The last few years have seen the so-called dominant farming communities — especially the Jats, Marathas, Patidars and Kapus — mount violent agitations demanding quotas in government jobs and higher educational institutions, whether under the OBC (Other Backward Class) or any specially created category.
In all these instances, the standard government response was, “look, we want to grant you reservations, but doing it entails breaching the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment. And including you within the 27 per cent OBC quota isn’t practical, since that would be at the expense of the communities already in the list”.
This feeble narrative has, however, undergone a sudden transformation now, with the Narendra Modi government introducing and passing in Parliament a Constitution amendment bill that creates a new economically weaker sections of citizens (EWS) category entitled to 10 per cent reservation, over and above the 15 per cent for Scheduled Castes, 7.5 per cent for Scheduled Tribes and 27 per cent for OBCs.
Such alacrity and boldness to defy Indra Sawhney is striking for two reasons.
First, this zeal wasn’t evident when the demand for creating similar quotas came from dominant farming communities. At least 10 deaths were reported during the Patidar OBC quota stir in July-August 2015, while protests by the Jats in February 2016 claimed some 30 lives and practically paralysed Haryana for 10 days. While those, and the massive Maratha mook morchas (silent marches) in September-October 2016, did result in the respective state governments enacting laws making these communities eligible for reservations, they were all quashed by high courts. And there wasn’t any attempt at challenging the rulings by amending the Constitution itself (specifically Articles 15 and 16) to provide for additional quotas beyond 49.5 per cent.
This links up to the second point, concerning the readiness to nullify Indra Sawhney via the Constitution amendment route when it comes to the EWS (read upper castes). The willingness to bend backwards in their case is extraordinary, given that the savarna demand, if at all, has largely been for scrapping caste-based reservations. Even the clamour for quotas for the “poor among upper castes” has been nowhere comparable to the movements by the dominant farming communities. A significant section of Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs may have voted NOTA (none-of-the-above) or even against the BJP in the recent Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan state elections. But if that perceived alienation should be impetus for bringing in Constitutional amendments, it only shows the sheer influence these communities wield. They constitute the BJP “core” vote bank; the party — more so, its ideological parent, the RSS — would seemingly pull out all the stops to ensure no further estrangement of this section of the population.
The Modi government will, of course, claim that the EWS includes all non-SC, non-ST and non-OBC communities, not just Brahmins, Banias or Rajputs. In other words, the dominant farming communities that, for reasons right or wrong, do not currently avail OBC status will automatically get covered under the new 10 per cent EWS category. But this logic will fly in the face of ground reality. In today’s setting, where the centre of power has shifted inexorably from “Bharat” to “India”, the Jat or Maratha farmer’s son/daughter stands no chance against the urban Brahmin or Bania’s children, even of relatively poor/lower middle class background. Living in big towns and cities brings certain advantages — better schooling, exposure to English and knowledge of the outside world — that those primarily brought up on farms and village communities cannot derive.
In all probability, the 10 per cent EWS quota will be overwhelmingly cornered by urban upper castes. The government’s reported proposal to set the “creamy layer” for reservation eligibility at below five acres of land ownership for farming families — as against a Rs 8 lakh yearly income cut-off for others — isn’t going to help either. The annual profits from growing a double crop of paddy and wheat even in a state like Haryana, where there is assured irrigation and minimum support price-based procurement, would not exceed Rs 50,000-60,000 per acre. It translates into a yearly income of Rs 2.5-3 lakh for five acres. This is obviously lower for farmers with similar holdings in rainfed areas. These will, at any rate, be below the Rs 8 lakh “creamy layer” cut-off applicable for the non-farming EWS category that is predominantly savarna and urban-based.
It would have made far more sense — economically, legally, politically, morally and in the spirit of the Constitution — to have limited the 10 per cent EWS reservation to only those with farming or rural backgrounds. As P S Krishnan has rightly pointed out, reservations were envisaged by our Constitution makers not to deal with “inequities against individuals”, but “deprivations imposed on certain social classes as a whole”.
A strong case can, indeed, be made that rural people in India suffer from an overall social disadvantage vis-à-vis those residing in cities. This holds true even more in a globalised milieu, where agriculture isn’t as paying and nor is land the source of power it once was. According to the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission, 76.86 per cent of Maratha families are engaged in agriculture for their livelihoods, with hardly 7.5 per cent of the community — which has a roughly 30 per cent share of the state’s population — possessing undergraduate or technical/professional qualifications. The quota agitations by the dominant agrarian communities have not really been as much for public sector jobs, as for admission to government educational institutions.
Farmers today need support not just for remaining in agriculture, but also to enable exit by some in order to make holdings viable. This is a “group/sector” and not “individual poor” need. The Indra Sawhney judgement allowed the 50 per cent limit quota limit to be exceeded in “certain extraordinary situations”, where a “special case [can] be made out”. Individual cases of poverty among urban savarnas do not represent an extraordinary situation, whereas creating a 10 per cent EWS category restricted only to farming/rural families not covered under the existing reservation provisions can be made out as a prudent response to the current crisis facing Indian agriculture.
Extending reservations to the children of all agriculturalists cultivating, say, up to 10 acres of irrigated and 20 acres of un-irrigated land would benefit not just numerically large communities such as the Marathas or Jats. There are many farmers who are Rajputs, Brahmins and upper caste Muslims as well. Also, it is easier to fudge incomes than to prove one’s farming credentials that can come only with land ownership or kisan credit card documents.
In its zeal to protect the BJP’s urban savarna vote-bank, the Modi government has probably lost an opportunity to neutralise the anger from communities badly hit by falling crop prices and rising input costs. And they are much bigger in numbers, too.