Unlike Dalits, OBCs do not suffer from social disability or exclusion; in fact, depending on the region it’s mostly these very same OBCs who sit at the top of the social order.

The unpleasant scenes unfolding in the streets of Gujarat have once again brought the issue of reservations to the centre of public discourse. The demand for OBC status by the economically and politically dominant Patel community has taken everyone by surprise.

What is even more interesting is that this demand is not based on any factual data arguing the need for OBC status for Patels! It is demanded with an open threat of violence and political blackmail if the demand is not met! The present agitation is not the first one of its kind; we have recently seen a few high-octane campaigns by Jats, Gujjars, etc for similar demands.

This has obviously led to various quarters demanding that ‘reservations’ be scrapped altogether or to implement it on the basis of economic criterion.

It is, therefore, imperative to examine the rationale of the present reservations policy. We need to look at ways to harmonise it with various competing claims and counter claims.

Reservations in India are based on the caste criterion in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs). For OBCs (Other Backward Classes) the criterion is caste plus economic. Caste was adopted as the primary criterion for reservations because it is the basic contradiction in Indian society and not the economic status. The rationale is not to eliminate poverty or to ensure prosperity but to overcome the handicap of the caste-based social discrimination.

The policy is in place to ensure representation to the hitherto excluded castes. Yes its ‘castes’ and not individuals, in the existing system. These castes were excluded due to both active and passive discrimination against even the ‘meritorious and capable’ among them.

It is important to understand that ‘merit’ has hardly been much of an issue in the Indian society. Social connections and caste connections i.e., Biradaari are still what matter whether in businesses, private sector jobs (until recently) or academics. The castes with well established social capital and networks enjoy the benefits of invisible reservation, which is simply not available to Dalits or weaker castes.

Hardik Patel (Coutesy: viralceleb.com) Hardik Patel (Coutesy: viralceleb.com)

From the colleges and offices of small towns of U.P to elite institutes of Delhi, entire institutions and universities have been degraded due to the incessant caste rivalry between lobbies of dominate castes. These are usually forward castes but also may be the dominant middle castes depending upon the region and local dynamics. They vie with each other to confer all opportunities, to fill maximum seats with ‘apna candidates’ with scant regard to ‘merit’; merit is only remembered in the respect of ‘those reserved category’ candidates.

Every rule is flouted with impunity since it is next to impossible to take action against anyone – be it a case of corruption or incompetence due to the strength of the respective caste lobbies behind them.

The point here is to bring to the notice of readers the actual functioning of our society and let them re-examine their assumption of caste-neutral society ‘only if’ there were no reservations.

When even forward castes are simply cut to size by another forward caste, depending upon who is entrenched where, what hope is there for the castes, which not only lack such networks and social capital but are also considered inherently lower people, lacking merit? How about the untouchable castes? It certainly takes a considerable naivette or wilful blindness to pretend that such caste antagonism and discrimination do not exist.

Reservations ensure a minimum representation to such castes in the government jobs and machinery. Government jobs are not just any other jobs but have considerable political and social significance as well – apart from affecting the entire gamut of policy making and implementation. There was after all a strong reason why Indians waged a spirited struggle for a century to get adequate representation in the government services under Raj, despite the British using the same argument of merit and efficiency to hedge against it! These jobs have pivotal social and political functions. They also command considerable power and prestige – the impact of which can’t be gauged by just accounting for the immediate family.

The Mandal Commission was right when it pointed out that the feeling of seeing  ‘our own man’ in the corridors of power is a tremendous one. It not only empowers the said caste but also gives it a feeling of having a stake in the system, especially when the state machinery has been traditionally dominated by few forward castes.

It was not for nothing that even ancient and medieval empires consciously tried to ensure representation of different sections in the state machinery even if such representation would fall short from our modern democratic standards. Further, it is often forgotten that many upper classes owe their present position, accumulation of social capital and merit to historic support of the state. They had a head start in modern education and economy. It is easier to ask others to walk ‘unaided’ when we ourselves no longer need such aid!

The other arena where reservations are controversial is the education sector.

But if we were to agree that ‘merit’ is distributed across the society and not limited to just a few sections of it, and that the role of education is to bring out and nurture such merit, there is hardly any basis of opposition to affirmative action in the education sector.

In fact, education being a powerful equalising factor and an agent of socio-economic mobility par excellence should be the major focus of affirmative actions, which shouldn’t be limited to reservations.

The discontent, as it is, arises from two factors:  (a) limited seats due to the paucity of quality schools and colleges; (b) the extent and scope of the reservations.  

The shortage of seats along with the burgeoning youth population create a situation of desperate competition that is more intense in the general category but no less now even in the reserved category. It is but natural to despair if one fails to make it in the list and blame reservations for limiting the number of available seats.  

The second important issue is the variance in the marks required for admission  across categories. This is a genuine complaint and a source of much resentment; there are certainly several anomalies and absurdities such as admissions even for those with abysmally low marks.

Finally, where do you draw the line in the higher education? It becomes quite stark in the case of professional courses where not only greater specialisation is required, but seats also get narrower progressively.

Should reservations be extended say after MBBS? If not then how do we ensure equal opportunity given that the scope of (caste based) favouritism or rejection also increases as we move up the ladder due to eroding anonymity of the crowd. It’s a serious question, which requires serious deliberation rather than heated rhetoric.

There is also the crucial issue of  coverage under the present reservations policy. We often fail to differentiate between reservations given to SC/STs and reservations given to OBCs. There are two aspects to this: (a) the rationale for SC/ST Reservations and (b) the arbitrary nature of deciding whether a caste is an OBC or not.

