The mirage of poverty as ‘criterion’ for reservation

The mirage of poverty as ‘criterion’ for reservation

True Purpose of Reservation — Not Poverty or Unemployment Removal but Removal of Imbalance in Governance and Administration and Removal of Inequality.

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Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader, Hardik Patel. (Source: Express Photo by Javed Raja)

I have separately dealt with a number of issues arising from the Patel / Patidar agitation. I am writing this to throw factual and unbiased light on one important issue, namely, the widespread demand from eminent “upper” caste persons of different Parties and media that Reservation, if at all continued, should be on the basis of pure economic criteria, i.e., for the “Socially and Economically Backward Classes”. This plea is invalid under our Constitution and harmful to the bulk of the people of India on whom “Untouchability”, indignity and all-round inequality were imposed over the centuries on the basis of their caste. This plea represents the unrealistic aspiration of misguided highly-educated elements among Socially Advanced Castes (SACs) to walk back into that heaven of theirs which existed before Mandal and before Ambedkar.

For Whom Reservation under Constitution and for Whom Not

Our Constitution provides Reservation for only three social classes, i.e.,

(a) Scheduled Castes (SCs), now popularly known as Dalits

(b) Scheduled Tribes (STs), now popularly known as Adivasis

(c)  Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (not Socially and Economically Backward Classes as trotted out by many scholars and learned TV anchors and commentators with self-assurance matching ignorance) – referred to also as Other Backward Classes or as Backward (BCs).

It does not provide or permit Reservation for the “Poor” or the spurious “Economically Backward Classes”. No such class is recognized by the Constitution. Some Governments have coined this term to make it look like a Constitutional category.


True Purpose of Reservation — Not Poverty or Unemployment Removal but Removal of Imbalance in Governance and Administration and Removal of Inequality.

The reservation is not a programme for removal of poverty or unemployment. It was initiated for removal of imbalance in governance and administration, instituted in response to social movements against Brahmin and other “upper” caste monopoly, by four Maharajas — not “vote hungry politicians” — the Maharajas of Kolhapur (1902), Mysore (1921), Travancore (1935), and Cochin, and by the Justice Party-headed Government of the Madras Presidency (1921) — the only Province under direct British rule in which Reservation was then introduced was the Bombay Presidency in 1931 — covering the whole peninsula with Reservation for what are now known as Backward Classes (BCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), well before Independence and before electoral politics.

At the national level also, Reservation was started before Independence. In 1943, it was started for SCs by the initiative of Dr. Ambedkdar as Member, Viceroy’s Executive Council; in 1947 was extended to STs, but BCs missed the bus at that time and were unconstitutionally denied Reservation till 1990 when the combined efforts of Prime Minister VP Singh, Welfare Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and myself as Welfare Ministry Secretary overcame all obstacles and started it.

Dr Ambedkar clarified the removal of imbalance in governance and administration as the purpose of Reservation during the debate in the Constituent Assembly by pointing out that the purpose of Clause (4) was to emphasise that “there shall be reservation in favour of certain communities which have not so far had a ‘proper look-in’…. Into the administration. With the commencement of the Constitution, Reservation also became an integral part of the basic structure of measures required for elimination of the inherited structure of Inequality, based on caste-with-“Untouchability”, and for the establishment of Social Equality, which is a basic feature of the Constitution.

Vast Unreserved Area is with Socially Advanced Castes

The SACs cannot complain that Reservation is the cause of their unemployment. The number of posts that can be filled up by Reservation, if properly and fully implemented, is a mere 0.69 % of the total number of educated unemployed registered in employment exchanges all over India. The reservation does not cover half of the posts and seats in the State sector and the much vaster private sector, which are occupied by SACs almost completely.

Supreme Court’s Invalidation of Reservation for the “Economically Backward” — Reservation for “Poor” held Unconstitutional and Will Annul Article 16 (4).

The Supreme Court, in its landmark Mandal judgment (1992), which upheld the VP Singh Government’s Order of 1990 (facilitated by my guidance and inputs) recognizing certain castes as BCs on the ground of social and educational backwardness and providing 27% Reservation for them, also held as Constitutionally invalid and therefore struck down the para added in 1991 by the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government, which provided 10% Reservation for “Other economically backward sections of the people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of Reservation”.

The judgment, after elaborate reasoning concludes that mere economic backwardness or mere educational backwardness which is not the result of social backwardness cannot be the criterion of backwardness in Article 16 (4).

At the time of the debate on the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which added Clause (4) to Article 15 of the Constitution empowering the State to take any measures for the advancement of the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes and for the SCs and STs, Prof.

K.T. Shah, MP wanted to add the word “economically” before the term backward classes. This was rejected by Prime Minister Nehru himself on grounds which show that “economic consideration alone as the basis of backwardness was not only not intended but positively discarded”.

The Supreme Court also pointed out that if poverty alone is made the test, those poor who belong to socially and educationally advanced section would capture all the posts in the quota, as it would be naïve to expect that the poor from the socially and educationally backward classes would be able to compete on equal terms with the poor from the SACs. The Supreme Court with great insight concluded the “economic criterion will thus lead, to the virtual deletion of Article 16 (4) from the Constitution”. That is exactly the reason why even some acclaimed lawyers born in SACs are forcefully pleading for “pure economic criterion” for Reservation.

From the point of view of the purpose of the Constitution and the purpose of Reservation, there cannot be any question of “pure economic criterion” for Reservation or Reservation for the so-called “economically backward classes” or “socially and economically backward classes” or “the poor”.

Proper Remedy for the Poor of SACs

It is true that the poverty exists among all castes and among all social classes. It is seen from the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report data that poverty exists in much larger measure among SCs, STs and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes and Muslims (communities accounting for 80 to 85% of Muslims are already included in the Lists of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes) than among the SACs. The measures to remove poverty are different. Reservation cannot remove poverty.

Certainly the genuinely poor among the SACs deserve sympathy and appropriate help, but that Constitutionally cannot be Reservation; it can and should be scholarships and educational loans on a liberal scale so that no child or youth has to drop out of education only on account of financial incapacity.

Next Step

Governments should, without dithering and equivocation, firmly declare that no Socially Advanced caste will be included in BC lists, and there is no question of changing the criteria for SCs, STs and BCs, which are based on the Constitution and on socio-historical and still-current realities, and stick to this declaration. They should also sincerely and holistically undertake and efficiently implement the whole gamut of comprehensive Social Justice measures that are required to complete the Constitutional task of creation of Equality between SCs, STs and BCs, on the one hand, and the SACs, on the other, in all parameters. It is in the interest of the country and of the SACs themselves to cooperate with this process, help in its completion, desist from periodically creating disturbances, seek only Constitutionally permissible help like scholarships and thus harmoniously contribute to the creation of the ambience facilitating the optimal development of India.


The author is former Secretary to Government of India and has been in the field of Social Justice for SCs, STs, BCs for the last more than six-and-half decades.

(Views expressed here by the author are personal)