Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, while defending the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019 that provides 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education to the economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category, announced on the floor of Parliament that “sixes are hit in the slog overs” of a cricket match. “More sixes will come,” he asserted. Indeed, sixes are, and will be, hit by the batting side, both at the Centre and the states. The governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, for example, announced loan waiver schemes within a week of assuming office without analysing how the benefits would reach the vulnerable sections of the farming community or giving a serious thought to the impact these measures would have on agriculture in the long run.
An easy defence of such measures is that non-conventional shots are played in the slog overs as there is no time for rational calculation. The argument could well be, “Let’s first win the battle for Delhi in 2019 and we would then start thinking about goals of efficiency, equity and sustainability for informed policymaking”.
In the context of reservation for EWS, I have always held that the children of the poor from the upper castes — vegetable vendors, construction labourers, challenged individuals, self-employed or unemployed widows — deserve reservation as much as the children from Dalit households, who have enjoyed high economic and social status, say, for two generations. Let us then reserve 10 per cent seats for the poorest 10 per cent of the households, not covered under reservation. I would not be surprised if this principle enjoys some measure of support among a cross-section of the country’s population. However, the question is: Was this principle at work when the ruling party proposed the new quota and its rivals supported the move — or at best, registered a nominal protest?
Given contemporary realities and institutional infirmities, is it possible to ring fence this 10 per cent quota? The finance minster, while talking about direct tax collection, has often argued that given our democratic structure, it is difficult to work out clear operational criteria to identify the people who must pay taxes. In fact, more than two years after demonetisation, the government has not taken action against the account holders who deposited old currency well above their normal cash balance. Clearly, it fears losing votes.
The dearth of will — and capacity — to target the new quota to the actual poor is evident from the criteria that are likely to be fixed for identifying the potential beneficiaries. Persons from households with annual earning below Rs 8 lakh, possessing agricultural land below 5 acres, a plot less than 100 yards in a notified municipality or below 200 yards in the non-notified municipal area would be eligible for the reservation. The new amendment also allows the states to set income cut-offs to decide who constitutes EWS. They can even exceed the criteria set by the Centre. It also allows the states to notify EWS “from time to time on the basis of family income and other indicators of economic disadvantage” even if they are “adequately represented” in government jobs.
SCs, STs and OBCs account for 70 per cent of the population and are entitled to 49.5 per cent reservation in the government sector. The eligibility issue thus pertains to the remaining 30 per cent or 39 crore people, who fall under the general category. Calculations based on available data suggest that about 95 per cent of the people in the general category will be eligible under the new criteria.
It is not difficult to understand who would be the real beneficiaries of the rather generous eligibility criteria for determining economic deprivation. It is very likely the middle class, those who work in the private sector — where it is difficult to establish the income-level — and the unscrupulous who can con the system through false declarations, would grab the benefit. The children of street vendors and agricultural labourers have very little chance to benefit from the new quota.
Indeed, whenever anyone has shown the benevolence of defining poverty with a high cut-off point, the real motives has been to help the top 10 to 20 per cent among the eligible. It is not a level-playing field. And the poor, as defined by the Tendulkar or Rangarajan Committees, stand very little chance of benefiting from the new quota. It is absurd to believe that Muslims would benefit from the quota, simply because they have a higher share among the poor. Very few Muslims would be in the top 20 per cent among those eligible for the EWS quota.
The immediate beneficiaries of such measures would clearly be the batting side at the Centre and the states. They are likely to reach out to the common masses with the message that the government really cares for them. Unfortunately, the poor do not constitute a votebank and can be swayed by promises. When they realise who the real beneficiaries are, it is too late.
The above conclusion with regard to loan waivers, reservations in general category and a host of similar decisions is, of course, based on the assumption that the voters do not care for long-term development concerns and can be bribed with short-term or imaginary benefits.