The bandh called by Maratha Kranti Morcha, the umbrella body spearheading the community’s demand for reservations, was called off on Wednesday after it turned violent in many parts of Maharashtra. The protests across the state on Tuesday and Wednesday were small compared to the mobilisations two years ago. But they sent out the message that the community’s demand for quotas in jobs and educational institutions continues to be a live issue that the government can ill afford to ignore. With assembly elections due in 2019, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis recognises the import of humouring a community that constitutes nearly 30 per cent of the state’s population: He held an emergency meeting to review the “progress” made by the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission, which is preparing a report on the socio-economic conditions of the community. The government is expected to return to the Bombay High Court with the Commission’s report and reiterate its intent to introduce quotas for the Marathas. The court has twice in the past stuck down the state government’s proposal for a 16 per cent quota for Marathas in education and employment.
The Marathas’ case for reservation is not centred on claims of social discrimination or historical inequalities but on grievances of backwardness and exclusion arising out of changes in the economy. Like any large community, the Marathas are not a monolith. Many in the community are economically well-off and have enjoyed political and social privileges for long. But a large section is made up of farmers and peasants, affected by the downturn in agriculture. Their incomes have been falling or have not been rising commensurate to the increase in wages in the services sector. Besides, like peasant communities elsewhere, like the Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana, the Marathas too have found themselves short of the skills necessary for non-farm jobs. Data for Maharashtra reveals that OBCs and Dalits in rural areas, aided by reservations, seem to fare a little better than the Marathas in getting jobs that ensure stable incomes. The rising costs of education and healthcare as against fluctuating returns from agriculture have intensified the faultlines in rural areas. Together with the numerous protests by farmers and the peasants’ march to Mumbai in March this year, the Maratha stir exemplifies the enormity of rural distress.
With the courts unpersuaded by the state’s push to extend reservations to the Marathas, the government had introduced a slew of welfare measures, after the protests in 2016, to address the community’s grievances. However, the administration’s record on implementing these has been indifferent. For instance, only 253 of the 11,555 applications for individual interest subvention under a special scheme for self-employed and poor farmer producer groups have been cleared and disbursement made to only eight people. For now, the government’s failure to deliver on the welfare programmes only intensifies the demand for quotas, even as it threatens to deepen the people’s distrust in the state’s responsiveness to their concerns in the long run.