Band-aid for a broken system
In its bid to win over the agitating Patel community, the Gujarat government on Friday announced 10 percent quota for the economically backward class among the upper castes in government jobs and academic applications from May 1. As per news reports, the 10 percent quota benefit will be given to those whose annual income is Rs 6 lakhs or less. After months of agitation, the state government has finally relented to extending the benefits of reservations to the affluent Patel community. It is no surprise that the BJP-led government has relented, considering that the Patel community forms the backbone of the party’s support base in the state. Late last year, the BJP suffered a major setback in polls across rural local bodies. With assembly elections scheduled for next year, the party is probably not willing to take any chances. But the Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti rejected the government’s proposal and called it a “tactic to silence the Patel community”. However, another group that held protests demanding reservations for the Patel community called the Sardar Patel Group welcomed the announcement. Leaders from the group have reportedly said that they would assess the announcement and gauge how it helps their community. The announcement was made following a violent agitation earlier this month, where members of the Patel community clashed with police in Gujarat’s Mehsana town after their rally demanding reservation and the release of their jailed leaders turned violent. The rally was part of a call to court arrest by the Sardar Patel Group, which is one of the main outfits seeking reservation for the Patel community. Soon after the news of violence in Mehsana spread, mobs staged protests in other parts of the state, where they clashed with the police. In response, government officials had introduced curfew and banned mobile internet services.
In the context of the Patel agitation, the Gujarat government has made a politically prudent decision. But it may not withstand the judicial scrutiny in view of the 50 percent ceiling on quota in government jobs imposed by the Supreme Court. Under the current scheme of things, the BJP-led government’s announcement will be challenged in the courts as the new quota is in addition to the existing 49 percent reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes. In the Indra Sawhney versus Union of India– popularly known as the Mandal case –the court ruled in 1992 that reservations cannot exceed 50 percent. In the past, this column has often spoken of the malaise in our reservation system. Here are some excerpts: “One must place the Patel agitation in the context of similar movements by other socially dominant and landed caste communities like the Jats of Haryana and Kapus of Andhra Pradesh. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Patels are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. This apparent paradox is resolved when one recognizes that many of them are economically backward. It is especially true of these erstwhile traditional landowner communities, many of whom have seen their landholdings shrink through generations. Those who move away from the farm, often find that the education they receive is often not good enough for the current job market. Haryana was witness to a violent agitation by the Jat community a few months ago. The violence subsided only after the Jat Quota Bill was introduced.”
“Such agitations pose some rather uncomfortable questions on the nature of the affirmative action in India. Unlike their counterparts in the Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe, it is the claims of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) that has generated much controversy. The very concept of Other Backward Classes, constituted by the Mandal Commission in the 1980s and brought into force by former Prime Minister VP Singh, remains in the throes of ambiguity. To the uninitiated, OBC is a collective term used by the government to classify caste communities that are socially and educationally disadvantaged. In a recent judgment, which laid down new norms for identification of backward classes for benefits of reservation, the Supreme Court held that “social groups that would be most deserving must necessarily be a matter of continuous evolution”. Moreover, the principle of affirmative action under the Constitution obligated the state “to reach out to the most deserving” class, which in today’s context may have included the transgender community. As argued in these columns earlier, agitations by the Jats and Patels are down to a combination of the reservation policy’s failure to broaden the scope of social justice beyond caste, inadequate job creation under the current economic model in India and a poor higher education system, which creates millions of poorly skilled graduates.” Although the current announcement has sought to broaden the scope of social justice beyond caste, it is still beholden to traditional structures of reservations in this country. And by giving quotas to a traditionally affluent community, the state government has defeated the very purpose of reservations. The solution lies in greater job creation and a better public education system.