DC Edit | Use data to frame quotas, update them periodically
Democracies start off setting for themselves lofty goals which they hope to achieve at some point in time. The Declaration of Independence of the United States insisted that all men are created equal but it took another 87 years and a civil war for it to abolish slavery and more time to give women voting rights. The Civil Rights Act which bestowed citizens of colour their basic rights was passed as late as 1964.
Passed one and three quarters of a century after the US Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of India resolved to secure to all its citizens such great goals as justice, liberty and equality, knowing well that the task was too daunting. It incorporated an Article (Article 17) to abolish Untouchability, an age-old practice of keeping people off human activity based on the caste into which they had been born, reflecting the social realities of the time. Reservation for education and in jobs based on caste and social and educational backwardness was a tool the framers of the Constitution deployed primarily to ensure representation in power to peoples who had been kept off the mainstream for ages.
That logic of affirmative action for handholding discriminated communities has changed now. All the five judges of the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the 103rd amendment to the Constitution which provided reservation based on economic criteria. While the majority judgments of three judges also found the 50 per cent ceiling in reservation, fixed by a nine-member bench of the apex court, can be breached, two others held that the ceiling is inviolable. The majority judgment, again, held that those who get reservation otherwise are not eligible for reservation based on economic criteria while the other two held it as discrimination.
All democracies and their Constitutions are works in progress and those who believe that it is time we introduced an economic criterion to reservation can take heart in the constitutional amendment and the court verdict. The long and short of the exercise is that it is the polity, and the will of the people as reflected in Parliament, which decides the course of the nation, not just the written documents.
The framers of the Constitution did not include economic criteria not because there were no poor people in India when they were on the job: Estimates say between 65 and 80 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line at the time of Independence. It is not that their proportion has gone up now: Various agencies would put the size of such a population now between 20 and 30 per cent. It would have been more logical if the apex court had placed on record data to support the introduction of economic criteria for reservations and to make a shift in affirmative action aiming at lifting the fortunes of people from those groups.
It is ironic that the judges who said reservation cannot be forever and must be reviewed for their efficacy added another category to the quotas, but the point cannot be missed. The Constitution has promised the creation of an egalitarian society and it is the job of governments to work towards that ideal. There must be periodical assessment of the reservation policy and its impact based on data and changes made accordingly. Otherwise, it will be reduced to a political tool of inefficient governments used in order to escape the scrutiny of the people.