Everybody loves a good quota

Hazy group: “Identifying the poor is a difficult task resulting in errors of both inclusion and exclusion.” File photo shows Gujjars protesting in New Delhi against police action on members of their community in Rajasthan. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

I sometimes feel sorry for the governments of Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan, which are plagued by demands for reservation from powerful and aggressive communities. Patidars, Jats and Gujjars feel that communities that first managed to board the reservation train are uniting to keep them out. State governments would be perfectly happy to include them in the reserved category if they were not worried about the electoral backlash. Other Backward Classes (OBC) classification for Jats brings a similar demand from Rajputs; Scheduled Tribes (ST) classification for Gujjars brings about protests from the powerful Meena community unwilling to share the ST classification. Gujarat >seems to have found a novel way to address these demands: be so inclusive that hardly anyone is left to protest. A 10 per cent quota for the economically backward among upper castes— that is, those with family incomes of less than Rs.6 lakh per annum (p.a.) — spreads the net so wide that the excluded group is minuscule.

Data on income

Since income data are hard to come by, let us look at three different sources of data to derive estimates of those with incomes above Rs.6 lakh p.a. First, data on income tax filers in 2012-13 show that only 13 per cent of individual returns have incomes higher than Rs.5.5 lakh p.a.; once we take into account people who do not file the returns at all, this forms about 3.5 per cent of total individuals in the country aged 18 and above. Since incomes may be hidden on tax returns, we must look to alternative data. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) collects information on consumption expenditure, not incomes. If we apply household savings rate of about 25 per cent, a Rs.6 lakh income p.a. cut-off would result in a cut-off of about Rs.4.5 lakh consumption. NSSO data (2011-12) show that less than 1 per cent of the population falls in this category. A third source of data is the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) of 2011-12, organised by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland. It collects data for both income and expenditure. It shows that less than 2 per cent of the population had household consumption of Rs.4.5 lakh p.a. and about 2.5 per cent had incomes of Rs.6 lakh p.a. in 2011-12. This suggests that whatever statistics we use, a Rs.6 lakh p.a. cut-off will exclude less than 5 per cent of the population from being eligible for reservations if the Gujarat example is followed nationwide.

These statistics should calm the passions around this new wrinkle in the battle for reservation in Gujarat. Appeasement tactics used by the Gujarat government are mostly ineffective; they will neither reduce options for middle-income Indians nor will they really expand benefits for the poor among forward castes.

Can we devise a narrower band that might really benefit the poor among groups currently ineligible for reservations? Here, our spectacular failure in identifying the poor for issuing Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards gives us reason to be wary. The IHDS survey found that in 2011-12, only 50 per cent of the poor had a BPL card while nearly a third of the non-poor had BPL cards. Almost all observers agree that identifying the poor is a difficult task resulting in errors of both inclusion and exclusion. This is particularly the case when incomes are growing rapidly and a household that is poor in one year may well climb out of poverty the following year. So focussing on just the poor among the general category may be more difficult than we anticipate.

Moreover, the demands for expansion of reservation have little to do with the poor among the so-called “general” category. Most of these demands are emerging from angry young men — many of them with college education — among agriculturalist communities that have historically held considerable political clout (for instance, the Navnirman movement of the 1970s, which the Gujarat government is acutely aware of).

Future of reservation

In order to get out of this quagmire, we need to think of the immediate concerns of educated youth and the broader future of reservation in India. What fuels the anger of young men from agricultural communities? As they see it, investing in education has got them only minor monetary benefits. With massive growth in private and distance education programmes of questionable quality, most college graduates today lack the skills for high-paying private sector jobs. They may well be qualified for lower-level clerical or support positions, but for these jobs’ salaries are far lower in the private sector than the public sector. The ratio of government salary to private sector salary for a college graduate has consistently increased; the IHDS data show that in 2004-05, a college graduate earned 62 paisa in the private sector for each rupee in the public sector; by 2011-12 it had dropped to 57 paisa. With implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission, this difference will grow. Not surprisingly, competition for government jobs is fierce. As Prabhat Mittal, Secretary, Government of Uttar Pradesh, noted, in 2015 nearly 2.3 million applications were received for 368 low-ranking positions in the State government. Is it surprising that frustrated young men try to beat this insane competition by demanding inclusion in the reserved category? If government salaries were more on a par with the salaries of the private sector, it is possible that this strident demand may subside. If current initiatives for increasing employability and creating more manufacturing jobs succeed, this will also reduce the pressure.

A longer-term solution, however, requires re-evaluation of the fundamental nature of India’s reservation regime. Affirmative action to make space for communities that have historically been subject to discrimination fits well with the Indian ethos of creating a level playing field and is part of the Indian Constitution. But the patchwork implementation, particularly for the OBC classification that is currently in place, makes little sense and leaves room for powerful lobbies to unite around demands for inclusion.

One of the ways of dismantling the quota raj is to ensure that the reserved category certificate is not a currency that is hoarded by groups who no longer need it. This involves periodic recertification into the reserved category. Unfortunately, the current system has an established, if imperfect, procedure for notification of new groups into the reserved category but not for moving groups out of the reserved category. A first step towards establishing such a process may be to ensure that we collect data on caste/tribe affiliation along with data on basic demographic and housing characteristics in the 2021 population census. This would allow us to move past the exclusive reliance on the 1931 census and obtain information on the current socio-economic conditions of all castes and communities in India.

Frankly, I have never understood the resistance from the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India (ORGI) for collecting caste data in national population census. If the colonial census could do this in 1931, why can’t we do it today? Collecting data on thousands of castes is difficult, but it is by no means impossible. Perhaps, the collection of data on caste is a hot potato that the ORGI hopes someone else will handle. But surely national interest demands that this caution be put aside to develop a long-term solution to an issue that has gained such visibility. While we are destined for periodic eruptions of demand for reservations by groups like the Jats, without timely and accurate data we have no way of developing a rational system for responding to these demands.

Sonalde Desai is Senior Fellow, NCAER, and Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland. Views are personal.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 12:46:11 AM |

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