There are several noteworthy points about the 10 per cent quota bill that has just been passed in Parliament. Given the biases BJP office-holders are known to have, it was not surprising that the party’s spokespersons did not emphasise the fact that the 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections, EWS, (those, not SC, ST or OBC) was the first time in India’s long non-secular history that a government welfare programme specifically included Muslims under its umbrella of recipients. What was surprising, however, is the fact that the secular liberals had a lump in their throat which prevented them from uttering the M-word. Instead, all the utterances and profound insights on TV and print media have been about how this was a jumla, and that it showed the desperation of the BJP to gather votes.
Several contradictions abound. If it was a jumla, then why did the Opposition all come out in praise of the policy? It was supported near unanimously in the Lok Sabha; by the time Rajya Sabha came along, some parties found their misplaced “conscience” and their members abstained from voting.
Then the critics, some of them lawyers, came out of hiding and pronounced the legal judgment that the 10 per cent will not pass muster in the Supreme Court, because the Court had disallowed any central government reservation beyond 50 per cent.
Let us take it from the beginning. Reservation is an issue that I have studied in some detail over the past two decades. My own view has been, and is, that India should never have proceeded on the path of reservation and that by doing so, it pursued the wrong means for the correct objectives. The downtrodden, especially those historically so, like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, did deserve special consideration and should have been identified and provided with state-defined extra income support. What might these have been? Income support programmes from the very beginning and huge extra-aid for the schooling of the SC/ST kids — such that SC and ST children would attain the average educational level of those with “upper caste” backgrounds.
This was not done. The liberal elite had other ideas, ones that were drawn from their feudal desire to help “the poor” and those who had been historically discriminated against. Hence, governments conceived of every which way to help the elite, and not the poor. When they did help the latter, they made sure that there were plenty of opportunities for corruption. Instead of expanding primary healthcare and primary and secondary schools for all, we allowed private schools to flourish and public schools to be starved of expenditure and facilities and expansion. And to be staffed by teachers who did not even come to class but had permanent employment and could not be fired (or released from public duty). What did this result in? The elite went to private schools, paid large fees, and then entered temples of wisdom created and expanded for their benefits — prestigious universities like Delhi University, IITs and IIMs.
All of this was welcomed and supported, and especially by the SLs (secular liberals). Indeed, most of these SLs protested when bus fares were raised to ferry them from their tony homes to the North Delhi campus. And when some misguided souls advocated the raising of fees at DU, they protested, went on hartal, and complained about their right to free education being violated.
The lack of good primary and secondary education for the non-elite meant that the dominantly poor (SCs, STs and Muslims) students did not get a good education. But because of special reservation quotas, the SCs/STs expanded their education base and were also able to get government jobs. In 1983, an average SC/ST youth had 2.4 years of educational attainment and an average Muslim youth (5-24 years) had 3.3 years; in 2011/12, an average SC/ST youth had 7.1 years of education, and a Muslim youth had the least educational attainment in the country, 6.9 years.
But the Muslims do come under the OBC (Otherwise Backward Class, often confused with Otherwise Backward Caste) classification and so should be eligible under the OBC classification. However, Muslim OBC youths had significantly lower educational achievement (5.8 years) than non-Muslim OBCs (8.5 years) in 2011/12. Further, as the Sachar Committee report documented, Muslims in government jobs are about a third lower than their population levels.
What deserves emphasis is that the 10 per cent quota for the EWS of the population (around 30 per cent of the total population) is the first reservation system for those not currently covered by government support. This will be the first time that poor non-OBC non-SC/ST individuals will get a chance. And given that Muslims are the poorest (economically weakest), they should obtain preference in the EWS 10 per cent quota.
The limit for eligibility for this class has been fixed at Rs 8 lakh per family. This is quite high. Much has been made of the fact that in income surveys conducted by the NCAER (IHDS survey), and wage surveys conducted by the NSSO, Rs 8 lakh of household income makes 99 per cent of households eligible. But these surveys are able to capture only 25-30 per cent of personal incomes. In reality, the 8 lakh limit makes 20 per cent of households ineligible.
But where did the Modi government obtain the guidance for fixing this limit? From that fixed for OBCs by different governments since 1993. In 1993, the OBC creamy layer was defined at Rs 1 lakh per family. In 2013 this limit was raised to 6 lakh (with intermittent increases as follows: 2004 – 2.5 lacs; 2008 4.5 lakh). Note that all these increases were instituted by the Congress — the total increase in the limit, 700 per cent; increase in CPI during this period, 413 per cent. In 2017, the NDA government increased the limit to Rs 8 lakh — an increase of 33 per cent, with a CPI increase during the same period of 21 per cent.
Given this correct expose of the pathway to the Rs 8 lakh limit, I humbly ask the jumla experts in the media and elsewhere — where were you in 2004 and 2008 and 2013 and 2017 when the OBC limit was raised to the present exorbitant levels? Only now that an NDA government has instituted the change, the limit is deemed excessive (which it is). And why, because some “poor” Muslim, Sikh and Issai will now get the benefit that was almost the exclusive preserve of Hindus before? As discussed above, Muslim OBCs are unlikely to have benefitted much from the OBC quota. The Modi government needs to be congratulated for two reasons. One, for allowing Muslims the benefits of misguided social policies — quotas and reservations. The second reason is embedded in the first — finally, the doors are open for a genuine debate, a genuine reconsideration, of bad social welfare policies of the past 70 years.
The only explicit reservation policy contained in the Constitution is for seats in the legislature — reserved constituencies for SCs and STs. Even this reservation was for 10 years — through amendments, it has been renewed every 10 years, and the next amendment is due in 2020. Otherwise, there is Article 15 (4): Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
The special provision does not mean a quota; note also that socially and educationally backwards is highly correlated with being backward (poorer) in incomes. Hence, this is the first chance for poor Muslims, and poor Patels and poor Brahmins to get social benefits. After they do so, let us think about revising the present bad system of quota governance.
This article first appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition under the title ‘Recommended, with some reservations’