Competing To Become Backward

Competing To Become Backward

by Komal Hiranandani - Mar 28, 2015 12:30 PM +05:30 IST
Competing To Become Backward

How reservation policies can create perverse incentives

In 2007, the Supreme Court of India observed that “Nowhere else in the world is there a competition to assert backwardness.” India’s reservations system has been stretched so much, that over half the population is entitled to it. While studies on reservations typically examine whether they actually help intended beneficiaries or impact the productivity of organizations, relatively few consider that- as an unintended consequence- reservations provide incentives for people to mobilize against one another and to artificially enhance ascribed identities such as caste.

State elections in India tend to bring reservations to the fore again, with political parties promising, and providing for, new reservations to canvass support. For instance, in Maharashtra, months before state elections, the previous government passed an ordinance providing for 16% reservations for Marathas and 5% reservations for Muslims. The Supreme Court norm caps reservations at 50% except for extraordinary reasons, and the new quotas would take reservations to 73% in Maharashtra. The new government is now in the news for passing a Bill that maintains the Maratha reservations, but leaves out those of Muslims.

When reserved categories are not clearly defined, the mere existence of a reservations system creates incentives to demand inclusion. Since reserving seats for one group necessarily means fewer seats for pre-existing members and for other groups, other communities have strong reason to oppose new reservations. India’s FPTP electoral system does not require candidates to win a majority of votes, so pandering to specific groups can be sound strategy. And since the central government and courts can stop and reverse reservations granted by states, local politicians can promise groups that they will support reservations for them, or even pass state laws that can be overturned by courts, hence not bearing the final brunt of the execution of the policy.

For instance, when the Gujjars in Rajasthan demanded ST status in 2008, the Chief Minister sent a recommendation to the central government asking for the same. As a BJP leader said, “The Gujjars wanted us to send a letter to the union government, which we have done. Now it is for the central government to think about their demands.” The BJP was ruling the state and the opposing Congress party was ruling the central government, and 2008 was a state election year in Rajasthan.

On examining the demands for ST status between January 2000 and March 2010- that were made saliently enough to merit coverage by major news sources of the country- I found that over 46% of the groups demanding ST status faced movements by other groups against their inclusion, showing how the policy specifically creates circumstances in which groups fight against each other.

About a quarter of the demands had news sources explicitly citing communities using previous inclusions as a justification. For example, in 2007, the Gujjars of Rajasthan pushed their demand for ST status after the Jats were added to the Gujjars’ existing compensated category, the OBCs. The Chief Minister’s office was then “flooded with demands” for reservations, and confirmed that at least ten communities “have categorically mentioned that if Gujjars get the ST status, they too will have to be given the same.” The Brahmins also called for reservations based on their socio-economic conditions.

The fact that the same group may be an ST in one state, an SC in another, an OBC in a third and un-reserved in a fourth, allows for communities to ‘shop’ for a reserved category, depending on state policies and political feasibility.

Other related elements also reinforce divisions. For example, a Supreme Court ruling held that children of a tribal woman and a non-tribal man cannot claim the benefits of ST status.

It is important to consider how far the provisions for reservations in India’s Constitution have been stretched. Reservations were meant to be for exceptional circumstances, but today over half the population is entitled to it. Reservations for SCs and STs in legislatures were scheduled to expire in 1960, but the government routinely extends this deadline without much debate. The Constituent Assembly deliberated reservations for religious groups, and members of these groups themselves decided against it. Today, politicians are finding ways to announce special provisions along religious lines. The claimants for reservations now include local “sons of the soil”, poor “forward caste” members and, Hindus in some states.

Nepal is currently drafting a new constitution, and it, too, has to decide whether and how to compensate disadvantaged communities. Nepal’s problems are similar to those of India- there are the SC and OBC variety that have been historically disadvantaged and are scattered across the country, and there are the ST variety that have been leading isolated lives and are geographically concentrated. If the strategy of breaking a country into compensated units and then pursuing the development of each has unintended consequences- especially where over half the population may find itself eligible for compensation and categories are not clearly defined- then policy-makers should weigh this against alternatives.

Castes that were earlier clamouring for higher status during census enumerations in India to give them better social standing now compete with each other for a more backward status. This is a created situation, wherein people are being divided along ascribed identities, as opposed to working to develop the population as a whole, or to giving select benefits on criteria like income level, that cut across ascribed identities. After all, when Prime Minister Modi- a member of the OBC category, which is entitled to reservations- was once asked about the reservations policy, he said that we should focus on creating a scenario of plenty, with opportunity for all, wherein people won’t need to ask for reservations.

(Komal Hiranandani is with IDFC Institute. Views expressed are personal)

Komal Hiranandani is an Associate at IDFC Institute, a research-focused think tank set up by IDFC Ltd. Her research there focuses on urbanisation and governance structures. Views expressed are personal.
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