Economic criteria in reservation – Sociological reflections

The 103rd Constitutional Amendment passed in Loksabha and Rajyasabha. It literally took a mere debate of 72 hours as a new policy got stamped in cabinet committee and went ahead to successfully garner crucial special majority in houses of Parliament.

It raises  quintessential question on deliberative justice in democracy i.e debate to identify the disagreements. More importantly it also underlines a politically motivated latent function to gain back traditional vote bank.

However leaving these debates to media houses and newsletter editors, lets focus on the sociological connotations attached. 

Criteria of reservation- Sociological reflections 

In the origin of reservation policy, largely there exist a consensus among scholars on SC/ST reservation. Since there is an aroma of historical injustice attached to SC/ST, their social and educational backwardness can only be eradicated through a scale which privileges them in competitions. However sociologists largely differ on mandalization of reservation to Other Backward Castes.

M N Srinivas, Chairman of an expert panel (part of Mandal Commission) assigned with the objective to suggest criteria for identifying socially and educationally backward, took a collective approach of identification instead of individualistic approach. He observed that “in the Indian context, such collectivities can be castes or other hereditary groups traditionally associated with specific occupations which are considered to be low and impure, with which educational backwardness and low income are found to be associated”.

Marxist sociologist I P Desai argued for a non-caste basis of reservation in late 1970s. To Desai, a caste-based reservation implies that state itself is legitimizing caste system by its own action, which it vows to annihilate.Moreover since Independence the economic and social criteria had changed. Many of OBCs have gained prominence riding on the success of Green revolution and hence Desai justified a class -occupation based criteria.

Ghanshyam Shah criticized Desai’s criteria asserting that higher castes, higher education and higher occupation are inter linked in India. However even Shah did not prescribe for caste based reservation, rather was interested in devising a strategy where caste structure and caste feeling could be weakened.

B K Roy Burman, also a prominent member of all the expert panels in Mandal Commission contested Srinivas’s view. As per Burman, not the caste but occupation or a combination of caste and occupation should be the correct basis of reservation. However the commission recommended 27% reservation to OBCs in government jobs, which Burman argued as an ignorance towards every suggestions made by the expert. 

Thus economy based criteria for reservation has been the long drawn debate in the sociologist’s circle. And to extrapolate further, it was largely a non-scholarly, political motive to implement caste based OBC reservation in V P Singh regime. As Andre Beteille observes while SC/ST reservation was motivated by imperatives of social justice,  reservation for OBCs was motivated by the imperatives of power. These castes, once tenants-at-will, they had now become (sometimes very substantial) owner-cultivators themselves. They have influence in politics, presence in legislative assemblies and ministries.

Hence building upon these perspectives we may conclude that recent policy that identifies economic criteria as a basis of reservation is a step ahead and scholarly. Is it so ? or is it merely a repeat telecast of politically motivated ploy to hatch the vote bank.

A repeat telecast 

Reservation in India is a syringe of intoxication to the distressed mind, that does not solve the actual problem. 

Through out the decade of 1980s, India suffered from economic lethargy and piling up import costs. The crisis was in the neighborhood, ready to be next door as Gulf crisis was inflating the import costs. Largely derailed welfare policy of a decade which created the bonfire of debt along with License raj in the market kept industrial production dormant. In those times, a political master stroke to collate vote bank was much needed and thus was implementation of OBC reservation brought to set the tone of political benefit. It was not the solution to crisis rather a syringe of intoxication to the minds of distress.

Today again the proliferation of  agrarian distress is finding no suitable fix from the government. Higher MSP and other scheme of direct benefit transfer is failing to lure the farming community. The lost battles in states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan are manifestations of the same. And in these times thus 10% reservation to economically weaker unreserved section  has arguably been brought to set the tone of political benefit. A repeat telecast of setting political tone as V P Singh attempted to do ?

It also seems to be a mere repeat telecast of 1990s on the ground of valid statistical evidences employed to curate the policy. Mandal Commission did not have actual caste based income data, neither today we have any data to argue what exact % of reservation need to be divested to low income unreserved category.

Lets wait and watch if playing reservation in an inverted way will act as win win situation for the ruling party or will end up as a zero sum game.

A zero sum game 

I P Desai extends a zero sum game view on reservation. On anti-reservation riots in Gujarat, he observed that – the higher castes felt that if lower communities made advancement in education and occupation, it would lower the position of higher castes, socially and politically.  Hence to resist they used idea of merit as weapon to defend Hindu caste hierarchy and maintain socio-economic status quo.

Let us extrapolate this view on new inverted reservation policy. Today 49.5% seats are reserved for SC/ST/OBC(NCL) and rest 50.5 % are open category seats. This simply means these 50.5% are open to all which may include SC/ST/OBC/others based on their merit score. If observed clinically this 50.5% is being reduced to 40.5% . Thus will it lead to resistance from merit creamy of SC/ST/OBCs as they have to share the reduced open space ? It may / may not.

More over also  a pertinent question to ask is what is the purpose of reservation if it goes to a section which is already represented in public employment adequately. But to ask this question again, we need relevant data to back the same.

Like these there are so many questions that remain unanswered. But one thing is very necessary for policy makers to understand -reservation is not a poverty eradication plan.

Until next time

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4 thoughts on “Economic criteria in reservation – Sociological reflections

Add yours

  1. First of all, take a bow for a very detailed yet simple to understand essay on a complicated issue like reservations. People like me, who are not very well versed with constitution and it’s interpreters, would love to go through their interpretations. There is I guess no right answer on questions like who all should be eligible for reservations and till what extent should it be applied, but I agree with one thing PM Modi recognized correctly is policies in India have been made or implemented in silos. As you rightly pointed out, reservations are like syringe of intoxication. I would like to take this argument forward and state that intoxication/anaesthesia is also needed, but before surgery. Prolonged anaesthesia won’t help the patient. Another analogy if I can draw is that of alcohol. Initially, one shot can give you a high. Few more days, you need a full bottle. And before you realise you are already alcoholic. And you need help. If the country gets addicted to reservations, it would be near impossible to rescue it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. let me take forward your alcohol analogy in Alexender Pope’s word ‘drinking largely sobers us again’. And if so, reorganization of economic criteria may be a precursor to a caste less reservation policy in future. Also may pave the way to a new reservation policy where those benefiting reservation can exit out of benefits once they feel they are adequately empowered and justified.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah agree, earnings based reservation looks better any day, although haven’t researched if it is actually so. But high time reservations phased out in India. How it should be done, is another question to deliberate upon.

        Liked by 2 people

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