Reservations: Now merit is even less about marks!

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Updated: May 14, 2019 7:15:55 AM

SC gets over Nagaraj’s maintenance-of-efficiency rule by redefining merit as something that delivers ‘societal’ value.

With the judgment viewing merit and efficiency with a totally different prism, the floodgates have been opened for throwing merit out of the window, whether for college admissions, or for jobs, or promotions.

Till now, even those opposing reservations for what they did to merit or efficiency were comforted by the 50% cap put in place by the Indra Sawhney ruling, the belief that ‘efficiency’ would be kept in mind, or that reservation would only be for basic college degrees and entry-level jobs. Over time, much of that has been junked; in January, the government announced a 10% reservation for upper castes, over the 50% already in place for SC/ST/OBCs. How slippery the descent has been is best seen in the latest apex court judgment upholding Karnataka’s law to allow reservation in promotions for SC/ST. This was rejected by the same court in 2017 on grounds that no data had been given, required after the Nagaraj ruling in 2006, on inadequacy of representation of SC/ST in the civil service and its impact on administrative efficiency.

Given Karnataka has now presented data on inadequacy of representation, the next hurdle, then, related to administrative efficiency. With the judgment viewing merit and efficiency with a totally different prism, the floodgates have been opened for throwing merit out of the window, whether for college admissions, or for jobs, or promotions.

Some part of the descent was obvious when, in 2000, the 82nd amendment added a proviso to Article 335 that dealt with maintaining efficiency while making appointments; the proviso said the government could relax “qualifying marks in any examination or lowering the standards of evaluation” for reservations in promotions.

The latest judgment takes this descent further. So, after invoking the 82nd amendment, it says “efficiency of administration … must be defined in an inclusive sense, where diverse segments of society find representation … Hence, while interpreting Article 335, 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”.

It adds, “administrative efficiency is an outcome of the actions taken by officials after they have been appointed or promoted and is not tied to the selection method itself”. Candidates who “score beyond a particular ‘cut-off point’ are considered ‘meritorious’ and others are ‘non-meritorious’. However, this is a distorted understanding of the function ‘merit’ plays in society”.

So what is merit? As the judges explain, “a meritocratic system is one that rewards actions that result in the outcomes that we as a society value”. If that isn’t clear enough, the judges elaborate by saying “thus, 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”. Merit is not about performance, it is about correcting social ills regardless of what that does for performance; indeed, it enhances merit since merit is seen as fixing of societal ills!

This is not the first time the apex court has dismissed merit. In 1994, in Ajay Kumar Singh versus the State of Bihar, despite Indra Sawhney ruling against reservations at higher levels of education, it said “(in Sawhney), the Court was speaking of posts in research and development organizations, in specialities and super-specialities in medicines, engineering … The Court was not speaking of admission to specialities and super-specialities. Moreover, M.S. or M.D. are not super-specialities.” And, in 1997, in Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research versus KL Narasimhan, it said that even if the qualifying marks were lowered for a super-speciality, it didn’t really matter since the reserved category doctor had passed the same threshold exam anyway. It added, “Securing marks is not the sure proof of higher proficiency, efficiency or excellence … In that behalf, 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.”

Apart from what this does to merit in a competitive world, ironically, all of this assumes that since all SC/ST have suffered centuries of discrimination and prejudice, they have real barriers of access to opportunity. Data from the Price’s all-India survey (see graphic) for 2016, however, show no such across-the-board backwardness. At a macro level, the 66 mn SC households in the country have an annual income of Rs 180,270 as compared to Rs 169,222 for 25 mn ST households, Rs 197,419 for 120 mn OBC and Rs 242,589 for 69 mn upper-caste (UC) households. This doesn’t suggest historical backwardness.

Indeed, 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; in other words, the issue is not so much of historical backwardness as it is about access to education. Yet, as Price shows, around 18% of all SC households have at least one member who has completed higher secondary education, versus 19% for STs, 23% for OBCs and 25% for UCs. And, as a proportion of households in each caste category, 8.5% of all OBC households earn more than Rs 10 lakh per annum, and the number is 7% for SCs and 5.3% for STs. So, historical backwardness is not an issue either. But why worry about facts when the Supreme Court has decided that all SC/ST are backward and that merit is an outdated concept. Now to wait and see how the latest definition of merit and efficiency is extended to OBCs or any other so-called disadvantaged group.

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