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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A measure of inequality

An ‘empirical enquiry’ as demanded by the Supreme Court to ascertain social and economic backwardness of OBCs should not be delayed

August 27, 2021 9:08:43 am
Protests by Marathas demanding inclusion in the affirmative action policy have created apprehensions amongst OBCs. (Representational Photo)

(Written by Prashant Bansode)

In the last few years Maharashtra’s “dominant caste”, the Marathas, have been demanding inclusion in the affirmative action policy — in education and public employment. Their protests – by and large peaceful – have created apprehensions amongst OBCs. Though the OBCs are not opposed to the idea of extending reservation to Marathas, they fear that the latter would corner most of the quota if they are included in the list of OBCs. The OBCs recently got a setback as the Supreme Court struck down the OBC reservation in local bodies. As a response, OBCs are organising themselves under the umbrella organisation OBC Jan Morcha to restore the 27 per cent reservation in local bodies.

The Maharashtra government has taken immediate steps in this respect. The Backward Classes Commission is being set up. In the absence of a caste census, the state government has demanded the Centre share the Socio-Economic Caste Census data. This data was collected a decade ago and contains caste-wise information. Since Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are defined by the Constitution, there is no need to ascertain their “backwardness”. But the “backwardness” of the OBCs needs to be ascertained for extending the affirmative action policy. This is an independent exercise to be carried out by the designated commission.

Section 12(2) (c) of the Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act, 1961, which provides reservation to OBCs in local bodies, was quashed by the Supreme Court. The Court has asked the state government to ascertain the population of OBCs, conduct an empirical enquiry so as to fix the quota of reservation in local bodies as it was observed that it goes beyond the designated 50 per cent cap. Hence, it becomes imperative for the Maharashtra government to ask the Backward Classes Commission to conduct an “empirical enquiry” in order to justify the reservation of OBCs in local bodies and fix their quota based on this enquiry. In the case of OBCs, the data regarding population which is the base for deciding the quota of reservation is not available. The last caste-wise census was conducted in 1931. The Supreme Court, citing the constitutional bench verdict passed in K Krishan Murthy v Union of India in 2010, said that it was necessary for the state to conduct a rigorous empirical enquiry into contemporary conditions of backwardness and take follow up steps to amend the said section 12 (2) (c) of the Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act, 1961.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has asked for an “empirical enquiry” to test the backwardness. Since the establishment of the first OBC commission, the Supreme Court has demanded that backwardness be ascertained. Subsequently whenever the issue has come to the High Courts also, the government has been directed to conduct the enquiry of backwardness. Hence, to ascertain the backwardness an objective test is imperative.

The methodology adopted by the Mandal Commission is the base for testing the backwardness of these communities. Though caste forms one of the basis for ascertaining backwardness, it is not the sole criteria for deciding backwardness. The courts have regularly emphasised the need for discerning “social and educational backwardness”. The caste-based identification was seen as problematic since the first commission and there were different opinions about inclusion on the basis of caste. In fact, a majority of the members of the Kaka Kalelkar commission rejected caste as the basis for affirmative action. But later, the Mandal Commission took the view that one cannot deny the existence of caste as the base of hierarchy in society and, therefore, the axis of discrimination. It affirmed that backwardness needs to be seen as linked with the institution of caste as discrimination on its basis persists in society.

The earlier commissions for ascertaining backwardness had reached out to sociologists, research organisations, and specialised agencies for conducting empirical enquiry. Instead of one or two techniques of inquiry, they adopted various techniques to get feedback from a large area. A set of questionnaire schedules were designed to collect information from government departments, questionnaires from the public, and for socio-educational surveys. Touring by the members of the commission and taking evidence before the commission was used to collect information for identifying and attesting to the “backwardness” of the communities.

From the government departments, the information on representation of OBCs in government services, welfare schemes for OBCs, social status of manual workers and occupational communities, educational level and incidence of drop-outs, etc., could be obtained. From the general public, the information on the place of the caste in the social structure and civil disabilities suffered by backward classes could be discerned. The socio-educational field survey would lead by identifying the set of indicators for identifying social and educational backwardness. This could be done with the help of sociologists, demographers, and social scientists. Usually the housing status, educational status, proportion of casual manual labour, and other vulnerabilities constitute backwardness. The tours of the members of the commission would get first-hand information about the issues of the backward classes. The evidence before the commission from the eminent persons, sociologists, journalists, demographers, regarding the social and educational backwardness of OBCs was an integral part of the empirical enquiry.

The task before the present OBC commission of Maharashtra is to consider the diverse OBC communities as there are 350 other backward class communities and 53 Denotified and Nomadic Tribal communities in the state that come under the broad classification of other backward classes. This becomes crucial for sampling as well as for determining the proportion of reservation. Taking into consideration the methodology adopted by earlier commissions, it needs to design a methodology which factors in the contemporary context of backwardness. The designated commission needs to design the enquiry in a scientific and objective manner so that reservation to local bodies is justifiable in contemporary context.

The writer is Associate Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune

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