Quotas for the poor: All optics, no substance (or, Jumla #420)

by Ritwik on January 10, 2019

photo credit: Press Trust of India

The latest ‘masterstroke’ unleashed by the Narendra Modi government is the decision to grant 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions (these apparently include private colleges) to the economically weaker among communities which currently don’t enjoy the benefits of caste-based reservations (including Hindu ‘upper castes’, Muslims not counted in OBC lists, Christians, etc.).

For the moment, let us set aside whether this is, in principle, the right thing to do. The move simply looks like a non-starter. For the following reasons:

1. The limits of ‘economic backwardness’ as outlined in the legislation are bewildering. An annual income of 8 lakhs or a landholding of 5 acres is not ‘poor’ by Indian standards, especially given the widespread under-reporting of income. This is particularly true of non-professional classes. Indeed the move seems aimed at mollifying the trading communities which are longstanding supporters of the BJP and which have been upset with the implementation of GST.

2. Given the exemption limits drawn, vast numbers of people would be eligible for the 10% quota — thereby making the move redundant since it is extremely likely that more than 10% of the poor by this definition are already in government jobs and colleges!

3. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that extending reservations beyond 50% would constitute a violation of the right to equality. A previous move to fix quotas based on economic backwardness in the early nineties was rejected by a large bench of the Supreme Court. The move is clearly legally suspect, even if the government manages to push a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps even more worryingly, what’s with this government repeatedly introducing major policy measures (demonetization, land acquisition bill, etc.) at the very last moment leaving no time for proper consultation and amendment? Most political parties have supported the move to reserve seats for the economically backward. if proper time had been given, some of the glaring defects (outlined above and by other commentators) could be fixed, and something genuinely worthwhile could be passed. Is this the good governance (acche din) that was promised to the people – cynical political opportunism repeatedly trumping due process and sound policy making practices?

Given the cumulative impact of the above, this decision is likely to become another monument to Modi’s ability to get the optics right and energize his voter base, but not deliver anything substantial. The discerning would have no trouble detecting the pattern – Vibrant Gujarat summits (the vast investments promised have never materialized), the cleaning up of Sabarmati (a sham with about a kilometre of the river and its bank beautified for the sake of cameras), ‘ro-ro’ ferry (since discontinued), bringing black money back (self-confessed jumla), demonetization (the less said the better), GST (one nation, one tax, one common feeling of suffering and confusion), bullet train (turning out to be the most absurd white elephant), Ahmedabad metro (numerous other cities have got metros up and going, Ahmedabad still lagging behind), etc.

The 10% reservation for the economically backward gets the optics right (at least for most Modi voters and many fence-sitters) but like other jumlas, this too will culminate like the evergreen – mandir wahin banayenge, lekin tareekh nahi batayenge – aarakshan lagu karwayenge, lekin fayda nahi pahuchayenge.

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