The lead author of the Constitution of India, Dr B.R. Ambedkar was of the view that legislation doesn’t change people. That’s why he stated and didn’t believe that reservation of constituencies or jobs for dalits would change the way Indian society looked at its lower castes. He reluctantly agreed to reservation in Parliament and the legislatures in the belief that it would be discontinued 10 years after the adoption of the Constitution. On November 30, 1948, Dr Ambedkar, the founding father of the Constitution, had a note of caution for future governments — large-scale reservation quotas could destroy the rule of equality of opportunity. He advocated that reservation quotas be consistent with Article 10 (now Article 14) of the Constitution and must be confined to minority of seats.
Dr Ambedkar argued that theoretically it was good to have principle of equality of opportunity, but he said there must also be a provision for the entry of certain communities outside the administrative set up. He gave a hypothetical ratio of 70 per cent reserved seats and 30 per cent for unreserved category. His argument then was, “Could anybody say that the reservation of 30 per cent as open to general competition would be satisfactory from the point of view of giving effect to the first principle, namely, that there shall be equality of opportunity?”
The Constitution of India states in Article 16(4): “Nothing in Article 16 or in Clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”. It is this provision, which enables our governments to keep extending and expanding reservations to pander to votebank sentiments. The sad fact of life is having fobbed off demands for more opportunities and equality in benefits, the upper-caste elites, who actually run this country keep extending reservation without giving the vast multitudes anything worthwhile by way of benefits. It has made little difference to the vast multitudes of dalits and adivasis, except giving rise to a new hereditary elite. Putting a Narayanan or Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan fobs off demands for representation.
Even worse is the corrosive effects of this manner of tokenism on standards, particularly in service. It is true that it has made the public administration more representative, but what is the larger benefit if these decades all we have achieved is to create another self-perpetuating elite? Way back in June 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru was aware of the pitfalls of the reservations policy of his government and his party. He wrote to the chief ministers expressing his concerns over efficiency. He wrote: “I have referred above to efficiency and to our getting out of our traditional ruts. This necessitates getting out of the old habit of reservations and particular privileges given to this caste or that group. It is true that we are tied up with certain rules and conventions about helping Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
They deserve help, but even so, I dislike any kind of reservation, particularly in service. I react strongly against anything, which leads to second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first-class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second rate, we are lost.” While Ambedkar was concerned about the quality of the democracy that does not assure equality of opportunity, Nehru was concerned about the quality of administration. We have suffered on both counts. It is time now to think of a sunset clause to the reservations policy.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar only wanted it for 10 years. Let’s have a hundred or even better, 75. If it has not changed India by then, then it is clearly a policy that doesn’t work and has failed.
It is true that Hindu society oppressed adivasis and dalits. It excluded them and exploited them. Reparations for historical injustices are just, but it cannot be endless and limitless. Reparations can take other forms too. What about a guaranteed high-quality education and financial support to all adivasi and dalit children? How about universalising high standards for education, the kind of standards the urban elite expects and dem-and for their children. I was recently at a school for tribal children and the conditions were appalling. Our media which poured days of its focus on the Ryan International School murder and turned it into a discussion on inadequate provision of CCTV and separate toilets have never spent even a handful of bytes on the plight of millions of our other children.
The Census 2011 figures suggest the overall numbers we are looking at are much larger. While the situation has certainly improved over 2001 Census, in 2011 we still had 38 million children between 6-13 years not attending any educational institutions.
This included 7.1 million dalit and 4.6 million adivasi children. Alarmingly, of these 38 million children, more than 80 per cent have never attended any educational institution. How about financial assistance to families? I would like to see a limited direct transfer of benefit (DBT) to all adivasi and dalit households, say for the next 25 years. We must think in terms of making them equal first to benefit from equality of opportunity. Now ponder over this. Aristotle said: “It is an injustice to treat unequals as equals just as it is an injustice to treat equals as unequals”.