists in a bid to re-evaluate the continued inclusion of communities that might have progressed due to years of accruing benefits. 

This exercise has led the Commission to now question the “abundance” of Muslim communities in the OBC lists of States like Karnataka and West Bengal and in the latter’s case, it has also stalled requests to include around 80 castes/communities in the Central OBC list, questioning the validity of the reports relied upon by the State government. 

Also read | Why and how Muslims were given quotas under OBC reservation in Karnataka

It is soon planning for similar State reviews of Kerala, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra and other States, where it also intends to ensure that the maximum available OBC reservation within the 50% limit is granted. 

As the NCBC starts invoking powers granted to it under the 102nd Constitution Amendment brought in by the Modi government, to “evaluate progress of OBCs in States”, its efforts are being cited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his attacks on the Congress’ social justice platform as campaigning heats up for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. 

And while the NCBC repeatedly asks States to justify continued inclusions in their OBC lists, it faces a singular hurdle — that of absent data on current socio-economic conditions of OBCs — and is pressing on States like West Bengal and Karnataka to produce this information. 

The Congress’ key social justice plank for the ongoing elections has been the promise of a nation-wide socio-economic caste census. 

‘Unique situation’

Mr. Ahir took charge of the NCBC in December 2022 and within three months started the State review of West Bengal, visiting the State on an official tour in February 2023. “It was a most unique situation in West Bengal. In a State where Muslims are in the minority, 118 of the 180 OBC communities in the State were Muslim. This is not possible,” Mr. Ahir told The Hindu

The NCBC has been in touch with the West Bengal government multiple times since then, repeatedly seeking the survey reports that justify the present-day backwardness of the communities that are in its OBC list. “The least the State can do is provide a current report justifying the backwardness of these communities as of at least 2015,” Mr. Ahir said. 

He said this is why the NCBC had also returned a proposal for including around 80 of the State’s communities in the Central OBC list for the time being. But senior State government officials in West Bengal maintained that they can only give data on the communities’ condition when the decision to include them in the State list was taken and not after. 

A senior NCBC official, however, noted that the 2015 judgment of the Supreme Court in Ram Singh Vs Union of India mandated OBC communities to be identified based on their “contemporaneous” conditions. “The NCBC is maintaining that it needs to look into the surveys and evaluate them to ensure they meet Mandal Commission criteria of categorising OBCs,” the official said.

Determining backwardness as per the Mandal Commission’s criteria would require information on several parameters of social backwardness, educational backwardness, and economic backwardness of each community — effectively amounting to an enumeration exercise.

The official further pointed to a provision in State laws that mandated a decadal review of OBC communities to check on the progress of communities due to accruing benefits and duly exclude them if required.   

These are the same arguments behind the NCBC’s State review in Karnataka, where it is now questioning the basis on which Muslims in the State continue to be considered backward under Category II-B. 

While the Karnataka government has clarified to the NCBC that it is considering Muslims under Category II-B as a backward class based on several State commission reports classifying them as such, the principal bugbear of the NCBC is that these reports were at least a decade old, if not older. 

Mr. Ahir said, “Eventually, these communities in the State lists will want to be included in the Central list and so we must look into their current status.”

But in the absence of this, what the Commission is noting is representation in State services, urban local bodies and panchayats, schools, admissions etc., making a case that this would be enough to inform if a community has progressed. 

As a result, it has sought detailed data on community-wise representation in these aspects from the governments in Karnataka and West Bengal. In the former’s case, it has used preliminary data on PG Medical admissions during 2021-22 and 2022-23 to allude that Muslims were being over-represented compared to their share in the State’s population.

Decadal review

However, while the NCBC makes the case that States ought to have followed the mandated decadal reviews, no efforts have so far been made to conduct a similar decadal review of the communities included in the Central OBC list, to which the Narendra Modi government has made at least 16 additions since 2014. 

Mr. Ahir told The Hindu, “We will do it when it is required. This NCBC draws its powers from the Constitution Amendment (102nd) in 2018. So our deadline for the first decadal review is still a while away. Within that time if we get complaints that some communities have progressed and should not be in the list, we will examine it then.”

Till at least 2015-16, erstwhile National Commissions for Backward Classes have emphasised the “crying need” for the government to finalise the SECC-2011 data and cull out required information so that the decadal review of the Central OBC list can be carried out. However, after 2018, when the 102nd Constitution Amendment was passed, no NCBC annual report has mentioned the decadal review.

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