The demand for OBC status by the Patels of Gujrat has set stage for a review of the reservation policy as such. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has already called for such a review. The passage of bills by the Rajasthan government to accommodate the demands of the Gujjar community, thus taking reservation to beyond 50 per cent, indicates that the issue is not going to blow away soon. Debate around reservation has been highly polarized. On the one side are those who on principle abhor the very idea of reservation and there are those who defend this, also on principle. There has not been much work that defends the principle of reservation but also critically looks at its implementation.
By and large, the demand for reservation by Patels (and Jats etc.) has found no support amongst the intelligentsia and rightly so. But Patels (and others) have a very persuasive case — other similarly placed castes have got the benefit of reservation. Yadavs (Ahirs) of Haryana are just about similarly placed as Jats. There is a region in Haryana that is known as Ahirwal, where Yadavs are the dominant caste, owning land and calling the shots in politics in that region as Jats do in their area of dominance. If the Yadavs can get reservation then why not the Jats? If the Jats of Delhi can get it, why not the Jats of neighboring Haryana? The Gujjars of Rajasthan justify their demand by comparison with the Meenas of Rajasthan.
Reservation has been defended on two different grounds — discrimination and backwardness. Deprivation can be on account of discrimination but it need not be so. There could be whole regions that are backward; then there is the difference between the rural and urban areas within regions, between small towns and metros, and so on. Shall we have a quota for all these categories, along with caste and gender quotas? Of course, not. But what if a community faces widespread and deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice? In that case, that community certainly needs reservation. Without the benefit of reservation, this community — it could be caste or gender or race based — forget about getting a level playing field, would not get equal treatment even after having overcome the handicap of an uneven playing field. Only in such cases of widespread and deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination, reservation can be justified. It cannot be the remedy for all kinds of backwardness or inequity or feelings of discrimination. Even amongst the so-called “forward” castes, there is caste segregation, with each caste or sub-caste harboring notions of its own superiority vis-à-vis other “upper” castes (as well as being the discriminated one). Reservation has to be an exception to be used to tackle pervasive discrimination and not a common tool to be used to tackle backwardness of various kinds. Reservation is not meant to perpetually segregate various communities and give proportionate representation to various groups. It is meant to overcome caste divisions.
It is interesting to note that agitations have only been for inclusion in the OBC or the ST category and not amongst the Scheduled Castes. This clearly indicates that the Scheduled Castes really have a very low social status and no community would like to be clubbed with them. However, there is no such stigma attached to being from an OBC or even ST community (who were not treated as untouchables). Different legal treatment of SC/ST reservation and OBC reservation itself is indicative of something being seriously amiss. There is subdivision of the OBC quota but subdivision of the SC/ST quota has been struck down. There is the notion of creamy layer in the OBC reservation but there is no similar concept for the SC/ST reservation. While this differential treatment of the SC/ST and the OBC reservation may have some legal basis, yet other than legal technicalities, does it have any justification? While it is true that financial or professional success does not by itself end discrimination and even IAS officers from the Scheduled Castes may continue to be socially discriminated, yet continuing extending the benefit of reservation is not going to solve this problem. That has to be fought at another level. Deprivation can have multiple causes and even children from the so-called “forward” castes, studying in rural areas, may be educationally deprived as compared to their urban counterparts. Deprivation can be compensated through some type of weightage mechanism similar to one in force for cultural and sports achievements. Even such compensation should not be all-pervasive and should be based on an objective criterion that is not easy to fudge. Educationally backward communities can be motivated through various incentives like the ones in place for “de-notified tribes”. The problem of identifying poor is in addition to this. When even counting the number of poor in the country is bogged down in controversy all the while, when BPL lists are not finalized for years, when under-reporting of income and tax evasion is so common, when those living on the streets cannot even get a ration card, how do you ensure it is only the really poor that benefit from reservation meant for the poor?
Lastly, ignoring legal niceties, commonsense and logic demand that reservation should be in the nature of ensuring a minimum (and not proportionate) representation to communities and it should not be over and above their representation in the General category. Say, if we have fixed minimum representation of the SC at 15 per cent and 5 per cent seats have been filled by candidates from the SC without the benefit of reservation, then only 10 per cent more SC candidates should be taken through reservation. This will ensure that as communities provided with the protective cover of reservation come up and start competing well with other communities, reservation will die a natural death, without abolition. The ever-burgeoning reservation category, with the clamor of more and more communities seeking inclusion, is indicative of the fact that perhaps we have overdone it. It is time reservation is reduced to an exceptional measure for exceptional situations, rather than a regular feature. A reasonable and limited domain for reservation would significantly tone down vehement opposition and have more widespread acceptance.
(The author is a former Professor of Economics, MDU, Rohtak)