In the run-up to the crucial Gujarat polls this December, the Union government has announced a series of measures aimed at wooing the Other Backward Classes (OBC), particularly the non-dominant OBC communities. Observers point out the move seems aimed at strengthening a voter base among the OBCs while, at the same time, undermining the regional parties that have large followings in the dominant OBC communities. But there is a lot more beyond the political debate over these measures.
Last week, the government had given indications of its plans to reintroduce the legislation to grant Constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) in the forthcoming winter session of Parliament. The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Third Amendment) Bill, 2017 aims to bring the NCBC on par with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST).
In the last session, there was a deadlock in the Rajya Sabha over the Bill as the Opposition managed to vote in significant amendments to reserve seats for women and minority members in the new Commission. However, the amendment was dropped by the government and the rest of the Bill was passed without this.
The proposed legislation will empower the NCBC, which presently has a mere recommendatory role when it comes to the inclusion or exclusion of a community in the Central list of OBCs. The Bill gives the NCBC powers on par with the civil court to issue summons, examine all matters regarding the welfare and development of OBCs and investigate complaints pertaining to the non-implementation of reservations in jobs and educational institutions.
Significantly, the Bill also gives Parliament the final authority to make changes to the OBC list — this means that Parliament now gets to decide on the issues pertaining to the Jats, Marathas, Patels, Kapus and the many other communities that have been agitating for inclusion in the OBC list.
Alongside, an important definition involved has changed. In August this year, the union cabinet approved a proposal to revise the income definition of the ‘creamy layer’ within OBCs, increasing this from those earning Rs 6 lakh per annum to Rs 8 lakh per annum. As per the Supreme Court directive in the Indra Sawhney And Others vs Union of India case (1993), the creamy layer of OBCs (relatively better-off sections) cannot benefit from reservation facilities. Then, the income criteria was Rs 1 lakh per year. The last time the ‘creamy layer’ ceiling was revised, from Rs 4.5 lakh in 2008, was in 2013, when it was increased to Rs 6 lakh per annum.
Also, in August this year, the cabinet approved the setting up of a Commission to examine the sub-categorisation of 5,000-odd castes in the central OBC list. The panel was to submit its report within 12 weeks from the date of appointment of the Chairperson of the Commission. The appointment of Justice (Retd) G Rohini to head the Commission was made much later on October 2, giving the five-member panel time until early January to come out with its report. The Commission has been set up under Article 340 of the Constitution. It is under this Article that the Mandal Commission, which recommended 27 per cent reservation for socially and educationally backward classes, was appointed. The new Commission has been given the task of sub-categorising all the castes in the central OBC list to ensure a “more equitable distribution” of opportunities in central government jobs and educational institutions. It will also have to come up with a scientific methodology for carrying out the classification exercise.
At present, a total of eleven states and/or union territories have a sub-categorisation of OBCs for their state services, including Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Haryana, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Jammu. However, larger states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where more advanced OBCs such as Yadavs and Kurmis, corner most of the benefits and political clout involved, do not have assured sub-quotas for the extremely backward classes.
Interestingly, this is not the first time that such a proposal for quotas within a quota has been mooted. The former NCBC, as well as a Parliamentary Standing Committee, had recommended such a sub-classification. In fact, in its report dated March 2, 2015, the former NCBC under Justice V. Eswaraiah had asked the union government for its immediate nod to undertake the nationwide exercise with the help of an expert body such as the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). The NCBC noted that it is necessary to ensure “equitable distribution among the various backward classes to avoid lumping so that one or two such classes do not eat away the entire quota, leaving the other backward classes high and dry”. The NCBC asked for an “in principle” approval for its methodology. However, the union government took a call on going ahead two and a half years later.
But the NCBC had suggested a methodology. Noting that those with an un-equal status cannot be treated equally and measures are required to bring them on par with the advanced classes, the NCBC had asked for sub-categorisation within the OBC category into Extremely Backward Classes (Group ‘A’), More Backward Classes (Group ‘B’) and Backward Classes (Group ‘C’).
This methodology was based on the categorisation in Andhra Pradesh, which was referred to by the Supreme Court in the State of Andhra Pradesh And Others vs U.S.V. Balram (1972) and Indra Sawhney And Others vs Union Of India (1993) cases. Accordingly, the ‘EBC’ in Group A was to comprise of aboriginal tribes, denotified tribes or vimukta jatis, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. Group B was to consist of vocational groups such as blacksmiths, brass smiths, various kind of weavers, carpenters, etc., and Group C was to include those OBC persons hailing from agricultural or business communities. The NCBC in its report referred to a similar classification carried out by nine states and/or union territories. For instance, Puducherry has classified its 76 OBC communities into five categories, two of which are Backward Class Muslims and Backward Tribes. Of its 33% reservation for OBCs, Bihar has kept three percent for OBC women. And Tamil Nadu, which has the highest reservation for OBCs at 50%, has 3.5% for Backward Class Muslims and 20% for the most backward classes and denotified communities.