Much has been happening recently to encourage us to study carefully key questions on the concept and implementation of “reservations”, or positive discrimination, in India and the implementation of policies on this. Last week, the Lok Sabha unanimously amended the Constitution to confer statutory status on the National Commission on Backward Classes, bringing it at par with the national commissions on scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. With this amendment the NCBC, when it investigates cases of discrimination against BCs, will have the powers of a civil court.
After Independence, reservations were sought only for the scheduled castes and tribes due to the centuries/millennia of discrimination they had suffered, and the urgent need for a forward push by the state and society to rescue them from poverty and give them respectability at par with other citizens and to restore their human rights. The reservation for SC/STs was meant to be for a “temporary” period.
While this “temporary” phase is ongoing for seven decades, in the early 1990s the V.P. Singh government decided to extend reservations to socially and educationally backward classes — the so-called Other Backward Classes. Unlike the SC/ST reservations, which was not a vote-catching political device, this category of reservations appeared to many to be animated by electoral considerations due to the political circumstances of the time, though its protagonists sought to claim it was to further social justice.
The Supreme Court is now hearing a petition on reservations for the SC/ST category in promotions as well, going beyond reservations in education and government jobs. This is a hoary chestnut as such reservations could not proceed due to the rulings of several high courts, and has already been gone over by the Supreme Court — in the Indira Sawhney case and the Nagaraj case in 2006.
The court also rejected a petition last week which urged that quotas be extended to those below the poverty line. The court asked the petitioner to move the government on this.
In addition to all this, there is an ongoing agitation by the Maratha community for reservations on the ground of farm distress and inadequate job opportunities — grounds also cited by other prosperous and dominant peasant groups elsewhere in the country — Patidars in Gujarat, Kapu in Andhra Pradesh, and Jats and Gujjars in several north Indian states.
While discussions in Parliament take a political shape, with political parties interested only in cultivating vote blocs, there are as yet no defining studies on the outcomes flowing from the reservations policy for different categories. This is now urgently needed. In fact, we don’t even have an idea of the extent of the OBC population across India. The question also should be asked — is reservation the only way to help people overcome economic and social handicaps?...