By K Raveendran
Symbolism has been the staple diet of Indian politics. Irrespective of whether parties believe in something or not, when it comes to public posturing they can only take a certain position. And if they dare to defy, they are doomed. Posturing is important, implementation may not be so. The latest instance of such symbolism is the bill passed by both houses of parliament, in perhaps the shortest possible time, providing for 10 percent quota in government jobs and admission to educational institutions for economically backward families belonging to the hitherto ineligible upper castes. It is claimed that the new law will cover nearly 95 percent of Indians in the quota system. The importance of symbolism explains the predicament of opposition parties, which did not want to be seen opposing the law, although they knew the real intentions of the Modi government was to win elections and not the welfare of the deprived people.
The quota system itself is more symbolic than administrative. Conceptually, it has been devised as a means to let the eligible sections a position in the decision-making process and by implication a share in the power structure. In theory it sounds fantastic. But in practice, the proportion of government employees in the total population is estimated to be less than 2 percent. It is certainly an illusion to believe that this fraction of the population can resolve the economic problems of backward communities which constitute the majority of the population. But symbolism matters a lot.
In any case reservation based on economic criteria makes more sense than those based on other considerations. For, economic deprivation is the end result of the condition of social backwardness. So a system addressing the final result, even if skipping the intermediary stages, would appear to make sound reasoning. Identifying backwardness has always been a tricky affair. There has been much debate over whether it is possible to identify backwardness using criteria like occupation and earning without reference to caste. But for all practical purposes, caste has been considered as a class if the caste as a whole is socially and educationally backward. This is the rationale behind caste-based reservation.
But a major pitfall of this system is that it excludes other castes. It is impossible to avoid reservation without excluding some people simply because they belong to a certain caste, which is a negation of their fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution. For instance, an upper caste applicant my have far better qualifications than those falling within the eligible categories, but he or she cannot get that job. This clearly works against the interest of meritocracy as well as the economically backward sections in the non-reserved communities.
It is the realisation of this folly that prompted Kaka Kalekar, chairman of the first Backward Class Commission, to have second thoughts after signing his report, providing for reservation to members of the backward communities. Later in a letter to the President he virtually pleaded for the rejection of his own report on the ground that the reservations and other remedies recommended on the basis of caste would not be in the interest of society and the country. In fact, he argued that the principle of caste should be eschewed altogether. Then alone, he said, would it be possible to help the extremely poor and deserving members of all the communities. At the same time, he added, preference ought to be given to those who come from traditionally neglected social classes.
Bringing every Indian under some quota or the other is perhaps not a bad idea. With limited number of opportunities, it will set off fierce competition among the eligible applicants, which will lead to some kind of meritocracy and efficiency in decision making in the government. And provision of mandatory quotas in the overall reservation could at the same time ensure representation to targeted communities. It would have been easy to solve the problem had there been enough opportunities. But unfortunately, that is not the case. So Modi’s 10 percent quota for the economically backward sections remains just symbolic.
The government’s tack record on creating jobs has been dismal. So quotas are not going to make any real change to the plight of these people. Precise estimates are not available on the impact of the new quota on the employment situation, but back of the envelope calculations have suggested no more than 5,000 jobs may be covered by Modi’s so-called ‘master stroke’. What can 5,000 jobs do in a country that last year reported nearly 30 million jobless on the rolls?
According to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, unemployment rate in the country rose to 6.9 percent in October, which is the highest in two years. The problem was further aggravated by the disruption caused to the economy due to the misguided demonetisation and GST implementation.
It is time that the Indian policy planners undertook a study on the efficacy of quota system in tackling the economic backwardness of the country’s communities because quotas and quota agitations have not only been putting a premium on efficiency but taking a heavy toll of the economy. (IPA Service)