Judgment Re-served

The debate on reservation in India has perhaps been one of the longest standing debates for the nation. With approximately ninety percent of the population coming within the gambit of reservation, the question whether or not reservation should continue has plagued all discussions pertaining to the nation’s policymaking. However, there is no direct answer to the question. While one faction argues that reservation needs to continue as there has been no significant advancement in the state of the lower castes in India, another faction argues that reservation in fact reinforces discriminations among the various sections of the society.This debate finds more prominence today as we aim to become a developed nation. Development cannot solely be associated with the economic standard and international visibility of a nation but also by the socio-cultural behavior of its citizens. This article will try to evaluate the merits of the arguments afforded by both the factions and attempt to assess the true relevance of caste based reservation in India vis-à-vis its contemplated objective

Evolution of reservation in India

Anybody who has followed up on the Indian reservation system is well aware of the fact that historically India is a caste-based society with several segregations. Resultantly there has been a long-standing practice of untouchability and mistreatment of those considered belonging to lower castes. That is to say people doing jobs such as manual scavenging, dealing in removing animal hides, cleaning toilets, making and mending shoes and other such odd jobs that were considered “dirty”. Eventually the brunt of these occupation-based discriminations was borne by many successive generations of these castes by virtue of being born in the family irrespective of their future choice of occupation.

The need for reservation arose as a measure towardsending this discrimination. To put it simply, reservation was a means to facilitate equal opportunities to that section of society which was hitherto denied the many basic human rights on the basis of their birth.Historically, the idea of caste-based reservation was first conceived by the Scot, William Hunter and a very prominent Indian activist JyotiraoPhule, back in 1883. Eventually the idea took a shape of law and over the years has seen multiple amendments to the same.

There are several landmark Supreme Court judgments that have since amended the laws pertaining to reservation. The case State of Madras v. Smt.ChampakamDorairajan (1951), whichpronounced that caste based reservations as per Communal Award violates basic rights,lead to the first Constitutional Amendment stating that while Article 16(4) of the Constitution provides for reservation for backward classes in employment, no such provision was given in Article 15. Subsequently, Article 15 was amended and clause (4) added ensuring that state had the authority to make special provision for the advancement of backward classes of SC and ST.

In 1953, Kalelkar Commission was established to assess the situation of the socially and educationally backward class. The commission took caste as the key factor in determining the backward classes and accordingly suggested reservations in various educational and government employment sectors, however the government rejected the suggestion of commission that caste be the sole indicator of backward classes and hence reservation cap was set to 27%.

There already existed a cap of 50% on all reservations, however in 1963, the Court, in the case of M R Balaji V. Mysore, added that the state governments could amend the limit of reservation in their individual states provided they can establish that the said caste(s) indeed require special representation. Until very recently only two states, Tamil Nadu (69%, under 9th Schedule) and Rajasthan (68%) have exceeded this limit.

Similarly, the Mandal Commission Report of 1979 was responsible for adding the Other Backward Section (OBC) as another category of reservation in the year 1991. Eventually there were many more instances of adding categories and sub-categories to the quota over the years by the then politically relevant groups and sub-groups, none of them without due protests from the general category, which constantly felt threatened that their rightful opportunities were being usurped by the quota system. The latest addition to the list of amendments is the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Fourth Amendment) Bill 2019 brought into law by the President of India. It further amends Articles 15 and Article 16 of the Constitution adding a clause stating that government can make special provisions for reservation of upto 10 percent for economically weaker sections (EWS) of citizens in higher educational institutions as well as in initial appointments in government services. Popularly being tagged as “Upper Caste Reservation”

Continued Relevance of Reservation

Article 334 of the Constitution initially provided for reservation and special representation of SC and ST in politics for an initial period of ten years, pursuant to which a policy review of the situation would decide the next course of action. However, 70 years later reservation continues and needless to say, has become a major bone of contention. Despite the obvious evidence that it has not served the purpose for which it was intended.

Does that mean the policy has achieved absolutely no results? It may be observed that the minority political representation policy has been effective in reducing the poverty of individuals close to poverty line. Even though the impact has been more in urban areas than rural. Roughly, a 1% increase in SC representation lead to a decrease in urban poverty by 0.2%. Similarly, there has been an increase in the voter turn out, with more SC voters turning up in elections in the constituencies with SC representations as compared to non SC constituencies. However, for a country running these policies for past seven decades, this is a sorry state of affairs.

