We have, in the past, observed that our political system wakes up only when the demand for reservation by a particular community turns into a violent protest. Even then, the government just confines itself to ascertaining demands of only that particular group.
- The government has never tried to re-examine the whole conundrum of reservation holistically.
- Added to this is the non availability of any data to tell 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% of the population fell in the self-identified OBC category. By 2011-12, this proportion had grown to 44%.
- If combined with about 9% of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 20% of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population, the total proportion eligible for reservation comprises 73% of the Indian population.
- If new claimants to the OBC category are added to this group, easily 80% of Indians would be eligible for reservation of some kind.
- This would make it impossible for the government to provide effective benefits to this large a group. Thus, some choices within these categories will inevitably need to be made.
Why there is a need to reexamine our reservation policy?
- Changed external conditions:
Since independence, the external conditions which initially led to reservations have changed tremendously. Economic growth has resulted in a decline in poverty numbers from 37% of the population to 22%. Such development should have brought down the number of people seeking reservations, in contrast, rewards to government jobs have grown sharply.
- Increased popularity:
Wage increases associated with the Sixth Pay Commission and the expected implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission have made government jobs highly attractive. Hence, many groups historically tied to the land are now seeking favourable treatment while seeking entry into non-farm work.
- Increased competition:
In the last decade, 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% 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% 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.
- Ambiguity in the reservation process:
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 has lead to ambiguity in the entire process of reservation, leaving communities like Jats, Marathas and Patels dissatisfied.
- Lack of Data:
The problem 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.
How can we address these problems?
- Regular Surveys:
Conduct regular surveys to identify the beneficiaries who can claim the benefits under the reservation policy. This can be achieved by including data on caste in census surveys. 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.
These data should also be used 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.
- The opportunity for re-examination of the caste-wise economic status would facilitate the setting up of a structure for the redressal of grievances.
- Ensure wider reach:
We must also 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. Though the creamy layer criteria exist, it has not been very effective.
- 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.