Revisiting caste reservation

Senior Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi stirred the hornet’s nest of late. He attempted something no political leader irrespective of party affiliation dared for decades. Dwivedi questioned the efficacy of caste-based reservation and suggested that time has come when instead of caste economic backwardness should be considered the criteria of reservation so that its benefits become more socially inclusive. This could have become an act of political hara-kiri for him. But he survived, despite publicly expressing such a bold yet ‘politically incorrect’ view and bringing some temporary discomfiture to his party. One can presume either his views are not taken seriously or there’s a nascent undercurrent of socio-political consensus to revisit the caste-centric view of social justice. 
If the latter has any iota of truth, isn’t it time to consider Janardan Dwivedi’s statement and re-examine what caste-based reservation has made us achieve and what it has deprived us of? The idea of reservation has always remained fraught with severe polemics and counter-polemic. Of all the political stalwarts Nehru himself in his letter addressed to the chief ministers in 1961 strongly opined against reservation and cautioned ‘this way lie not only folly, but disaster.’ He was of the view that by extending reservation on communal and caste lines ‘we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate.’ Regardless what Nehru believed, caste-based reservation became India’s socio-political reality and polarised the society and politics with successive years on caste lines. So much so that today even an innocuous suggestion to review the policy of reservation becomes a risky proposition; leave aside any contemplation of midway course correction.

In a traditionally hierarchical society which practiced acute discrimination and oppression for centuries one can’t question state’s intervention to ensure social justice. Overlooking social justice is against the fundamental principles of democracy. No doubt, in the absence of various constitutional provisions of social justice including laws to protect the needs and dignity of the marginalised sections and reservation for their mainstreaming, their lot and social respectability would not have improved so much. But after six decades of independence the nation must ask itself few questions: is marginalisation still endemic in the Indian society? If so, does it perpetuate due to caste factors or economic factors? If caste alone causes marginalization then what about poverty? The BPL population as per the Tendulakar Committee report is estimated 25.7 per cent in rural areas, 13.7 per cent in urban areas and 21.9 per cent in the country as a whole. In absolute terms 27 crore people out of the total 123 crore population live below poverty line. Surely, BPL cuts across castes and communities and thus presents a more inclusive perspective of social justice.
Let’s also see the impact of reservation vis-a-vis caste demography in the two hotbeds of caste politics - Bihar and UP. In Bihar there’re 133 OBCs and 23 SCs while in UP 76 OBCs and 66 SCs. The dominant among them have population in lakhs while the weaker in few thousand. It’s no secret that the numerically insignificant castes in both categories in the two states (also in other states) are still far away from the benefits of reservation while those who’re numerically dominant enjoy all the benefits. Consequently, socio-economic gap even after decades of reservation persists. Apparently, to set it right Bihar identified Ati-Pichada (Extremely Backward – EBC) and Mahadalit castes within the OBCs and SCs and made special provisions for them in the existing quota of reservation. Notwithstanding, the real empowerment through social justice remains elusive in both the states.  
Perhaps we’re looking at social justice blindfolded while the determinants of status and denominators of well-being are changing so fast under influences of economic liberalisation, urbanisation, globalisation and so on.

McKinsey Global Report (2010) pegs India’s urbanisation rate at 29 per cent. It envisages by 2025 India will add 215 million or 21.5 crore to its cities which will be 38 per cent of the then total population. Urban dwellings are characterised by professional groups and identity rather than caste identity. The process is already changing the social eco-system by socio-cultural homogenisation. 
Another interesting survey conducted by NSHIE (2004-2005), NCAER reveals some startling facts about caste and economic reality. While low income states having less big towns have higher ratio of economic disparity between the upper and the OBCs, SCs and STs, the disparity in high income states having more cities is much less. The upper castes also earn quite less in low income states. SCs and OBCs in high income states earn more than upper castes in low income state. Similarly, STs in richer states earn more than upper castes in poor states. The All India survey also indicates that while the surplus income of the upper caste household is approximately 30 per cent, OBCs is 23 per cent and SCs 18.5 per cent. The difference can’t be overlooked, but it’s surely not huge. Not only this, against popular perception, only one third of the upper caste earns 45 per cent income in the country rest among them lag far behind. Above all, if we consider demography vis-à-vis reservation, the Youth population in India is estimated to be 33.3 crore. On the basis of caste nearly half of it will qualify for reservation; are there opportunities for all? As such, doesn’t reservation remain a hollow political rhetoric?

Policies should not only be periodically reviewed, they also must conform to the changing 
socio-economic realities. Perpetuating archaic notion of caste may be vote bank compulsion, but policies must remain open to discern the contemporary changes and imperatives. After all ‘positive 
discrimination’ is also discrimination. It should not continue till eternity. 

The author is an academic, socio-political commentator
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