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Shifting the goalposts in India's quota system

Equal opportunity has been jettisoned in favor of proportionate strength for groups seeking benefits

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Shifting the goalposts in India's quota system

Members of India's Jat community protest in New Delhi in March 2017 to demand the government classify their caste in a group that would entitle them to government jobs and educational benefits. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

India periodically witnesses massive rallies, widespread shutdowns and violent attacks on public property when groups take to the streets demanding quotas for seats in legislatures, government jobs and enrolment in higher education institutions.

The quota system, commonly called "reservation" in India, is a means of compensation to address the historic oppression, inequality and discrimination faced by some communities, and to give them an equitable place in modern society, as promised by the constitution.

Over the years, the categories for affirmative action, also known as positive discrimination, have been expanded beyond those who were once considered outcasts or backward castes.

People belonging to castes and tribes listed in the constitution for such benefits are the primary beneficiaries of reservation policies. But there have been protests from other groups who feel that reservation is inequitable and want the policy changed, if not scrapped altogether.

The recent agitations by the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Patels in Gujarat are examples of how consensus across political parties does not ensure a progressive public policy.

Why is this so? Because consensus is seen today more and more as evasiveness in making a policy decision, and it has become a competition for populism. If this is what the people want, why not give it to them?

But the new logic of reservation has deeper implications. Looking at the way that quotas have been allotted in the recent past, this new logic has several components.

Firstly, reservation has increasingly become a remedy for the adverse effects of poorly thought out development policies. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat are relatively well-developed economies, but three things worry the general population: acute agrarian distress, stagnation in employment (jobless growth) and distortions in the development model.

A change of course is needed, but this escapes the government's grasp as it implies a critical analysis of the root causes of the problem and a need for long-term structural reform. It's much easier to grant reserved quotas to groups who agitate.

Unlike in the late 1960s, when protests originated in the deep injustices of the social system, today's reservation discourse draws its strength from unfair development policies.

A second component of the new logic is the changing definition of backwardness. The Mandal Commission, appointed by the government in 1978, graded backwardness at different levels: social backwardness came first, followed by educational backwardness, and economic disadvantage came a distant third. All this has changed of late.

Increasingly, claims for reservations are based on economic factors, which have moved to first place above traditional social injustices. Both the Maratha and the Patel agitations betrayed a lot of anxiety about economic tribulations, of which the absence of employment was primary. To be backward means to be unemployed and unemployable.

The third component claimed to justify reservations is political clout. Claims are made and inclusion demanded based on numerical and political strength. A good example was the recent agitation of the Lingayats in Karnataka.

In democracies, groups stake their claims for benefits through public mobilization, and when a powerful lobby or a dominant caste does this, they will usually get what they want. The very context of the reservation debate has been radically altered.

Since numbers matter, the central issue has become the agitating community's percentage of the population compared to other communities. The answer is not as clear as we would like. Most estimates, including those  of the famous Mandal Commission, rest on the 1931 census.

For a society like ours where caste and community are so entrenched, it is ironic that no state government wants to collect accurate information of the size of different castes or to update the 1931 census. Is it because such information would be much too explosive?

Instead the growing political consensus seems to be that the court-ordered quota limit of 50 percent should not be followed in practice. The implicit reason is that reservation is the right of groups to a proportionate share of political power rather than, as was envisaged by the constitution, a provision to enable equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity has been quietly jettisoned in favor of proportionate strength in the local population.

The idea that all groups should get "seats" in proportion to their strength is extremely attractive to the popular imagination, and it has come to dominate the thinking of policymakers.

The word "quota" captures this feeling accurately. Even more, this new logic does away with judicial intervention completely. Years ago, with Mandal, the courts set the reservation boundary at 50 percent. Today, such a decision would be seen as external interference, a nuisance and even out of bounds for an elitist institution like the judiciary to prescribe limits to a populist demand for representation.

The goalposts have moved. The quota system is no longer about a constitutional provision to enable access to government resources like education and employment for deprived communities. Today reservation is all about staking access to state benefits according to a group's numerical size. The more a group has, the more it wants.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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