Reservations have had a place in India for over a century, much before they were written into the Constitution as a leg up for socially and educationally backward sections. In 1902 Pune’s Chhatrapati Maharaj reserved seats in educational institutions; the Mysore Maharaja and the states of Madras and Travancore too ensured representation for the very backward in all senses of the term because of highly stratified social structures and the practice of “untouchability” that had left large sections of the population backward for centuries. They recognised that it was only by actively trying to lift up these sections by offering seats in educational institutions and in employment, that some kind of level playing field could be established.
Earlier this week the Backward Classes Commission recommended up to 27 per cent reservation in the private sector.
Since the 1989 Mandal Report was accepted and reservations entered the political universe of North India, each time an attempt has been made to widen the debate – last in 2005 — there has been a huge backlash on the grounds that it is the defeat of ‘merit’.
As early as October 10, 1951, when BR Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet to protest against the obstacles the Hindu Code bill encountered, he had made a specific reference to unfinished promises made to those facing social discrimination in India. He said: “Inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
The strong words used then, Dalit activists say, were prescient. Those who wish to introduce economic criteria and other factors for reservation have ignored the toll discriminatory practices have taken on the majority of Indian society not only Hindus but Islam, Christianity, Sikhism too.
In 2005, when the HRD Minister under UPA1, Arjun Singh piloted a bill to broaden reservations from just public jobs to higher educational institutions, the ambit was increased to extend it to admissions in private educational institutions as well, say activists. The new Clause 5 in Article 15 allows for reservations to be valid for unaided educational institutions but it has not been made into a law which can be implemented in nearly 11 years.
Those who argue for ‘merit in the ‘private’ sector obfuscate the fact that allowing people to buy seats via capitation fee is also a kind of an anti-reservation move, one that grants privileges to those who have money. However, allowing capitation fee to enrich private institutes seldom causes outrage.
Reservations once accepted in the constitutional framework are not charity which is to be kept away from the ‘meritocracy’ of ‘private’ operations. Like all other constitutional guarantees, India must ensure all its citizens opportunity in all spaces; giving preference and quotas for socially and educationally deprived sections in the private space is therefore, in keeping with this fundamental tenet.
As the National Commission for Backward Castes argues, with the number of jobs generated in the state sector shrinking steadily, for the promise of quotas in the Constitution to have any real meaning, it may be inevitable to extend it to the private sector. An estimate has it that less than one percent (only .69 per cent) of jobs in the
country for educated citizens are covered by reservations.
For a more balanced and equitable India and to just ensure that we don’t set about building a “palace on a dung heap” quotas in the private sector may become a necessity sooner than we think.