[op-ed snap] A solution in search of a problem: on 10% reservations

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Mains Paper 2: Governance| Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Basic Structure, Constitutional Amendment (Art 368), Art 15, 16.

Mains level: The newscard discusses issues and challenges wrt 10% quota to “the economically weaker sections in the general category, in a brief manner.


Context

  • The bill is designed to amend the Constitution to extend 10% reservation in direct recruitment in  government jobs and for admission in higher educational institutions to “economically weaker” sections among all castes and communities, Christians and Muslims included, who are not eligible under the existing quotas.

Background

  • India’s reservation system is clearly in disarray. However, it is unlikely that the recently passed Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, creating a 10% quota for the economically weaker sections(EWS), will serve as anything more than a band-aid.
  • Given the deep inequalities prevalent in access to education and jobs based on caste and socio-economic status, affirmative action (or positive discrimination) makes a lot of sense.
  • However, the system that was put in place during the early years of the Republic deserves serious re-evaluation in an era when technology has paved the way for deploying a better equipped arsenal.

Potential implications of the EWS quota Bill

  1. Excluding no one
  • One of the criteria — the income threshold of 8 lakh per annum — has been mentioned.
  • The National Sample Survey (NSS) of 2011-12 shows that the annual per capita expenditure for 99% of households falls under this threshold, even when we take inflation into account.
  • Similarly, as per the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), the annual household incomes of 98% of households are less than 8 lakh.
  • Even if we apply all the other criteria for exclusion (e.g. amount of land owned and size of home), the Bill would still cover over 95% of the households.

 

  1. Cost may be higher than one anticipates
  • First, general category jobs are open to everyone, including Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and OBC individuals. Thus, by removing 10% jobs from the “open” category, it reduces the opportunities for currently reserved groups. Hence, this is by no means a win-win situation.
  • This may be particularly problematic for OBCs since OBC reservation is limited to 27% of the seats whereas the OBC population is at least 40% of the population, possibly more. Thus, this move is almost certain to result in calls for greater OBC reservation, particularly if a constitutional amendment to increase the proportion of reserved seats from 50% to 60% is already being adopted.
  • Actual implementation of the EWS quota could be challenging. Few non-SC/ST/OBC individuals have a caste certificate. A large number of SC/ST/OBC households report difficulties in obtaining these certificates. How would an individual practically lay claim to this status?
  • In an era when skill demands are rapidly outpacing supply of candidates in specialised fields, the EWS quota increases the constraints. For instance, If a university advertises for an associate professor for quantum physics under the EWS quota and the only suitable candidate happens to be from an OBC category, she could not be hired. These challenges occur for all positions under specifically reserved categories.
  • The greatest cost of this amendment lies in the foregone opportunity to develop an enhanced and more effective reservation policy so that we can genuinely see an end to the entrenched inequalities in Indian society in the medium term.

Alternative strategies

  1. One strategy may be to try and spread the benefits of reservations as widely as possible within the existing framework and ensure that individuals use their reserved category status only once in their lifetime.
  • This would require that anyone using reservations to obtain a benefit such as college admission must register his/her Aadhaar number and she would be ineligible to use reservations for another benefit (e.g. a job) in the future.
  • This would require no changes to the basic framework but spread the benefits more broadly within the reserved category allowing a larger number of families to seek upward mobility.
  1. A second strategy might be to recognise that future economic growth in India is going to come from the private sector and entrepreneurship.
  • In order to ensure that all Indians, regardless of caste, class and religion, are able to partake in economic growth, we must focus on basic skills. We have focused on admission to prestigious colleges and government jobs, but little attention is directed to social inequality in the quality of elementary schooling.
  • The IHDS shows that among children aged 8-11, 68% of the forward caste children can read at Class 1 level while the proportion is far lower for OBCs (56%), SCs (45%) and STs (40%).
  • This suggests that we need to focus on reducing inequalities where they first emerge, within primary schools.
Minority Issues – Dalits, OBC, Reservations, etc.
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