We need to re-examine our reservation policy

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 31, 2015 15:18 hrs

For the past couple of weeks, social media has been dominated by two things – the infamous Indrani Mukerjea case, where the family tree appears to be of national interest; and the demand by the Patels for reservation. We’ve seen videos of policemen vandalising vehicles. We’ve seen the shells of burnt buses. And we all have an opinion on the Patels’ contention.

Hardik Patel and his antics – including his promise to spread his demand for reservation across the country, and across various communities deemed privileged by caste – are a symptom of a disease that has been fostered in India for decades: the idea of quota-for-vote.

Reservation came with the caveat that its usefulness and validity would be examined every few years. However, since the inception of class-based quotas, the term has morphed to ‘caste-based’ quotas. At one time, class may have been synonymous with caste. This is not the case any longer. But it doesn’t suit any politician, or any government, to acknowledge this, since vote bank politics suggest that it is wise to keep communities, rather than classes, happy. There are other ways of appealing to the economically backward, after all.

The thought behind reservation was that those who come from families which have been educated for generations have an unfair advantage over those who are first-generation learners.

There is some credence to this idea. But in exploiting the political mileage that this allowed, our parties have ensured that the principle is all but lost. When you have economically well-off communities, which have been educated for generations, fighting in the Supreme Court for the removal of the ‘creamy layer’ rider, you know that there is something very wrong about the approach we have taken to reservation.

A while back, we had the Maratha caste agitating for a reservation quota. Members of this caste are believed to own more than three quarters of the land in Maharashtra. Most of the state’s Chief Ministers hail from the Maratha caste. Government jobs and education institutions are dominated by Marathas. And yet, they saw fit to ask for a caste downgrade from ‘Forward’ to ‘Backward’.

Today, the Patels say that ninety percent of the community is economically weak, and that this is the case with most communities that are considered ‘Forward’.

In Tamil Nadu, which sought to remove the hegemony of Brahmins in educational institutions and the workforce by rapidly increasing the reservation quota for all other castes, the reservation stands at an unconstitutional 69 percent. Of this, the quota for Schedules Tribes and Schedules Castes is under 20 percent. The data on economically underprivileged people who benefit from the reservation has not been enumerated.

An attempt in 1979 by then-Chief Minister M G Ramachandran to exclude the ‘creamy layer’ from reservation and move towards an economical status-based reservation system backfired. His candidates suffered such a sound defeat in the Lok Sabha elections that he announced an increased reservation quota for Backward Classes. The trick worked. MGR won the next Assembly elections, and stayed in power.

The problem facing India now is that reservation by either caste or class is not necessarily valid. We need to go back to the original principles that governed reservation quota.

One solution may be to determine how many generations of a person’s family have been educated, and to what extent, and see whether that person is a deserving candidate for the reservation quota.

Reservation, after all, is not about scholarships alone. It is about access to education.

But to examine reservation from the grassroots level will not suit politicians, because that would necessitate that it is accorded not on a group-basis, but an individual one, and so it is not conducive to vote bank politics, which have served them rather well.

At the moment, politicians who must deal with agitations for reservation in their states are working to find stopgap solutions. Every time a caste creates a ruckus, the government throws them a bone, hoping that they will be satisfied until the next election comes round. This is best illustrated by the treatment of the Gujjar community’s demands in Rajasthan.

This attitude is inimical to the idea of India, leave alone the idea of reservation.

If our aim is to create a class of citizens who are equipped to enter the workforce, we need to re-examine the criteria under which a prospective student or employee qualifies for a reservation quota.

Our long-term aim must be to eliminate reservation. Naturally, this will require that we eliminate the need for reservation, by guaranteeing everyone equal access.

At the moment, this doesn’t seem to be just a distant dream; it seems impossible, because it is inconvenient to those in power.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com