Quantifying the caste quotas

The lack of any established principles or credible data prompts demands for reservation such as those of the Patels and Jats.The solution lies in shuffling reserved categories.

February 26, 2016 03:02 am | Updated 04:06 am IST

“Government jobs have stagnated while educational attainment has increased rapidly. Thus, it is not surprising that more claimants for these scarce jobs are aggressively staking their claims.” Picture shows Jat protesters at Sampla village in Haryana blocking a part of the Delhi-Haryana national highway. Photo: Reuters

“Government jobs have stagnated while educational attainment has increased rapidly. Thus, it is not surprising that more claimants for these scarce jobs are aggressively staking their claims.” Picture shows Jat protesters at Sampla village in Haryana blocking a part of the Delhi-Haryana national highway. Photo: Reuters

It is only when Jats, Gujjars or Muslims demand reservation, and particularly when these demands become aggressive, that our political system suddenly wakes up and takes notice. However, this notice is simply confined to ascertaining whether the specific group demanding reservation is worthy of it or not. Little attention is paid to re-examining the global picture or viewing the conundrum of reservation holistically. Neither any established principles of positive discrimination nor the required data are available to tell us who deserves preferential policies and why.

The proportion of individuals identifying themselves as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has steadily grown over the years. The National Sample Survey Office data show that in 1999-2000, about 36 per cent of the population fell in the self-identified OBC category; by 2011-12, this proportion had grown to 44 per cent. If combined with about 9 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 20 per cent of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population, the total proportion eligible for reservation comprises 73 per cent of the Indian population. If new claimants to the OBC category are added to this group, easily 80 per cent of Indians would be eligible for reservation of some kind. It would be impossible to provide effective benefits to this large a group. Thus, some choices within these categories will inevitably need to be made.

The shrinking pie

The external conditions which initially led to reservations have changed tremendously. Economic growth has resulted in a decline in poverty numbers from 37 per cent of the population to 22 per cent, which, in principle, should bring down the number of people seeking reservations, but over the same period, rewards to government jobs have grown sharply. Wage increases associated with the Sixth Pay Commission and the expected implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission have made government jobs highly attractive. Not surprisingly, many groups historically tied to the land are now seeking favourable treatment while seeking entry into non-farm work. Simultaneously, access to government jobs has been declining for all groups. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) by University of Maryland and National Council of Applied Economic Research shows that although in 2004-05 15.3 per cent of men aged 22-39 with education level of class 12 or more had a regular salaried job in the government or public sector, this proportion fell to 11.7 per cent by 2011-12. This is because government jobs have stagnated while educational attainment has increased rapidly. Thus, it is not surprising that more claimants for these scarce jobs are aggressively staking their claims.

If India can conduct a full Below Poverty Line Census, providing data for a caste group should be feasible.

This brings the nation face-to-face with a serious dilemma. Like Abhimanyu, we have entered the Chakravyuh without having an inkling of how to get out of it. It is thus imperative to consider some sensible exit strategies.

First, we must try to identify the contours of the problem. Since the First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar submitted its report in 1955, several attempts have been made to identify backward castes, resulting in frequent discordance between these lists. Lack of consistency and clarity lead to ambiguity in the entire process of reservation, leaving communities like the Jats dissatisfied. This is exacerbated by the lack of credible recent data. Since the 1931 Census, the only effort at collecting data on different castes and their socio-economic circumstances was undertaken by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011. The National Commission for Backward Classes claimed, in a report dated February 2015, that these data are neither available nor usable for the purpose of establishing the economic condition of various castes. I am inclined to think that this is a correct assessment. If we cannot use the SECC data, then how can we access more accurate data?

Revising the numbers

Just before 2001 and 2011 Censuses were conducted, there were vociferous demands for including data on caste in them, demands that were, however, not met due to the lack of a preparation period. The present phase in the planning cycle of the 2021 Census is the ideal time for ensuring that comprehensive data about caste and religion for all the groups, including forward castes, backward castes, and SCs and STs, are included in this Census. Surely 90 years is a long enough period for India to have changed, and we may want to rely on more recent data while developing our preferential policies.

Second, these data should allow us to re-evaluate the eligibility of groups for inclusion in reserved categories every 10 or at least every 20 years. Much of the social stratification in India is linked to the occupational status of the various castes. With the changes in the economy, we can expect both the link between caste and occupation to weaken and the economic fortunes of various occupations to change considerably. Some of the unrest among the Jat and Patel communities is associated with the poor performance of agriculture in the country. It may well be that they are economically worse off than individuals engaged in other occupations. The opportunity for re-examination of the caste-wise economic status would facilitate the setting up of a structure for the redressal of grievances. However, since this is likely to be a massive exercise, simple criteria based on the housing census combined with the caste data from population enumeration could easily be used. If India can conduct a full Below Poverty Line (BPL) Census where each household is identified as ‘poor’ or ‘non-poor’, providing data for a caste group should be feasible.

Third, we must find a way of ensuring a churn in the number of individuals eligible for benefits to ensure that these benefits reach the widest segment of society. Albeit the creamy layer criteria exist, they are almost impossible to implement. With the advent of the Aadhar card, one way of ensuring that the same families do not capture all the benefits is to ensure that each time someone uses their reserved category certificate, their Aadhar number is noted down and linked with the certificate. Further, it may be stipulated that the reserved category certificate can be used only once in 20 years, thus allowing for the benefits to reach even the sections that have hitherto been excluded from their ambit. This would ensure that the same individual is not permitted to obtain both college education as well as a government job by using the same eligibility criterion, nor can one obtain an initial posting as well as promotion using the same criterion.

The key to dealing with the quota quagmire lies in shuffling people in and out of the eligibility criteria and ensuring that the benefits are not concentrated among certain groups and/or individuals. All these principles are consistent with the democratic ideals and vision of social justice envisaged in India’s Constitution. It may be possible to achieve a consensus across the political spectrum for adopting a non-political and pragmatic approach to reservations. If we expect to phase out the reservation policy 100 years after Independence, the time for finding a long-term solution is clearly upon us, and we need to act now.

(Sonalde Desai is Professor of Sociology at University of Maryland and Senior Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Views are personal.)

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