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Reservation stir on the horizon once again

Jat community leaders have threatened to resume their agitation if the BJP-led Haryana government does not meet their demands by March 17. This announcement comes weeks after their stir for quotas in government jobs plunged Haryana into a welter of violence. Besides the demand for reservations in government jobs, Jat leaders are also seeking the withdrawal of FIRs registered against the protesters, compensation to those killed during the stir and action against BJP MP from Kurukshetra Raj Kumar Saini for his anti-Jat reservation stand. “On March 17, we will decide on the next mode of action on whether to block roads, railway tracks or any other type of agitation,” All India Jat Mahasabha chief Yashpal Malik said. In the past, this column has often discussed why the Jat agitation is symbolic of a larger malaise afflicting the nation’s delicate socio-economic fabric. One must place the Jat agitation in the context of similar movements by other socially dominant and landed caste communities like the Patels of Gujarat and Kapus of Andhra Pradesh. In the popular imagination, communities such as the Patels and Jats are largely seen as both socially dominant and economically prosperous. This apparent paradox is resolved when one recognizes 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. 

Suffice to say, the reservation system, especially the one based on the Other Backward Classes model, has failed to expand the criteria for social justice beyond caste. As argued in these columns earlier, 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. The current OBC system will not solve this problem. Young Jats or Patels, who are seeking a slice of the 27 percent OBC quota in government jobs, are left in direct confrontation with other communities in the OBC list. One is not sure how the Haryana government will placate the Jat community. Last year, the Supreme Court had rejected the idea of reservations for Jats. The court said that the Jats are not socially and economically backward, based on the findings of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). But beyond convincing the courts, the Haryana government looks to be in no position to handle another agitation. Last time around, one witnessed a complete abdication of administrative responsibility by the State government. Reports of inter-caste violence, arson, loot, extensive damage to both public and private property, murder and heinous rapes had filled news columns. The situation turned so dire that the Indian Army had to be called in to stem the violence. Suffice to say, the Haryana government and the Centre find themselves in a tight spot once again, unless they can convince the apex court to change its position. 

Beyond the question of caste-based reservations, it is down to a paucity of jobs and poor standards of 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. Overlooked by the reservation system, economically backward members of dominant caste communities are left behind. Moreover, there has also been a perceptible change in the aspiration of these communities, especially among the younger generations. Today’s youth seek admissions into spheres of technical education, including engineering and medicine. But the quality of education they receive is rather poor. Without the crutch of reservation, many are left behind. Suffice to say, the fruits of India’s development model have not reached vast sections of Jats. 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 in the Indian corporate sector are automating their factories. Even among those hired, companies often look to cheaper migrant labor. But corporate India is guilty of something lot worse. In Haryana, many farmers sold their land to companies, who promised jobs to the people in a return—a promise that was never fulfilled. What’s worse, not a single company has started work on the farmland acquired. Instead of starting projects, many of these companies returned the land it took from the government, but reportedly made a fortune by leasing out the land they directly bought from the farmers to another company.
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