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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

Whither Reservations?

Sunday 27 June 2010, by Sheetal Sharma


As the final phase of the intake of OBCs quota in educational institutions—such as central universities, IIMs, IITs, AIIMS, institutions funded or managed under the aegis of the Central Government—is going to be accomplished in the coming session, there is a sense of satisfaction that another step has been taken for the upliftment of the socially backward sections of society. Hitherto, the backward castes and communities have been denied any attempt to rise socially; thus it is our obligation to ensure social justice and equality. It is purported that through means of affirmative action, such as reservation in educational and occupational opportunities, the backward castes and downtrodden communities (including Scheduled Castes and Tribes) can free themselves from the shackles of age-old discrimination. Although it would take some years before we can actually realise the consequences of these policy initiatives, it is appropriate time to reflect upon the process through which we are expecting to achieve a ‘desired’ product—a society free of caste-based discrimination.

CASTE defines the structural reality of the Indian society and constitutes the very fabric of the Indian social system. In Ambedkar’s words, “The Caste System is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilised society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilised society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. The Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. In no other country is the division of labour accompanied by this gradation of labourers.” (Section IV, Annihilation of Caste. Vol-I, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches) Access to opportunities and status is intrinsically rooted in one’s caste status. Conventionally, the birth in a particular caste predetermines and defines the status and profession of an individual. The caste identity precedes any other form of identity and in extremes of cases even the fact that an individual is a ‘human being’. In practice this reality creates caste consciousness among the practitioners of the caste system and governs his/her social interaction with other such identities. More often than not interaction between asymmetrically ranked caste identities results in social exclusion, lack of self-esteem, stigma, discrimination, and denial of equality in various spheres of life. The social and cultural sources of exclusion and inhuman discrimination are deeply entrenched in our institutions and social structure, and are established as reified reality. Poverty and penury are just economic manifestation of this subterranean structural rootedness.

With few exceptions, for centuries the philosophers, leaders, enlightened intellectuals, and godmen could not, or chose not to, see any irregularity in the established order; perhaps their vision and perception was being myopic and blighted by their own position in the entire social arrangement. The task to change the character and characteristics of such an order was daunting, nevertheless, achievable. The much needed empathetic understanding from the perspective of the ‘oppressed’ could not take place until Ambedkar began to see caste-based discrimination as some kind of challenge to the extent that he placed social freedom precedent to political freedom. He saw restoration of dignity to fellow citizens as important, if not more, as freedom from foreign yoke. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India and one of the leading advocates of civil rights, tried to turn the Wheel of Law towards social justice for ‘all’.

After independence, it was realised that historical deprivation, continuing discrimination and persistent disparity call for state initiative or affirmative action. The state, through pronunciation of its normative prescription of secularism and democracy, took up to guarantee all its citizens equality, liberty, and freedom from exploitation. State sponsored mobility for backward castes and communities was perceived as a means of compensation for injustices, deprivation, and discrimination which these communities have suffered historically and in fact continue to suffer. For safeguarding their interests and accelerating socio-economic development it was realised that these communities need special provisions. A policy of reservations was instituted in order to combat social disability, economic backwardness, and other handicaps confronted by them in getting reasonable representation in elected offices, government jobs, and educational institutions. Article 46 of the Constitution of India states that “the State shall promote, with special care, the education and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of social exploitation”. Articles 330, 332, 335, 338 to 342 and the entire Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution deal with special provisions for implementation of the objectives set forth in Article 46. There is no denying the fact that the reservation policy, as enunciated through Articles referred to above of the Constitution of India, has paid rich dividends in terms of welfare of the deprived sections of the society. However, the overall picture remains one of immense inequity. The antidote to exploitation and discrimination in the form of reservation was expected to throw up some promising results and heal the system, if not overhaul, in ten years time from its inception. Ten years were envisaged as the optimum period by the framers of the legislative initiative. Attempts were made so that the wrongs of inaccessibility, denial, and subjugation can be evened out by state sponsored intervention by guaranteeing access and control through entitlements and reservations. But even after more than sixty years of symptomatic treatment of the malaise and administration of the same dosage, the system is nowhere close to being healthy.

RESERVATIONS in general have failed despite developing certain pockets of excellence in caste groups and defined areas and blinding with occasional sparks of brilliance in terms of the K.R. Narayanans, G.M.C. Balayogis occupying highest constitutional posts of the President and Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The reservation system has not delivered for even a substantial proportion of backward castes and communities, not to mention the entire chunk. It is even argued that it has created a further class among the hitherto homogenous backward castes and communities who have turned out to be perpetrators of the same discrimination, accentuating the differences among various castes and within the same caste. What actually went wrong? Whither reservations? Whither affirmative action? The issue needs dispassionate examination, more so in the dynamic context of globalisation and liberalisation. Here are some points for consideration.

