With quota-within-quota, the reservation debate in India gets messier

By: |
August 31, 2020 7:40 AM

Like the creamy-layer policy, it is aimed at more equity among SC/ST, but it makes implementation more complex

Reservations should be linked to education levels.

On the face of things, last week’s ruling by a 5-judge constitutional bench on what is called quota-within-quota for SC/ST groups is a welcome one. Right now, as happens in most quotas, it is the relatively stronger SC/ST—in terms of their education or socio-economic background—that corner the larger share of the quotas. To that extent, a sub-quota for different SC/ST is a good idea since, that way, even the most backward SC/ST will benefit from the reservations. Indeed, many states have tried to fashion their reservation policy to allow for this, but the Supreme Court struck this down in 2005 in the EV Chinnaiah case, ruling that quota-within-quotas for SC/ST was not permissible. Punjab, for instance, had laws that gave preference to the Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs while Tamil Nadu has a 3% quota within the SC pool for the Arundhatiyar caste and, in Bihar, the Mahadalit Commission was set up to identify SC castes that were getting left behind.

Indeed, in keeping with the ‘creamy layer’ concept used in the case of OBCs, the SC upheld a similar concept for SCs in its Jarnail Singh judgment in 2018. The central government had appealed this judgment, so that is pending. Since the Chinnaiah case was also delivered by a 5-judge constitution bench, last week’s SC judgment is not the final word; that will have to await a 7-judge bench of the same court. Till then, it is not clear what judgment will apply.
If the 7-judge bench ratifies last week’s judgment, this will pave the way for more equality in principle, but the reality can be quite messy as each state will have different sub-quotas. Close to 75 years after Independence, surely the country needs to move on, especially since the impact on the quality of education is quite telling. Clearly, there is a need to help the historically-disadvantaged, and to prevent the better-off within these groupings from cornering the benefits, but it has to be done in a smarter way, and in a way that ensures reservations are self-limiting.

Since there is enough evidence—from the Price income surveys over the years for instance—that higher education leads to higher incomes, and this applies across all caste groups, reservations should be linked to education levels. Any person whose parents are graduates, for instance, should not be allowed to avail the reservations; over time, then, only the truly-disadvantaged will get to use reservations. And, here too, since it is possible the really backward castes/tribes may not be able to avail the reservations—perhaps due to their not being able to make even the relaxed cutoffs—the government would do well to focus on intensive coaching and scholarships for the more backward groups within, not just SC/ST and OBC, but even among higher-caste Hindus and other religious groups such as Muslims. A Mahadalit student who gets intensive coaching in school, for instance, will be in a better position to get admission to a good college—even with a relaxed cut-off for SCs—than one who did not get this coaching; and the ability to do better in college will also rise with specialised coaching.

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