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Explained: The ‘poor forward’ quota story

What is the Centre’s proposal about the economically backward among the ‘general category’ upper castes? What is the background and context of the decision, and what is the way forward?

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |
Updated: January 8, 2019 12:50:18 pm
10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections An upper caste rally in Bhopal before the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election last year. (Express Photo: Milind Ghatwai)

Ahead of elections to Lok Sabha, the Union Cabinet has cleared a Bill to be brought in Parliament, seeking to provide 10% reservation in government higher education institutions and government jobs to the economically backward among the ‘general category’.

This refers to non-Dalits, non-Other Backward Classes and non-tribals — essentially, the upper castes or so-called ‘forwards’. Several Opposition parties said that the “hasty” move was another election “gimmick” or “jumla” from the BJP, and showed the party’s increasing “desperation”.


The first Backward Classes Commission was appointed under Article 340(1) in 1953 under the Chairmanship of Kaka Saheb Kalelkar to determine criteria to identify people as socially and educationally Backward Classes, and to recommend steps to ameliorate their condition. In its report, the Commission interpreted the term “socially and educationally backward classes as relating primarily to social hierarchy based on caste”. The second Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1978 under B P Mandal to review the state of the Backward Classes. The Commission submitted its report in 1980, but it was put in cold storage until the V P Singh government pulled it out in 1990. This report recommended 27.5% reservations in government jobs for OBCs, stirring a hornet’s nest in North Indian politics, with ramifications that continue to be felt today.

Who qualifies for the proposed quota?

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The quota is targeted at economically weaker sections among the upper castes. General category individuals, all members of whose family together earn less than Rs 8 lakh per annum, and who have less than five acres of agricultural land, will qualify. Individuals whose families own or possess more agricultural land, or a residential flat of area 1,000 sq ft or larger, or a residential plot of area 100 yards or more in notified municipalities and 200 yards or more in areas other than notified municipalities, will not qualify.

Also read : When Supreme Court said poverty can’t be test of backwardness

For reference, the individual income-tax exemption limit in India is Rs 2.5 lakh, and there is no agreement on where the bread line is in the country currently. There were intense discussions during the tenure of the UPA government on where the poverty line should lie, but after the disbanding of the Planning Commission, the debate has largely petered out. In April 2009, the Arjun Sengupta Committee estimated that at the end of 2004-05, about 836 million people, or 77% of India’s population, were surviving on less than Rs 20 per day. In November that year, a Committee headed by Suresh Tendulkar used a different methodology to estimate India’s combined rural-urban poverty headcount ratio in 2004-05 at 37.2%, and the rural poverty line at Rs 447 and the urban poverty line at Rs 579.

One of the key demands of strike action planned by Left-backed unions over Tuesday and Wednesday is guaranteed minimum wages of Rs 18,000 per month, which works out to Rs 2,16,000 per annum.

10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections V P Singh, S R Bommai and Lalu Prasad with Sharad Yadav before he embarked on his ‘Mandal Rath Yatra’ from B P Mandal’s village in Bihar in 1992. (Archives)

Is this idea of reservation for ‘poor forwards’ new?

No, it has been explored earlier.


* In 2008, the government of Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan in Kerala decided to reserve 10% seats in graduation and PG courses in government colleges and 7.5% seats in universities for the economically backward among the forwards. An appeal is pending in the Supreme Court.

* In 2011, Mayawati, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, wrote to the central government asking for reservation for upper-caste poor.

* In 2008 and 2015, the Rajasthan Assembly passed Bills to provide a 14% quota to the economically backward classes (EBCs) among the forward castes.


What would it take for the quota to become reality?

It will need an amendment of Articles 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and 16 (equality of opportunity in matters of public employment) of the Constitution. The amendment will have to be ratified in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, by at least two thirds of members present and voting, and by the legislatures of not less than half the states.

READ: Who all will benefit from 10 per cent reservation for general category decision

Also, the percentage of seats that can be reserved has long been an issue in the courts. In M R Balaji And Others vs State Of Mysore (1962), the Supreme Court enunciated the principle that “speaking generally and in a broad way, a special provision should be less than 50%”, a ceiling that it reiterated in its Mandal judgment (Indra Sawhney Etc vs Union Of India And Others (1992)) and on several other occasions. The proposed 10% poor forward quota will take the reservation ceiling higher than 50%. Reservation in Tamil Nadu, which is 69% of the total, is protected from judicial review by the Ninth Schedule; however, the Supreme Court, in I R Coelho v State of Tamil Nadu (2007), has ruled that laws that violate the basic structure of the Constitution would be open to judicial review, including any law added to the Ninth Schedule after April 24, 1973.

There is a strong likelihood that the proposed 10% quota will be challenged in court.

But aren’t there poor among the upper castes too?


Articles 330-342 under Part 16 of the Constitution outline special provisions for certain classes. The Constitution identifies only four such classes — SCs, STs, Backward Classes and Anglo Indians. The Constitutional promise is explicitly for social exclusion and discrimination.

While providing quotas for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in jobs in the nineties (and in higher educational institutions in 2006), the target group was “socially and educationally backward classes”. The OBCs included the ‘middle castes’, who used their hands to engage in a variety of specific occupations, often with connotations of being ‘lowly’ occupations.


Quotas for the poor among the upper castes has been seen essentially as a poverty alleviation move dressed up as reservation, which has an air of a state guarantee. In fact, the spirit of reservation is to address a specific social wrong, peculiar to the subcontinent. The question of how the ‘creamy layer’ in the socially backward sections should be considered, has been a contentious one.

Why has the government made this announcement now?

Defeats in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan are widely seen as having rattled the BJP with Lok Sabha elections fewer than 90 days away.


In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, upper-caste anger and alienation is thought to have played a key role in the BJP’s defeats. The BJP’s backing for reservation for Dalits in promotions, and its bringing a Bill to overturn the Supreme Court’s order on The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which made some offences under the Act bailable, was greeted with anger by a section of the BJP’s voter base.

Also, over the last few years, middle castes such as the Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Rajasthan, Marathas in Maharashtra, and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh have led assertive, sometimes violent agitations to demand reservations.

While the government’s announcement is a nod to each of these constituencies and a bid to manage their grievances, the fact is that government jobs are not growing, overall employment is shrinking, and there is widespread rural distress.

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First published on: 08-01-2019 at 01:27:49 am
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