The issue of reservation has once again come to the fore. The Jats in Haryana have taken it to the streets demanding that they be included in the OBC list. This demand was considered by then Haryana state government in 2014 and the centre too had included them under the central OBC list in 2014. However, these decisions were quashed by the Supreme Court and Haryana High Court. Subsequently, a review petition filed by the centre was also rejected. It’s not just the Jats, their brethren in Uttar Pradesh, Patidars or Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh are also agitating for quota. Incidentally, all these castes are from the farming community and are relatively known to be economically in a better position.
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 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.
Few recent incidents indicate that this 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. Few experts argue that 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. The radical rethinking on reservation should aim at:
- Excluding the entire creamy layer from reservation.
- 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.
It should be noted that most of the poor in disadvantaged sections are sullen and angry as their lot does not seem to improve irrespective of ability and hard work. At the same time, the communities excluded from reservations harbour animosity and prejudice against the castes included in the reservation category. There are also several poor and semi-literate families among castes not categorised as SCs or OBCs. When a child in such a family is overtaken by an obviously wealthy child enjoying caste reservation, the resentment created has a snowballing effect. This caste polarisation is accentuated by the political mobilisation of caste groups for voting. Given this complex process, short-sighted politicians and caste-based leaders can easily provoke primordial loyalties and arouse animosities based on caste.
What needs to be done?
- First, while caste will continue to be the mainstay of reservation policies, the benefits should flow to the vast majority of underprivileged children from deprived castes; not to a few privileged children with a caste tag.
- Second, we have to address the anger and aspirations of poor families among unreserved communities.
- These efforts should be coupled with a vigorous national effort to improve school education outcomes.
It is time we address the challenge of reservations honestly, fairly and innovatively by creating opportunities for all disadvantaged children. Along with improving school education outcomes, a more rational model of reservation based on equity and common sense must be envisaged.