A rough estimate of India’s caste analysis will make us see that about 90% of the population belongs to the reserved category and yet, the narrative of policy making is in the hands of the top 10%. While those against the reservation argue that narrative is changing, a look at the ground reality paints a very different picture. For instance, the small town of Kota in Rajasthan has been declared open defecation free by the government, yet a field visit of villages of that town will show that there are certain villages that have no toilets and are far from open defecation free. What’s more, these villages predominantly comprise of SCs. This begs the question, is this a mere coincidence?

In terms of representation in government sector, it has been observed that as the ranks rise, the representation of the SCs consistently reduces. Currently, the highest posts of the Indian Administrative Services in India has one ST representation and zero SC representation. One might argue that the same is the result of merit, but that argument is as debatable as the lack of female representations in important posts vis-à-vis merits. They are just not considered an option out of the basic habit of long standing bias, which has become so deeply ingrained in the system that its hard for the decision makers to actually see the folly of their ways!

Most debates against reservation arise from the idea that the reservation will better serve if its done based on financial status rather than caste. For this one must first understand that more often than not, one will find that economic standard and caste of an individual largely go hand in hand. Which means, a more effective policy will be that of bringing in the financial status and caste together to ascertain who should get the benefits of reservation. Besides, one of the most important point that people tend to overlook is that the purpose of reservation is far deeper than economic elevation. It is about removing the concept scheduling a section of the society as “other”. It is about instilling the idea that one’s birth is not the marker of their true worth in the society. Where traditional orthodoxy is contrary to the basic tenets of humanity, the law needs to interfere and insist on creating a renewed status quo. Today’s affirmative action may hopefully transform into tomorrow’s cultural mindset.

As long as we keep seeing reservation as a bias towards and against a certain section of the society, we will keep finding ways to deny the over arching truth that majority of us are still uncomfortable with the idea of equality. There has to be an acceptance of law. We have to believe that the person who has been given reservation has actually been given opportunity to come on a level playing field with those who already are ahead in the game by virtue of their caste.

Way Forward

Does that mean that the arguments of those saying that reservation is unfairly putting the general category at a disadvantage, wrong? We have to see Reservation as a medicine to the illness of caste inequality. Ideally one stops the medicine when either the disease is cured or when there is a better medicine available. Despite decades of affirmative action we are no where near curing the ailment. So far as a better medicine is concerned, there hasn’t been an effective one in the long run. Thus, the existing treatment needs to continue. Notably, certain effective changes may be considered, such as creamy layer in not just OBC but also ST and SC category, whereby those castes which have been enjoying the benefits of reservation for a period of three generations or more may be removed from the list so that other reserved castes which have been deprived may be better represented. Instead of providing merit relaxation in higher educational institutions, there should be financial relaxations for the reserved categories. Merit relaxation along with financial relaxation should be made compulsory in the primary education so that the kids are equally and efficiently prepared for the higher education. This of course is subject to the government ensuring effective application of Right to Education Act, and strict assessment quality of education imparted in the public schools.

Apart from this, there are certain things that every individual at their level can do, to possibly move towards a disease free state existence. First and foremost, they should create an awareness amongst their peers about the need for such an affirmative action by engaging in dialogue rather than an adversarial argument. The ten percent need to be taken into confidence and explained that the reservation is not the enemy they need to fight. It is the lack of effective policy making that needs to be addressed. Reservation is merely a means of regulating and reallocating the theopportunities and services of the state in such a manner that everyone equally benefits from it, irrespective of their social background. Education system should be formulated in such a manner that the students are sensitised towards the issue of caste discrimination and should be encouraged to engage in solution oriented debates. It should be the responsibility of every parent to instil in their children empathy towards the underprivileged not with a view to victimise or pity them but rather uplift them. An educated awareness can help unite the two factions of the society and perhaps create a more tolerant society moving forward.

Author Information: Ekta Rai
Lawyer practicing in Delhi NCR with an interest in social justice.
Email: erai22@yahoo.com
Published on 23 October 2019

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are author's personal observations.

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