The Constitution of India guarantees reservations to Backward Classes in employment (government services) and quota in educational institutions. The thinking behind providing reservations to these sections is to provide reasonable opportunities to these deprived sections who have suffered social discrimination over a long period of time.
Even though a scientifically approved, caste-based census was not conducted after Independence, the Census reports of 1921 and 1931 throw some light on the proportion of upper castes and Backward Class populations. In states such as AP, the proportion of castes were in the following manner: Brahmins 3 per cent, Kapus inclusive of Reddys 15.2, Kammas 4.8, Vysyas 1.2 and Velamas 3 per cent, totalling 29.9 per cent. The OBCs stood at 46.1 per cent, SCs 17 per cent and STs 7 per cent.
The composition of these castes varies slightly from state to state, but overall percentages at the national level are very close to these above proportions. CSO data published a decade ago shows that the OBCs constitute 49.5 per cent and along with SCs, STs. constitute nearly a total of 75 per cent of all Backward Classes in India. The remaining 25 per cent constitute others, including minorities and other upper castes. It is apparent that reservations given to the reserved categories are not in proportion to their actual population. Whereas the power and authority in government was always vested in the hands of a few rich and upper castes who always talk about the poor and poverty in India keeping in view of their vote bank.
Reservation was never implemented in the true spirit. In fact, reservations are restricted to Centre, state and public sector undertakings. The total employment in government, public and private sectors together comprise 10 per cent of the total population, being the organised sector in India.
The vacancies that arise in government and public sector every year have limited scope to provide employment to the vast number of unemployed in the country. Till the mid-seventies no rosters were maintained and the recruitment was only at the mercy of the employers. The children of most reserved categories were not employable because of low quality education.
Reserved sections occupy lower rung posts for a long time. These problems persisted for long, causing vast differences in the social order. This failure of governments resulted in frustration on both sides, reserved as well as un-reserved categories.
In this background, let us examine whether the 10 per cent reservation for the poor among the upper castes is rational and reasonable. Firstly there is no basis for arriving at 10 per cent of the 29 per cent of upper castes population who are poor. That means nearly 30 per cent of the upper castes are poorer in India, which is totally incorrect and not based on facts.
The definition of poor in India and the world has kept changing over the years. The World Bank defined absolute poverty for those who are earning less than $1 per day and later revised the ceiling to $1.25 and again to $1.9 per day.
The latest reports on poverty levels available are of Prof Tendulkar in 2011-12, where poverty levels were estimated at 21.9 per cent, which the Rangarajan committee revised to 29.5 per cent for the same year based on NSSO figures. These reports are not comparable since each adopted a different methodology and hence it is not possible to say which is the correct one. However, World Bank reports show that the income poverty levels of late have been drastically reduced by five per cent in India.
The Oxford Poverty Human Development Initiative (OPHI) has evolved a new methodology to determine poverty in 2010, which is called Multi Dimensional Poverty Index (MDPI) based on 10 indicators.
India is ranked 130 among 189 countries with a Human Development Index of 0.640, according to The UNDP Human Development Index Report-2018. India has not improved its position from 130th rank for more than a decade.
From this data it is clear that the perspectives of the dimensions of poverty keep on changing throughout the world and providing reservations to the poor of upper castes by allocating 30 per cent of their population in proportion to other castes and determining 5 acre land holding, or Rs 8 lakh income per annum as a ceiling to determine the poverty line, is not on rational lines. The income poverty is outdated and the Constitution does not provide reservations for economically poor. The agricultural yields in irrigated delta areas and totally dry areas in Rajasthan are different and dependent on crops they raise, whether commercial or non-commercial, weather, and other conditions.
In rural India 25 per cent of households have land holdings and others are wage earners according to Census figures. The percentage of small and marginal farmers in India is 86.12 per cent and only 13.88 per cent are large and medium farmers according to the Agricultural Census 2015-16. The present norm of determining the poor by the Union Cabinet for 10 per cent reservations based on agricultural land possessed is not correct and will lead to several problems. Poverty in India today is mainly because of the unorganised, unskilled daily wage earners, who do not have wage employment, either agriculture or non-agriculture labour, round the year. How many of the upper caste populations contribute to daily wage earnings?
Answers to these questions are very essential before taking any decision in Parliament and there must be an open debate nationwide. In my view the vast majority of agricultural and other wage earners should be the priority for such reservations rather than the landed gentry, irrespective of caste or religion, since children of these categories are first generation literates eligible for employment after getting skills and education. In fact this decision of providing reservations to the poor among upper castes will result in more inequalities, and cause discontent and dissatisfaction among the real poor and deprived sections, if proper guidelines are not worked out based on factual data.
There are already complaints that many developed communities have been included in the lists of all categories of reserved sections accidentally. Irrespective of categorisation there are hardly three or four dominant communities to take the major share of the pie.
In Telangana as well as Andhra Pradesh, irrespective of the fact that nearly 100 castes are included in the lists of BCs, only three or four communities take up the quota for reserved seats, including elected representatives. This is true of every other category.
The Constitution has recognised only social and educational backwardness but not economic backwardness. The poverty alleviation programmes introduced in the 1970s still persist under different names. Most are outdated and we will be unable to improve the HDI for many years since these programmes do not contribute to improvement of Multi Dimensional Poverty.
The time has come to review and revise the definition of backwardness and relative poverty levels in the country after 70 years of Independence. A scientific and unbiased study is required at national level by the competent authority like Niti Aayog and followed by open debate and discussions. All political parties should come to a consensus to implement the newly approved proposal otherwise it will result in chaos and unrest among the people. Parliament should invite a nationwide debate and wisely postpone the decision to the next term.
The writer is a former director of the Indian Institute of Economics, Hyderabad.
References: Caste, Census, Democracy - Different Perspectives: Published in Anveshi, June 2011UNDP India Report on Sustainable Development Goals 2018
Wikipedia: Multidimensional Poverty