By Shailender Kumar Hooda
The act of providing 10% reservation to the economically weaker sections in the general category is historic, in the sense it was passed in both houses of Parliament without any opposition. The entire Opposition acquiesced either for the fear of being dubbed anti-poor in the forthcoming general elections, or they believe the economic parameter matters for addressing backwardness through reservation. The legal experts, on the other side, refer it a ‘cynical fraud on the Constitution’. This is because the genesis of reservation in India addresses the caste- and occupational-based historical discrimination/injustice faced by some communities or groups rather than economic backwardness.
Social exclusion has been the central rationale for reservations in India until now. On this basis, the reservation was first given to the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST); it was then extended to other backward classes (OBC) in the 1990s (after 1989) under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. In several judgments, notably Indra Sawhney 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that “no classification could be made for reservations by relying exclusively on economic criteria” and reservation cannot exceed more than 50%. The recent Constitutional (124th Amendment) Bill 2019 deals with the new classification called ‘economically weaker sections’ of citizens. On the above two grounds, it may get struck in the court or the court might take a holistic view via referring Article 46 under the Directive Principles of State Policy, which speaks about promoting, with special care, the educational and economic interest of the weaker sections of the people. How it would be conceived, one has to see in the times to come.
But in the current dynamic world, it is true that the economy is progressing in such ways that is generating glaring economic inequalities. The Oxfam inequality report 2019 highlights that the wealth of the nine richest Indian individuals is equivalent to the bottom 50% of the country. The inequalities are not only deep-rooted, but are also growing at faster rates over the period across castes. The mobility of economically backward people to a better-off state is largely dormant. The caste of the poor generally does not help them get out of poverty or from accessing basic amenities. The economically weaker sections of citizens have largely remained excluded from attending (or retention in) the higher educational institutions and employment on account of their financial incapacity to compete with the persons who are economically more privileged.
Our estimates from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2012 show unequal opportunity in employment and education across castes and classes—unequal opportunities due to both social and economic reasons. Brahmins/forward castes, no doubt, have more than twice salaried employment and higher educational attainment than the group currently having reservation on social background. But when we classify all social categories by their levels of income, we observe a similar pattern in employment and educational attainment at different levels of income across social categories. A low-income-household person has 4-5 percentage points less salaried employment and higher educational attainment than the one from high-income households across all forward and backward castes. Reservation can be an effective affirmative action to address unequal opportunities across different classes in the society only if the real needy poor are targeted for its benefit.
No exclusion at all
Given such evidences, the setting up of income-earning criteria of Rs 8 lakh per year as the eligibility for the proposed reservation is a serious issue. Such a cut-off has been used for creamy layer among the OBCs—the income cut-off was initially kept at Rs 1 lakh per year in 1993, which was raised to Rs 2.5 lakh in 2004, `4.5 lakh in 2008, `6 lakh in 2013, and `8 lakh in 2017. It’s important to note that this cut-off is used for extremely well-off households, while it will decide the level of poverty in the current Act—which is a contradiction. This high limit will bring almost the entire general category households under the reservation ambit and would also cost more to the system and households for generating/getting EWS (economically weaker section) cards. As per estimates from IHDS 2012, the entire forward castes come under 10% quota, except for only 2.28% forward castes that have more than `8 lakh income. This consists of 6.9 crore households (1.2 crore brahmins, 5.37 crore other forward castes, and 0.37 crore from others) and 32.3 crore persons (5.9 crore brahmins, 24.9 crore other forward castes, and 1.5 crore from others). The general category population constitutes around 27.3% share in India’s total estimated (121 crore) population in 2012. The size of population/households would be a little more if one extrapolates it with the current population level.
The major worry here is that the high limit will lead to unequal opportunity between households having low income (say, Rs 1 lakh or less) and those earning Rs 8 lakh. The experience from earlier affirmative actions reveals that high-income households received highest benefits in both education/employment as compared to low-income ones. The deserving poor receive the minimal benefit. The income criteria, thus, needs to be rationalised and fixed carefully, otherwise the proposed 10% quota will fail to address the problem of unequal opportunities.
The intended beneficiaries at aggregate level as well as those aged 16-40 (who are potential job- and admission-seekers in higher educational institution through reservation) are expected to be high from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra (around 40%), as per estimates from IHDS data—if population growth rate remains the same across states. The intended households benefiting from this quota would be almost 13% from metropolitans, 29% from urban, 25% from developed villages and 33% from less developed villages.
Of the total intended beneficiaries, almost 70% are aged 18 years or more—the potential voters. But whether all of them will consider it a progressive move is difficult to say, as a majority of job opportunities in the emerging market economy are in the private sector, rather than in public. Another important aspect is that, until now, 50% seats in jobs in open category were open to everyone including STs, SCs and OBCs. Since the new Act will now reduce the 10% job/education opportunities for these groups, how their voting pattern behaves is difficult to predict. The floating of the reservation card may not be a win-win situation in the forthcoming general elections, but it would generate enough debate around the existing affirmative action in India.
The author is associate professor, Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi