At its National Executive held in Bhubaneswar over the weekend, the BJP passed a separate resolution hailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Bill seeking to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes, and accused the Congress and other Opposition parties of being “anti-backward castes”. It is politically vital for the BJP to consolidate and deepen its base among OBCs. What is the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Third Amendment) Bill, 2017?
What is the new amendment about?
The government seeks to repeal the National Commission for Backward Classes Act, 1993, and has introduced The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Third Amendment) Bill, 2017, to accord constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes. The Bill, passed by Lok Sabha last week, will insert Article 338B into the Constitution after Articles 338 and 338A which deal with the National Commissions for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) respectively. The proposed Article 338B states: “There shall be a Commission for the socially and educationally backward classes to be known as the National Commission for Backward Classes.” The government had earlier proposed that a National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes should replace the NCBC; however, after objections by OBC leaders, it decided against a change of nomenclature.
How does making the NCBC a constitutional body help?
Under the NCBC Act, the Commission merely has the power to recommend inclusion or exclusion of communities in the OBC list. The new Bill, once passed by Parliament, will allow it to look into all matters regarding the welfare and development of backward classes, as well as to investigate complaints. Currently, the Scheduled Castes Commission, which looks into cases of atrocities against Dalits, is also in charge of hearing grievances from OBCs — which mostly pertain to the non-implementation of reservations in jobs and educational institutes. The amended Bill will give the Commission powers equivalent to that of a civil court. It will be able to summon any person, ask for a document or public record, and receive evidence on affidavits. Union and state governments will have to consult the Commission on all significant policy matters affecting the socially and educationally backward classes. The Commission, which will have a chairperson, vice-chairperson and 3 members, will regulate its own proceedings.
So why has the Bill become contentious?
The Bill makes Parliament the final authority on inclusion of communities in the OBC list and, therefore, takes away the authority of states which can now send requests to the NCBC — which, however, may or may not forward them to the union government. Until now, the NCBC’s recommendations with regard to inclusions and exclusions in the list are binding on the government. Lok Sabha passed the Bill on April 10. However, when it was placed before Rajya Sabha, several members said such an important constitutional amendment could not be approved without proper study. As per the demand of the Upper House, the Bill was referred to a Select Committee. The 25-member Committee, headed by BJP member Bhupender Yadav, will submit its report during the Monsoon Session. However, this also means that there would be no NCBC in place unless the Bill is passed, as the term of the last member of the NCBC ended on February 13 and no appointments have been made since then in anticipation of the new Bill.
Will the new NCBC allow the inclusion of Jats, Marathas, Patels, etc. who have been demanding OBC status?
The demands have intensified especially after 2010, when OBC reservation was introduced in educational institutions. In 2014, in the wake of an agitation by Jats in Haryana, Delhi and UP, the union government went against the NCBC decision and included the community for 9 states in the Central List of OBCs — but the Centre’s decision was quashed by the Supreme Court. Once Parliament gets the final authority to make changes to the OBC list, it is unlikely the NCBC would be able to take any call on the matter on its own.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF OBC RESERVATIONS
The Kalelkar Commission, set up in 1953, was the first to identify backward classes other than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes at the national level. Its conclusion that caste is an important measure of backwardness was rejected on the ground that it had failed to apply more objective criteria such as income and literacy to determine backwardness.
The Mandal Commission report of 1980 estimated the OBC population at 52% and classified 1,257 communities as backward. It recommended increasing the existing quotas, which were only for SC/ST, from 22.5% to 49.5% to include the OBCs. A decade later, its recommendations were implemented in government jobs, a move that sparked major agitations.
To assuage the anti-reservation protesters, the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1991 introduced a 10% quota for the “economically backward sections” among the forward castes. The Supreme Court struck this down in the Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case, where it held that the Constitution recognised only social and educational — and not economic — backwardness.
The apex court, however, held reservation for OBCs as valid and directed that the creamy layer of OBC (those earning over a specified income) should not avail reservation facilities. The overall reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs was capped at 50%. Based on the order, the central government reserved 27% of seats in union civil posts and services, to be filled through direct recruitment, for OBCs. The quotas were subsequently enforced in central government educational institutions.