The BJP-led government has decided to open up a new front on contentious issue of reservations. They have decided to introduce a constitutional amendment, to offer economically weaker sections (EWS), who are currently not eligible for reservation — the upper caste — a 10 percent quota in all government jobs and in higher education.
According to the government, the standard for EWS is defined as income less than Rs 8 lakh a year, agricultural land below 5 acres, or a house below 1,000 square feet, located in a plot of 109 yards in a notified municipal area, or 209 yards in a non-notified musicality area. The constitutional amendment, if passed, would bring the reservation in government jobs and colleges above the 50 percent mark as stipulated by the Supreme Court.
At the backdrop of this decision are two core issues. The first is that the government has not been successful in its promise of creating the 10 million jobs that it had promised in its election manifesto. If anything, the unemployment rate has marginally risen in the tenure of this government. Also, contributing to this is the ripple effect of demonetisation, and then the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The neo-middle class that voted whole heartedly for Narendra Modi and the BJP have begun getting increasingly disenchanted. And, part of the losses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh are attributed to this neo middle-class disillusionment with the party.
The second issue is that many other castes such as the Patidars, Jats, Marathas, and others, are all clamouring for reservations beyond the 50 percent stipulated by the Supreme Court. And, given their ability to attract the masses in their community, and protest – sometimes violently – state governments have been giving in to the demands. It also helps that these dominant castes have the numbers to influence elections.
Amongst the dominant castes in each state, there is a sense of economic and political insecurity, as those who are eligible for reservation – scheduled castes and tribes – seem to be moving up the economic and social ladder. A 2016 article in the Economic and Political Weekly, Distress in Marathaland, looked at how while Marathas were way ahead in the ownership of land compared to Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs); this equation was reversed when it came to advantages brought by education and government jobs.
It is in the context of these two issues that we need to assess the government’s decision to bring in a constitutional amendment to increase reservations by 10 percent. This reservation quota has nothing to do with caste and is purely awarded on the basis of economic backwardness, opening up reservations, for the first time in the Republic of India, to the economically disadvantaged among the upper caste.
While most of us may think of ourselves as middle class, we aren’t. We are either the elite or the affluent – whose households earn above Rs 8 lakh per annum. The neo middle class is made up of the Aspirers and the Next Billion who earn between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 8 lakh annually. They form about 50 percent of the Indian households, and likely half the Indian electorate. It is this audience segment that Modi is trying to cajole.
With the government unable to create new jobs, and the pool of jobs available to the general category diminishing with each additional demand for dominant caste reservation, the economically backward members of the upper castes have begun getting squeezed, and alienated. It is hoped that this sop will assuage the disenchantment of this group, and get them out to vote.
The problem remains, where are the jobs? It is not like the government has managed to expand the jobs base and create enough employment. Therefore, it is likely that the proposed quota is going to eat into the stagnant pool of jobs that exist.
Secondly, there is the issue of the Supreme Court and how it will view the bill after it becomes an act. In a country where people challenge any government move with a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that this will go unchallenged.
Quotas will not be needed if there are enough jobs to go around. Unfortunately for politicians, it is far easier to play the politics of reservation, than take firm steps to increase employability or employment. If the government was serious about the issues facing the economically backward among the upper castes, they would have brought in this proposed amendment at the very start of its term, and shepherded it through Parliament and the various state legislatures. Now it seems that the government has managed to get a constitutional amendment without going to the states.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
First Published: IST