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Quotas, jobs, and agitation

In our column yesterday, we spoke of the unhindered violence and the resultant fractures in the social fabric that has engulfed Haryana. Today’s column seeks to understand the reasons behind the agitation for reservation in government jobs by the socially dominant Jat community. It is imperative that we place the Jat agitation for reservation in the context of similar movements in India by other socially dominant and landed caste communities like the Patidars in Gujarat and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh. Many have questioned the Jat community’s demand for reservation in government jobs. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Patidars and Jats are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. This apparent paradox is resolved when one recognises that certain sections of these socially dominant communities 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. While a large segment of these communities remains economically backward with little scope for employment in the cluttered job market, they still share that sense of social dominance and entitlement with their more prosperous brethren. The violence perpetrated on other communities, one could argue, stems from this apparent contradiction. Reservations were first envisaged by our founding fathers as a model of social justice for communities that have been subject to historical discrimination. “Caste laws specifically excluded Dalits and Adivasis from membership of society, so this had to be remedied in our Constitution by legally enforced inclusion, that is, reservation,” according to noted academic Satish Deshpande. “This model of reservation addressed social exclusion rather than economic deprivation, even though the former almost always produced the latter.” The subsequent model of reservation was introduced by the Mandal reforms mearly three decades ago, which sought to address “castes that suffered milder forms of social exclusion than Dalits or Adivasis, but were, on the whole, clearly disadvantaged in economic and educational terms,” according to Deshpande. The Mandal model, which created the Other Backward Classes (OBC) segment, had the unfortunate effect of laying down the use of caste-based quotas as the only State response to social and economic disadvantage. What’s worse, it failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste. One could argue that the recent agitation by the Jat community is 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.  

Beyond the question of caste-based reservations, as stated above, it is a question of lack of jobs and poor higher education.  According to a Kotak Securities report, India needs 23 million jobs annually. But over the past 30 years, the country has only created an average of 7 million jobs annually. Left behind by the reservation system, economically backward members of dominant caste communities have nowhere to turn. India’s development story has not really aided vast sections of these communities. Moreover, there has also been a perceptible change in the aspiration of young people in these communities. Unlike those in the past, who would either work on the land or join the family business at a very young age instead of pursuing higher studies, today’s youth seek admissions into spheres of technical education, including engineering and medicine. But the quality of education they receive is rather poor. For example, in a 2014 study by Aspiring Minds, an employability solutions company, it was found that only a little more than 3 percent of engineers who want software or core engineering jobs are good enough for such jobs, with 74 percent poor in English skills and 58 percent lacking adequate analytical or quantitative skills. Without the crutch of reservation, many are left behind, with no intention of working on the land. The dismal state of agriculture, especially for those with smaller land holdings, presents an obvious rationale for those youngsters unwilling to work on the land. What makes the job crunch worse for these youngsters is that many companies, especially in the Indian corporate sector, are automating their factories. Even among those hired, companies often look to cheaper migrant labour, from whom more work is squeezed out. Young Jats, therefore, are seeking a slice of the 27 percent OBC quota in government jobs, which puts them in a direct confrontation with other community groups in the OBC list. More reservations will not solve this gnawing gap. Prime Minister Modi’s Skill India initiative, for example, which seeks to train over 400 million Indians by 2020 is a step in the right direction. But there is a definite consensus among leading economists that the Modi government has not done enough. The government must initiate a slew of other steps such as enhancing small and medium enterprises, revamping infrastructure and other big-ticket projects, rationalising complex tax structures, and ensuring that investors find it conducive to do business. Only more jobs will do the trick.
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