Rethinking reservations and ‘development’

LEFT OUT: “The much-discussed Gujarat model has failed to create adequate employment, particularly for the educated youth, despite the rapid growth of the economy.” In the picture tens of thousands of protestors from Gujarat’s Patel community participate in a rally in Ahmadabad.   | Photo Credit: Ajit Solanki

In Gujarat, the Patels or Patidars, who constitute about 15 per cent of the State’s population, are an economically and politically dominant upper caste. As successful farmers, as small and big industrialists, as traders as well as non-resident Gujaratis, spread practically all over the world, they should be the last to demand reservation. The Patel agitation at present, however, seems to be demanding precisely this. Or, if read carefully, >the protesters are demanding the removal of caste-based reservation and its replacement with income-based reservation.

The >Patel rallies for reservation have been widespread across the State and significantly large in many towns and cities. Though it appears to be an urban movement, rural areas are not totally excluded. The rallies have also spurred other caste rallies and resulted in inter-caste conflicts and tensions. Though there seem to be many weaknesses in the leadership of the agitation and lack of clarity in its objectives, the agitation needs to be taken seriously because it is a warning of the shape of things to come — not only in Gujarat but also other parts of the country.

The agitation has emerged out of the frustrations of the youth on two major counts. First, the existing reservation policy that has failed to assimilate lowest castes/tribes within the mainstream economy and society, has created a sense of dissatisfaction and injustice among those >who are denied the benefits of reservation. And second, the much-discussed Gujarat model of development has failed miserably in creating adequate employment opportunities for the growing labour force in the State. This lacuna has particularly affected the educated youth who are unable to find suitable work in spite of the rapid growth of the economy.

>The reservation policy which was initiated as a temporary provision (for 10 years) for Scheduled Castes(SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in our Constitution in 1950, has expanded its coverage and contents multifold over the past six to seven decades. It has now become an almost a permanent feature of the national policies. The reservation policy however, has been used in the State (as elsewhere) mainly in vote bank politics played around the castes and has failed in including the people at the bottom in the mainstream economy and society.

As the creamy layer of the lowest castes and tribes have cornered these benefits to a considerable extent, the policy has ended up as a tool that discriminates against the high caste youths in favour of the low caste youths, sometimes coming from the same economic background. Not only Hardik Patel, the leader of the movement, but large number of participants in the rallies complained of this unfair discrimination. Placards like “I could not get into an engineering college because of low marks though many OBC [other backward classes] students with lower marks got in” or “why should SC/ST/OBC get a job when with better marks and qualifications I cannot?” or “Do away with caste-based reservations” seen in the rallies reflect this frustration. >This frustration of the youth, even if the statements in the placards are not accurate, is understandable because it is not the poorest but frequently the non-poor, middle income groups of SC/ST/OBC who are seen to be the beneficiaries of reservations. The tool of reservation has failed miserably in removing caste differences and has promoted the caste divide and caste conflicts.

Clearly, the time has come to rethink our reservation policies, that have ended up giving preference to more or less the same class of SC/ST/OBC in school/college admission, in jobs and in promotions as well as subsidies in innumerable programmes and schemes, leaving out the poorer sections among them at the bottom. Our recent study in Gujarat has shown that the SC, OBC and ST households at the bottom are still left out of the benefits of the rapid growth of the State.

Radical rethink

The radical rethinking on reservation should aim at (i) excluding the entire creamy layer from reservation; (ii) developing the capabilities of the deprived and excluded beyond offering them admission to higher education or jobs on a platter. The underlying principle should be that all the poorest at the bottom get support and all the poorest — excluded socially and economically — get a preference.

Secondly, the failure of development model in Gujarat (and for that matter India as a whole) to create massive, productive employment for the youth is another reason for frustration of the youth. The labour market in Gujarat has behaved in a peculiar manner in the recent decades. On the one hand, large-scale in-migration of unskilled and low-skilled workers is observed in a wide range of sectors such as agriculture, construction, brick kilns, power looms, small engineering, garments etc. At the other end, the posts of highly-skilled professionals in the fast-growing, technology sector have also been largely filled by professionals and high-skilled workers from outside the State. A significant number of the educated youth in the State does not find suitable employment in the State because i. the growth of the modern sector has been highly capital intensive, where jobs generated are relatively few and local youth frequently do not qualify and ii. other employment opportunities for the educated youth are fewer and not remunerative. As per the official data, the number of educated unemployed i.e. the number of educated job seekers above the Senior Secondary Certificate (SSC) level has increased from 6.7 lakhs in 1995 to about seven lakhs in 2014 while the number of graduate job seekers has increased from 12,184 to 40,781 in the same period— an increase of 3.6 times. Clearly the educated youth is left high and dry, and excluded from the benefits of the rapid growth of the State. The reservation policy in government jobs has added to this frustration.

The danger of the demographic dividend turning into a demographic disaster is looming over the State. And similarly across the country, unless adequate jobs are created for the large labour force , the frustration of the youth is not likely to be contained.

In short, the Gujarat protests should be treated as a warning against the reservation policy and the State’s growth model. It is also a warning to other States.

The best that the Gujarat government can do immediately is to hold meaningful discussions with the Patels to understand their concerns. For the medium and long term however, the State has no choice but to redesign its development model to create large scale productive employment for the youth with what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls “decent work conditions” and to radically revise the reservation policy.

(Indira Hirway is Director and Professor of Economics at the Centre For Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad.)

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 11:17:35 AM |

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