Apart from govt needing to show SC/ST are inadequately represented, it must show administrative efficiency is not hit.
The Supreme Court has done well to stay the reservation for promotions in government jobs that SC/STs have been demanding. The apex court ruled in favour of a status quo on Monday after the Centre was unable to comply with the rules which required it to come up with quantifiable data to show that SC/STs were not adequately represented in government jobs. The current case in the Supreme Court is the result of the Centre being ordered by the Delhi High Court—in November last year—to implement the apex court’s September verdict. Indeed, since the apex court is planning to hear the case in detail, it is important to relook the issue of reservations in promotions.
The September 2018 verdict, delivered by a five-bench constitution bench of the apex court, had upheld reservations for promotions for SC/STs. It had also rejected the argument made by the petitioners which said the government must have data to show the SC/ST were in fact backward; while this is what the Nagaraj judgment said, the apex court agreed with the government that proving backwardness ran contrary to the Indra Sawhney ruling. So, once the government listed a caste group as SC/ST, this implied the group was backward. However, in keeping with the Nagaraj judgment of 2006, the SC ruled last September that the government had to show that, once this reservation in promotions was done, it would not affect the efficiency of government administration. Interestingly, the SC also said that the concept of creamy layer that applied to OBC reservations would also apply to SC/STs since it would not be possible for SC/ST to move forward if the better-off cornered most of the benefits.
While reservation continues to be a contentious issue and is used by political parties to win votes, it goes against the principle of merit, so it has to be hoped the apex court will fix this; when the Karnataka order on reservations in promotions was being argued in the Supreme Court in 2017, for instance, it was argued that while this ensured a candidate who came in through reservations could reach the third level of seniority by the age of 45, the general category candidate would only make it by the age of 56. Applying the principle of ensuring that efficiency is not compromised in all cases—not just those of promotions—will be a big step forward if the apex court rules this, since the damage done by the reservations policy is evident. Also, the huge difference in the incomes of SC/ST families that are educated and those that are not makes it clear that SC/ST as a group cannot be considered backward or under-privileged; indeed, data from primary research agency Price shows that 7% of all SC households and 5.3% of ST ones have an income of more than `10 lakh per annum; in the case of OBCs, it is 8.5%.
Curiously, few seem to see these demands as evidence that the reservations policy is not working. If SC/ST/OBCs were really benefitting from reservations in colleges, for instance, the fact that they need reservations in jobs implies the education in itself didn’t help too much. And if they need reservations in promotions, this suggests they are not performing well enough to get promoted on their own. While there are those who argue certain sections of society need some support, this should be provided on the basis of financial backwardness—across communities and castes—and not any other criterion. Bank loans, for instance, need to be given to promising entrepreneurs irrespective of their background. Unfortunately, no political party today can afford to roll back reservations or even suggest it be limited to one generation only for fear of losing votes. Indeed, the NDA has increased the scope of reservations to upper castes too, and though this is to be for the not so well-off, the cut-off of `8 lakh means over 80% of upper-caste households will be covered.