The government may have bought a temporary peace with the powerful Jats, who were on a rampage over the past few weeks, by agreeing to their demands for reservations, but it is not clear if this will stand the scrutiny of courts considering the last time this was done—amazingly, it was gazetted by the central government on March 4, 2014, the day before the general elections were announced!—the move was struck down by the Supreme Court (SC). In the landmark Indra Sawhney case on reservations, while laying down a 50% ceiling on reservations, the SC ruled that a specialised body had to be set up to decide which castes would be included in the list of reservations. The National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), however, had ruled against including Jats in the list of OBCs which the Cabinet had rejected on grounds the advice ‘did not adequately take into account the ground realities’. Whether the government is able to get the NCBC to reconsider its view is unclear since there is no way that the Jats are either socially, educationally or economically backward—among other criterion, for the first, they have to be considered as socially backward by other castes; for the second, the number of children not attending school has to be at least 25% above the state’s average; for the third, the average value of family assets has to be at least 25% below the state average.
Why rich and powerful castes like the Patels and the Jats should want to be in the group of OBCs is obvious: government jobs pay 2-3 times what private sector jobs at the clerical levels with complete job security and no particular obligation to work and, more important, reservations guarantee a place in a good educational institution which is critical for a higher salary. According to PRICE’s all-India survey for FY14, an OBC household headed by an illiterate person earned R84,394 and this rose to R325,713 when the OBC household was headed by a graduate—put another way, while an upper caste household headed by an illiterate earned more than a similarly uneducated OBC household—generally seen as ‘evidence’ of discrimination—it earned a fourth less than an OBC household headed by someone who had studied for even a few years. Other parameters, like moving from rural to urban areas, also result in higher incomes, but education is the biggest differentiator. Which is why, a common strain from the Patel and the Jat agitation is that their children don’t get into good colleges despite their higher marks while OBC children do, a perfectly legitimate grievance.
If the government can, by some miracle, get the NCBC to include Jats in the OBC category, this will likely lead to another violent agitation by some other OBC group that finds its quota getting curbed. If, as Rajasthan has done, a separate category is created for reservations, this will breach the Indra Sawhney cap. More important, at a time when high-quality education is becoming the differentiator between countries—from three in the top 500 global universities in 2005, India is reduced to just one while China has risen from 18 to 44 in the same period—more reservation means India’s educational system will become even more mediocre in terms of the quality of teaching and research as well as the quality of the students being turned out. That’s the choice before India’s leaders like Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi, and that is why a Parliament debate on reservations, instead of one on JNU, is called for.