The Rationale For SC/ST Reservations

Reservations for SC/STs are qualitatively different from those given to OBCs. Reservations for scheduled castes and tribes are to offset the active discrimination based on caste identity rather than the mere socio-economic backwardness. Therefore, the argument to abolish even SC/ST reservations and replace it by income based or economic status based reservations is not valid as it ignores the objective conditions of the society.

Further, the argument for reservations on economic criterion alone is a weak one. If it is economic disability we are looking to address then it should be offset by scholarships, income support, free education, etc. But identity-based disability can’t be offset by economic support alone – unless the change is also affected in the whole ecosystem.

Reservations for SC/ST are based not only on the historic disability imposed on them but also due to their continuing exclusion in the present times. After all, most of the mothers in the proverbial SC IAS family still tell their school going children to either lie or feign ignorance whenever the issue of caste comes up! It’s nothing but a vote of no–confidence on our society.  Pointing out a few examples such as Meera Kumar etc. doesn’t change this grim reality.

The Arbitary Nature Of The OBC List

The biggest anomaly in the reservation system comes from the arbitrary nature of the OBC list.

While reservations to the middle castes have a long history in Tamil Nadu, it became a nationwide issue with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the 90s.

The report drafted by late B.P Mandal proposed reservations on the basis of socio-economic backwardness and poor representation in jobs and educations. The report also identified the most backward castes among the OBCs and poor among the forward castes as eligible for reservations. It even granted reservations to several Brahmin castes like Jangid, Mahapatra, etc. and several Rajput-Brahmin castes in hilly states like Himachal Pradesh.

But the list also includes powerful and affluent castes like Naidus, Yadavs, Kurmis, several Vaishya castes, etc. And in due course these castes came to dominate the opportunities made available under the OBC status.

What’s more?

The OBC reservation has become synonymous with the political power among dominant castes like Yadavs in the north. Social and political power is deployed in a ruthless manner to corner maximum possible opportunities under reservations. All this at great cost and dismay of the general category candidate coming from a family of limited means!

This has sharpened dissent and desperation of a large section of the society – even those not belonging to the general category.

Unlike Dalits, OBCs do not suffer from social disability or exclusion; in fact, depending on the region it’s mostly these very same OBCs who sit at the top of the social order, Brahminical textual narrative of hierarchy not withstanding.

A faux discourse of caste victimhood has been created and nurtured by several dominant OBC castes when the issue at hand is essentially economic and educational backwardness.

How do we address these issues?

The difference in ‘merit’, as measured by the marks obtained in the exams, is not significant between OBCs and general category. The General category and OBC category can be logically combined to create a unified category.

A deprivation point system can be introduced. This could provide for a weighted score by accounting for various socio-economic criteria. Say on a hypothetical scale of ten, a candidate of a forward caste coming from a village or a backward district gets two deprivation points, if he falls below the threshold income level, he gets 3.

A similar weaker caste person would get four deprivation points whereas if it’s a girl extra weightage can be given. Such a system would cover all castes, urban-rural and regional disparities. It could also do away with the different cut-offs for different categories. Candidates would be competing on a common platform with deprivation points redressing the various economic and social disabilities.

The list should be periodically reviewed to adjust for deprivation points allotted to different castes.  The exact mechanism would require a detailed work by an expert committee, but it is the principle, which we would have to agree upon first. Similarly, a gradation system can be introduced in the SC/ST reserved seats where priority of seat allocation should be the inverse of the income status with better off candidates getting seats only if seats are left vacant. Excluding the ‘creamy layer’ is not really feasible in this category when the primary basis of discrimination is caste and several seats go vacant, and also when such exclusion would create the problem of insuring adequate merit.

Clearly, it’s a complex issue and requires an innovative and creative approach rather than muscle flexing on the streets or hyper outrage on social media.

Where is the data?

It’s amusing that hardly anyone is concerned with the lack of any reliable data on the issue. The first and foremost requirement is a comprehensive socio-economic caste census to ascertain the exact condition of each community and representation across jobs, education sector, etc. (media too must be included!).

Only when we have the data to inform the debate and scrutinize the competing claims can any meaningful deliberation take place.

At present, the exaggerated claims of the share of population and under-representation are used to whip up passions by demagogues. And such an exercise should not be a one-time affair, it needs to be carried out every decade.

This would help us map  societal change and make adjustments accordingly for better targeting of affirmative action.

And above all, it must be remembered that reservation is a complex issue because it is a corollary of an even more complex issue of the system of castes.

The real solution lies in not fighting over the limited government jobs or seats in colleges but in creating a post-caste society where caste ceases to be the determinant of the socio-economic interaction between individuals.

The, pro-reservation side too should realise that while the reservations in government jobs provide the first jump in social mobility and an avenue to escape the traditional profession for disadvantaged castes, private sector is the next stage in the quest of social mobility and socio-economic equality.

In any case, there are only limited jobs in the government sector, which are woefully insufficient for the burgeoning number of educated Dalit or backward caste youths. Therefore, politics of ‘social justice’ should start focusing on the problems of skill development, market access, entry barrier, problems of small and medium entrepreneurs etc.

The fixation with reservations for government jobs must go. We must strive for creating a well-regulated, rule-based market system, where ease to do business is ensured, and rule of law prevails. This will create a spurt in economic growth, which will radically transform the society as attested by the historical experience of countries like Japan, which have undergone such a process and eliminated similar problems.

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