The Gujarat government finally buckled before the Patidar agitation by promulgating an ordinance on Sunday providing a 10 per cent quota in government jobs and education institutions for the economically weak among the upper castes. In many ways, Gujarat is a laboratory for a new political experiment: The extension of the reservation policy by challenging its very core rationale of addressing the backwardness of historically disprivileged groups. Why cannot quotas be extended to the upper caste poor, is the question that BJP governments that draw heavily on upper caste support are asking, in a time of economic anxieties, as in Gujarat.
This gambit is likely to run into problems. Under the Constitution, the government can only provide reservations for socially and educationally backward groups, not use it as an instrument for economic uplift. This question has come up before the apex court and has been dismissed in the past. In a landmark judgment in M. Nagaraj and others vs Union of India, the Supreme Court categorically held that before providing reservations, “the concerned state will have to show in each case the existence of the compelling reasons, namely, backwardness, inadequacy of representation and overall administrative efficiency”. A 50 per cent cutoff has been prescribed by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney judgment. At present, the OBCs have 27 per cent, the SCs 7 per cent and the STs 15 per cent reservation in Gujarat, taking the total quota to 49 per cent. Additional quotas will breach the ceiling established by the apex court.
Beyond the constitutional and judicial barriers, however, the Gujarat government’s move diverts attention from the state’s real problem that also drove the Patidar agitation for quotas: The lack of jobs. Behind the glitz of the state’s high growth numbers lies a tale of collapsing micro, small and medium enterprises that had a much greater potential to create jobs as against the capital-intensive industries that have dominated the state’s economic landscape. Based in semi-urban and rural areas, the MSME sector is dominated by Patels. Data shows that by 2014, one-fifth of all sick MSME units in the country were in Gujarat. The other aspect of worsening private employment in the state has been the low wages paid to workers, which, ironically, has been one of the attractions for investors. Labour Bureau data shows that the average daily earnings of employees in Gujarat in 2012 were significantly lower than the national average. The government would do better to focus on removing such structural constraints instead of holding out the chimera of quotas.
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