First, the decade after independence was the age of state sponsored mixed economy with the private sector having no or minimal role. The discourse in the pre-liberalisation era was the discourse of government institutions, govern-ment schools, and government jobs; whereas in the 21st century it is the discourse of the euphemistically called public but exclusively private schools, private companies, and private jobs. The response to global competition and free market should logically necessitate equipping the population in general, and marginalised groups in particular, with an uptodate set of skills and education. The government sector is not expanding or at least not growing as fast; therefore its capacity to provide jobs is becoming limited. Notwith-standing the economic and human development indicators showing general upward mobility since donning the garb of liberalisation, there are discernible signs of the yawning gaps between the rich and poor sections of the society getting still deeper with the passage of time. Moreover, development has remained primarily concentrated in urban and metro areas where the social divide is less visible than the economic divide, but here too the higher rungs of the economic hierarchy are disproportionately occupied by the socially privileged classes. In this scenario it becomes imperative to think of a new and effective planning strategy for the development of the weaker sections of the population. Perhaps the time has come, as an old saying goes, ‘to teach them how to fish rather than giving them a fish’. Only that path would create a far-reaching and sustainable generation of capacity and wealth among the downtrodden sections of society. The country is passing through a phase of transformation. These transformations in the social scenario as well as the economic, cultural, and political landscape have not been reflected and/or accounted for in alteration, addition, or reformulation of the reservation policy since the 1950s when it was originally conceptualised and crystallised. The policy of affirmative action has almost remained static in a highly dynamic and rapidly changing external environment.

Second, the duality in the education system perpetuates and crystallises the pre-existing fault-lines. Whatever cement is provided by the reservation policy is eaten up by the increasingly polarising duality in the education system. There are public schools of the genre of DPS, Doon, Springdales, Sanskriti, Goenkas, and now private universities like Amity have higher advertise-ment and publicity budget than scholarships for the disadvantaged or socially backward groups. Driven by the economic logic the DPS-Goenka-Doon-Amity cannot afford to have a socially just and equitable agenda. In the US schooling for almost everyone is the same. In India, we have developed a system of schooling exhibiting a stark contrast between public and private schools; and unlike the US, the government-run schools in India lack both quality and commitment. This has complicated the problem rather than resolved it. Through this duality in standards of education, and availability of facilities for co-curricular activities, the system is perpetuating inequality and widening the chasm between the sections rather than addressing it. The education system in India is thus sealing the fate of the underprivileged rather than liberating them.

Third, the greatest vindication of the reservation system is the beginning of a struggle among castes to get in, and equally vehement opposition from those in there, into the Schedule of Castes and Tribes. The castes that figure in the list of Scheduled Castes, Schedule Tribes, and OBCs have become a closed group representing a one-way traffic, where there is a way into it but no way out of it for the caste as a whole or even for an individual. The list has become a static reality rather than a dynamic group having both entry and exit designed on rigorous, objective and impartial parameters. The caste has been accepted, by the hon’ble Supreme Court of India in Indira Sawhney vs Union of India, as an entity that can be and in fact is the most visible entity for discrimination and subjugation in the Indian social milieu. Based on the selected parameters the need for continuous inclusion and exclusion for the caste groups and the beneficiaries, or otherwise socially forward/ elites, cannot be over emphasised. Without this process, reservation would continue to serve a microcosm of politicians eating out of the system. For obvious reasons these people have vested interest in perpetuation of this format and interestingly they are also the competent authority to bring a change in it. Seeing the non-trickling down of benefits envisaged under the quota regime as failure of the reservation policy as an effective and practical tool of state sponsored mobility, the question is: what is to be done? The provision to put in a bar in terms of a creamy layer too contains inherent opposition. The definition and criterion to determine the creamy layer for the OBCs and SCs need not necessarily mean the same. In the case of the SCs peculiarities and realities of deprivation, discrimination and oppression suffered have to be factored in, and the economic criterion may completely be kept out. However, this inheres another danger that then there may also be a premium in being below the creamy layer. An individual who might be due for promotion into, say, a class I service at the maturity of his career thus getting into the fold of the creamy layer, might just sacrifice it to keep the benefit going for his progeny. It is true that centuries of subjugation and generations of oppression cannot be washed or done away by availing benefit over a single generation. In fact, there is no standard measure to judge exactly in how many generations these benefits would be able to wash up this discrimination.

THE growth of urbanisation is having a far-reaching effect on caste practices not only in cities but in rural areas as well. Among anonymous crowds in urban public spaces caste affiliations are unknown and observance of purity and pollution rules is negligible. The distinctive social features of caste have become weak, and names have been modified. Restrictions on interactions with other castes are becoming more relaxed, and, at the same time, observance of other caste defined rules is declining. As new occupations open up in urban areas, the correlation of caste with occupation is declining. But despite these changes caste still remains a dominant source of identity, and much of socio-economic, political, and cultural interaction occurs through caste connections. Any effort reinforcing fragmented caste identities and caste-based reservation entails a deeper look at the phenomenon of globalisation, urbanisation and the emerging professional avenues for ‘caste-beings’ nee human beings. Why and how can we gravitate towards the very system from which we are attempting to disassociate? Sociologically speaking, the intent and content of the reservation policy is to bring the asymmetrically located communities in the social hierarchy at par with each other and let the benefit be spread across families, communities and geographies. The objective of the policy of affirmative action is to broadbase the benefitting groups so as to fade prejudiced perceptions from public memory now, and forever. The rationale and purpose is not to promote and/or uplift certain families or people but to spread the reach and effect of benefit across spectrum, as wide as possible. Does that call for relooking at the intent and content of the reservation policy?

Dr Sheetal Sharma is an Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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