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Things could not have got more difficult for the BJP than this. Just when it is struggling to pick a chief minister to replace Anandiben Patel, the Gujarat High Court has quashed the 10 per cent EWS quota for upper castes – a decision the Anandiben government had taken to pacify the Patidar agitation.
While the government would have got wind of this last week itself when the HC stayed admissions in colleges till its verdict, the decision is set to open a new front for the soon-to-be appointed chief minister and might even influence the decision by the BJP on this.
In the last one year, incidentally, a former teacher and long time education minister at its helm notwithstanding, the state’s flagship initiatives to increase literacy rates and promote education, began to show flaws.
To begin with, when the government decided to do a reality check on the annual evaluation exercise for school students, gunotsav, in its sixth edition since it was launched by Narendra Modi as chief minister, it exposed how the learning levels achieved were just above 50 per cent of what was expected.
The surge of youth from Gujarat’s dominant community – the Patidars – demanding the status of “Other Backward Caste” and the Dalit uprising, a year later, were signs of how politics of quota, rapid industrialisation, unemployment coupled with bad monsoons, had led to frustration in a generation raring to go.
The BJP government quickly moved in to announce the Mukhyamantri Yuva Swavalambhan Yojana (MYSY) promising scholarships to meritorious students across schools hoping to appease a large section of youth. And within six months of MYSY, it announced the 10 per cent Economically Weaker Section quota and put both into effect immediately.
While the MYSY defined beneficiaries among those whose annual income was less than Rs 4.5 lakh, the EWS were defined as those with an annual income of Rs six lakh or less.
The new government would have barely a year to make moves that can win back this constituency of youth that is beginning to see through the knee jerk solutions. Simply putting the blame on the Congress or any other political opposition is not going to work.
Front-runner for chief minister, Nitin Patel’s statement reacting to the HC decision, that the government would move the apex court, and that admissions could continue as per the pre-EWS system, was not assuring enough. Patel was leading the seven-member ministerial panel that was talking to the agitating Patidars, and ended up designing the EWS quota.
The student community was already confused, confounded and might now be annoyed.
Over the last decade, professional courses like engineering and medicine especially in private colleges became inaccessible to a large number of people in the open category, given their high fee structures. In 2011, the BJP civic body in Ahmedabad had faced opposition for raising the annual fees in the NHL municipal medical college run by it to Rs 18 lakh.
Which is how a BJP minister had justified the Rs 50,000 monthly income slab for the EWS quota and said, “Today even you and I cannot afford a decent education for our children”. That higher education had become unaffordable for the middle class, was not lost on the BJP.
The system seemed to function in a pattern where the increasing unaffordability of education got governments to design initiatives to make them accessible to sections they wanted appeased. The MYSY and EWS quota are stark examples of this.
The situation in Gujarat seemed to be a repeat of the mid 1980s, when textile mills were closing down, joblessness was on the rise, and the anti-reservation riots hit the state. As part of its strategy, the Congress had organized the communities of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi Muslims (KHAM) which constituted over 52 per cent of the population to isolate the upper castes and went on to win the elections with 61 per cent of the votes in its favour. The new government also increased the quota of the OBCs from 10 per cent to 28 per cent.
However, some bold policy moves were initiated by the then Congress regimes aimed at reform, like subsidizing education for girls across the board and the midday meal scheme.
While the BJP’s approach seemed more blockbuster-type, like the Kanya Kelavni and Shala praveshotsav the school enrollment programme meant to encourage children to go to school and check drop-out rates among girls. Teams of ministers and bureaucrats would head out to remote villages in the month of June when the academic year begins, and participate in the enrollment drive. There was no system to ensure that they completed schooling.
Like the HC observed when quashing the EWS quota, that the government had not done any survey to determine if there was a section that needed such quota.