In India, they say the wheels of the Government usually move very slowly. Not always. When there is a political will, the same wheels can attain humongous velocity just like how it happened few weeks ago. The Cabinet approved a proposal for introducing a 10% quota for economically weaker section of the society on the 7th Jan. And by 9th Jan, the bill to amend the constitution for the same was passed by both the houses of the parliament! The quota bill was done and dusted in flat 3 days!
During the debate over the quota bill, almost all parties mouthed the usual platitudes – not on the proposal per se but on the timing. The coming together of the ruling and opposition for this cause demonstrated another aspect of “Unity in Diversity” in India. That is, on the issue of reservations which has high impact on electoral fortunes, almost all parties think alike. Herein lies the irony.
“A quota for the economically deprived sections of the society” sounds logical and seems a significant forward step in our country which for a long time has been having quotas based on caste. As a step which doesn’t differentiate based on religion… it is high on optics. But then, as they say the deadly devil lies in the details. This 10% is over and above the existing 50% as mandated by the Supreme Court for caste based reservations (with the exception of Tamil Nadu which has 69% reservations).
Before venturing into another quota based on economic class, I think that there was a need for an assessment of how the caste based reservations have performed in India in the so many decades since they were introduced, against the desired objectives. Based on what I have seen in Tamil Nadu in very close quarters, I have no doubt in my mind that the caste based reservations have helped in emancipation of a generation of people. Thanks to the quotas, many of the deprived sections could get access to decent higher education and then jobs. Which in turn have helped a generation of families to be part of mainstream India. This could not have been possible by another poverty alleviation programme, I believe. Having said that, the important issue to define now is how we will close the tap on this affirmative action.
We all understand that the originally envisaged time frame of 10 years for caste based reservations in India is impractical. Now that we crossed 68 years with reservations which typically means it has benefited two generations, where are we in terms of social equality and equity? Do we know? Do we measure? Who will bell the cat in terms of suggesting the sunset clause? Do the offspring of those first two generations of people who could get access to higher education and government jobs need the same level of quotas as their parents and grandparents? In addition to quotas, what else is required for bringing down the class divide which still exist in the society? These are few important questions which arise.
The second issue is, the definition of the economically weak for the purpose of this bill. The provisions like a household income of under Rs. 8 lacs or owning less than 5 hectares of land seems to be extremely liberal when you look at all angles possible and government’s own definitions in other contexts. In one stroke, above 95% of the populace has been covered under this ambit! So, I join the naysayers who question the effectiveness of such a quota. From the total population, if you remove those who are already beneficiaries under the earlier quota regime (roughly 70% of the population), this new 10% quota is applicable for the economically needy among the balance 30% population.
The third issue is, there are different points of view if this will finally stand judicial scrutiny. As per the Government, the 50% cap was only meant for “Caste based reservation quota” while there are others who say that the cap applies to all reservations!
Finally, Affirmative action by definition means policy intervention for favouring individuals who are known to have been discriminated for various reasons in the past. Will economically deprived but not marginalised by caste, come under the category of those who were discriminated in the past? While the concept of helping those economically deprived is indeed noble, why not provide scholarships for higher education and assistance for business ventures instead of quotas?
You can question our netas on their intellect but we cannot under-estimate their political instincts at all. Not surprising that almost all the parties voted for this quota bill in both the houses of the parliament.
In the upcoming election season, the ruling NDA will certainly go to town for ushering this new direction on quota politics in India. However, even in the Hindi belt, I feel it will have minimum resonance. The opposition by playing ball on this, has in a sense blunted the political rewards what the BJP/NDA can reap. Imagine the situation had the Congress/UPA and others had opposed this move. So, all have played their moves smartly.
The bottom line is, a quota for economically deprived is as I said, provides for excellent optics and is sound politics. I do feel, like how the Supreme Court has put a cap on the quotas on reservation, we should have a cap on the quota for playing politics for every political party when in power. We cannot expect them to stop playing politics completely but, what about a Quota for politics?
Cartoon courtesy; Times Of India