It changes the paradigm of social position and opportunity, doing justice to affirmative action by supporting people for their lack of means, and not merely identity.
By Pradeep Bhandari
The Narendra Modi government has announced 10% quota for the poorer sections in the general category. While some have called it a reservation jumla, it is a bold and forward-looking attempt to recognise and reimagine the notion of backwardness.
Having faced second-class treatment in their own land, our founding fathers knew well the significance of equality to actually give to Indians a free society. But their foresight was extraordinary; they well understood that true freedom cannot be brought in a multilayered India if the downtrodden and backward are not taken special care of. It was against this backdrop that state support in the form of affirmative action was agreed upon, primarily based on backwardness of various groups in our society. This inherently disadvantageous position in the society was sought to be set right in all possible spheres of life—Articles 15 and 16, and the Preamble make constitutional promises of equality of opportunity and social, economic justice.
The premise of reservation under Articles 15 and 16 was to strike at the root of historical discrimination on the lines of caste and occupation, which eventually culminated in a mix of social and economic backwardness. The objective was to break away from the vicious cycle or trap of extreme economic destitution and social exclusion. Therefore, the scheme of reservation was first framed for the scheduled castes (SC) and the scheduled tribes (ST), and then for other backward classes (OBC) in the 1990s by implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations.
A ‘class’ ideally means any identifiable group of people; however, in applying the OBC reservation, we chose ‘caste’ as the primary factor in determining backwardness. For electoral backlash, the political mainstream will never try to find out whether our caste-centric approach to class backwardness yielded results or not, but there is no doubt that this unidimensional approach left out many groups plagued with backwardness who may not have necessarily suffered the baggage of ‘caste’.
India has a unique caste-influenced identity system that led to divisions and fissures in society, and consequently to continued discrimination. Thus, social identity is justified as a parameter to ensure upliftment from backwardness. However, this eclipsed the perpetuity of economic backwardness. Most nations identify backwardness only on economic factors. Those calling this a form of poverty alleviation scheme are completely misplaced. Economic backwardness has not arisen in a few years, and people have certainly not become poorer in an economically stable and growing economy. Thus, economic backwardness is as much entrenched in the social system as caste-based backwardness, and it is as much a result of decades of apathy and vicious cycle as social exclusion, the shackles of which could not be broken by the economically struggling and backward people.
The latest World Bank Poverty & Equity Brief shows that 60% of India falls in the lower middle income class, an unacceptable number that reflects the immobility of economically backward people to a better-off state than before. In this set-up, now imagine those who are notionally forward in the social ladder, but never had the opportunity, and thus the money, to live an honourable life, or the means to educate or skill their children. It is a serious question as to whether their notionally high position in the social strata at all brings the social respectability as many intellectuals are theoretically assuming. The caste of a poor does not help his poverty; they have no social status. They have limited access to learning and, over the years, become socially and educationally backward. Employment in services based on merit becomes a distant dream. These conditions necessitate state intervention.
The Lutyens intellectuals may brand every voice of support in saffron colours, but such an idea of reservation has not been unheard of. Independent voices have highlighted economic plight as relevant to class reservation. The logic is put succinctly by Justice Kuldip Singh in the much-famed Indra Sawhney case from paragraphs 386 to 390.
He says: “Poverty breeds backwardness all around the class into which it strikes. It invariably results in social, economic and educational backwardness.” He adds: “The concept of backward classes under Article 16(4) cannot be confined to socially and educationally backward classes, it is of wider import. It is not correct to say that social backwardness is an essential characteristic of backward classes under Article 16(4).”
He finally opines: “Poverty has a direct nexus to social backwardness. It is an essential and dominant characteristic of poverty. A rich belonging to a backward caste may or may not be socially backward, but a poor Brahmin struggling for his livelihood invariably suffers from social backwardness. The reality of present day life is that economic standards confer social status on individuals. Poverty never discriminates, it chooses its victims from all religions, castes and creeds. Poverty binds them together as a class.”
The ‘jumla’ calling group has contested the constitutional amendment on its income criteria limits. This criticism is again unfounded as the income criteria is on par with limits placed for already existing 27% reservation for OBCs.
The `8 lakh yearly household income (not individual income) looks high at first glance, but looks reasonable after a thorough study, which is not the forte of impulsive critics. History reminds us of the OBC creamy layer limit of `1 lakh per family was introduced in 1993. This has been increased in 2004, in 2008, and in 2013 to `6 lakh. The NDA government increased it to `8 lakh in 2017. If for certain castes `8 lakh is an acceptable benchmark to decide eligibility for state support, it is absurd as to why the same benchmark is protested against for the ‘poor’ class of people among the unreserved.
Many have also argued that the bulk of the population will be covered in 10% criteria. They should be reminded of the Mandal days. Mandal had identified 52% of the population as backward, apart from 22% STs and SCs. If 49% reservation covered 74% of the population, 10% is not unjustified to take care of the poor from the rest. Those who were canvassing for reservation for 74% of the backward classes then have no basis to question the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections.
The fact is that this assertive action to provide 10% quota to address backwardness acknowledges that backwardness is not static; it is social and, more importantly, multidimensional. It will also avoid the implicit societal division between the reserved and unreserved based on caste lines. It will take away the caste stigma, where people availing this benefit will now not be asked their ‘jaat’ and looked down upon. It can make reservation a unifier, not just a divider. As income inequality feeds into social backwardness, it can promote justice and equality for all. It changes the paradigm of social position and opportunity, truly doing justice to affirmative action and our founding forefathers by supporting people for their lack of means, and not merely identity. For those who keep their foot on the ground and see the reality of Bharat can find this new thinking on backwardness as transformative, not cynical.