Rational Expectations: SC needs to look at data on reservation

Data doesn’t show universal backwardness for SC/ST/OBC as a group; so the days of blanket reservation are clearly over

Supreme Court of India
Given the role of politicians as well as the courts in the reservation mess, this is probably their best shot at making amends.

Given the immense political pressure to relax the 50% cap on reservations imposed by the Supreme Court (SC) in the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment, it is not surprising SC wants to examine whether it needs to revisit the landmark ruling. While the immediate provocation is the constitutional validity of the additional 16% reservation for Marathas in Maharashtra—the Bombay High Court upheld the validity of the new reservation but asked for it to be reduced to 12-13%—the Centre’s new 10% reservation for, essentially, upper caste Hindus also means that the 50% cap is being breached. Indeed, once the Maratha quota is dealt with, there are similar demands from Patels in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.

The quota is, of course, problematic since it goes against the fundamental principle of merit; imagine competing with China on AI and other areas when India’s primary focus is reservation! But even if you believe that India owes it to its backward or oppressed groups, there is enough evidence to show the existing system is completely broke.
And nothing proves this more than the creeping advance of reservations. Clearly, reservation in education did not improve the employability of those availing of this, and that is why reservation in jobs was also needed. And it is because those who got these jobs didn’t perform well that, over time, there was a clamour for reservation in promotions.

The BJP’s demand for sub-categorisation of OBCs, as it happens, is recognition of the fact that the bulk of quotas are being cornered by just a few dominant castes; the same applies to SC and ST quotas as well. While the Justice Rohini commission’s report on OBCs has not been made public, ThePrint managed to get some data from some of its members to show half the reservation benefits were cornered by just 40 castes; that’s less than 1% of all OBC groupings.

The panel also found that a fifth of all OBC groups didn’t get a single quota benefit between 2014 and 2018. So, if the SC decides it does want to revisit Indra Sawhney, it needs to take a hard look at the data.
Before we get to the data, a little diversion is important. There is little doubt the political class keeps pushing the reservations envelope to get more votes, and the worst example of this is former PM VP Singh, but the SC has played an equally unfortunate role (read bit.ly/3qoCi0E and bit.ly/3qvP90Q) in furthering reservations by lowering standards quite dramatically.

In 1997, in PGIMER versus KL Narasimhan, for instance, SC said, “Securing marks is not the sure proof of higher proficiency, efficiency or excellence … it is common knowledge that marks would be secured in diverse modes … They are awarded in internal examination on the basis of caste, creed, colour, religion, etc”!

While upholding Karnataka’s law to allow reservation in promotions for SC/ST in 2019, SC reinterpreted “efficiency of administration”—a key requirement for such reservations—to say it “must be defined in an inclusive sense, where diverse segments of society find representation … it is necessary to liberate the concept of efficiency from a one-sided approach which ignores the need for and the positive effects of the inclusion of diverse segments of society on the efficiency of administration of the Union or of a State”. Justices UU Lalit and DY Chandrachud went on to say, “a ‘meritorious’ candidate is not merely one who is ‘talented’ or ‘successful’ but also one whose appointment fulfils the constitutional goals of uplifting members of the SCs and STs and ensuring a diverse and representative administration”.

While that is the sort of bias the SC will need to get over if it is to stem the blatant disregard for merit or standards in the past, a look at the data will make it clear that there is no case for reservations for umbrella groups like SC, ST or OBC. The government’s NSS surveys don’t capture income levels, but those by research firm PRICE do. The latest data, for 2016, for instance, does not show any systematic backwardness for the broad SC/ST/OBC groups (see graphic). Around 18% of SC households, for instance, had one person who had passed Class 12; given this is 19% for ST, 23% for OBCs and 25% for upper castes (UC), this does not suggest any systematic backwardness for all SCs.
Similarly, 8% of all SC households earned more than Rs 10 lakh that year, and it was the same for OBCs; once again, that is hardly a sign of systematic backwardness.

This becomes clearer when you see that, while the average SC household earned Rs 1.8 lakh, the average OBC one earned Rs 2 lakh. Indeed, the data shows there are various UC households that earn less than SC/ST households. A UC household where every member is illiterate, PRICE’s data shows, earns Rs 93,756 per annum while an SC household with even primary school education earns Rs 138,152; this income is Rs 130,798 in the case of ST households with primary school qualifications. A UC household with primary education as a qualification earns Rs 148,018 per year as compared to an SC matriculate household’s earning of Rs 186,592 and Rs 184,130 for an ST matriculate household.

In other words, the issue is not so much of historical backwardness as it is of access to education. So, if SC is to do complete justice, it needs to link reservations to, essentially, education or income; the two, as it happens, are interlinked. And, to ensure that reservations have an automatic end-by date as well as only the deserving get them, it must put ‘creamy layer’ criterion in place for all groups; if anyone whose parents have availed of any form of reservation no longer qualifies for reservation, for instance, this will ensure the more under-privileged get a chance the next time around. Given the role of politicians as well as the courts in the reservation mess, this is probably their best shot at making amends.


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