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Govt stirs caste cauldron

Friday, July 04, 2014
By Prashant Hamine

The latest decision of the ruling Congress-NCP led state government to grant 16 per cent reservation quota to the Maratha community in education and jobs on the premise of their being socially and educationally backward, has stirred a hornet's nest. Besides, the government has also accorded five per cent reservation quota for the Muslim community. Coming as it does, just months before the Assembly elections, it is quite clear that the decision is aimed at wooing the sizeable and politically powerful Maratha community to its side. NCP chief Sharad Pawar was blunt and brazen enough to admit it that the decision was poll-oriented when he remarked that “we are not Sadhus or Saints” and added that the decision would certainly pay electoral dividends to the ruling alliance.

If you thought caste-based reservation, or better-known worldwide as Affirmative Action (AA), is a 1980’s phenomenon born out of the Mandal commission and the violent anti-reservation agitation of the 1990s, then you are wrong. By a royal decree (ordinance) on July 26, 1902, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj awarded 50 per cent reservation to Schedule Castes (that included Marathas then) in his administration of the Kolhapur dominion.

This was much before the United Nations passed the resolution to end all racial discrimination on January 4, 1969, or then US President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. In the USA, it has been known as the Affirmative Action, in Canada it has been known as Employment Equality and in UK, it has been known as Positive Action. Besides the framers of our constitution adopting Affirmative Action as state policy, right from the 1960s, the state has been pursuing a fee waiver policy for the Economically Backward Classes (EBC) that also includes the open category students. Many critics feel that the government should have used this policy to pursue its Maratha reservation policy.

Even before the ink dried on the government cabinet's decision, the matter reached the Bombay High Court. The government, which based its decision on the sample survey conducted by Minister for Industries Narayan Rane, has carved out an altogether new category of Socially, Educationally Backward Class (SEBC) for the Maratha community. The result of the new 16 per cent separate quota has pushed the quota ceiling in the state from 52 per cent to 73 per cent. In the constitution of India, article 15 (4) provides for reservations based on Educational backwardness, article 16 (4) – reservation in government service and under article 46, the government has the powers to plan special overall policy for the weaker sections of the society.

Both Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and BJP’s leader of opposition in legislative council Vinod Tawde feel that the government decision shall stand the scrutiny of the law. Critics however argue over the assertion that Marathas have been socially and educationally backward. For some looking at the disposition of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, or NCP president Sharad Pawar, the argument sounds a bit hollow. The government already appears to be on a sticky wicket over the issue of the tabling of the 2005 justice (retd) R M Bapat commission report which had recommended against granting reservation quota for the Marathas. The government has not tabled it before the state legislature as mandated by law.

Most of the political power in the state is concentrated in the hands of a very few dominant Maratha families in the state. Many of them owned large tracks of agricultural land, orchards, cooperative sugar and spinning mills, cooperative banks and hence were never inclined towards education. For some, the government decision is illogical and does not fit into the framework of the Constitution of India and the Supreme Court (SC) judgment in the Indira Sawhney case of 1999 which capped the reservation quota at 50 per cent. Now the quota clamour is being made even for the minority Brahmin community (3.5 per cent population). Moreover, the SC had ruled that if at all the government wanted to give reservation quota to a caste then it must be supported by “quantified data”.

The Rane committee had based its report on a sample size of four to five lakh Maratha families. Even the Mandal commission had based its argument for enhanced reservation quota for Schedule Castes on the last caste-based census of 1931 in the British Raj era. The Rane committee too has heavily relied on the then royal decree proclaimed by Shahu Maharaj and on the premise that functions and marriage rituals are still performed on the basis of “Puranas” instead of the Vedas.

Through its sample survey, the Rane committee concluded that the current representation of the Maratha community in various sectors over the last three years was as follows: Medical Education (degree and beyond): 9.12 per cent, Technical education (Engineering): 11.84 per cent, traditional Arts, Science and Commerce: 10.93 per cent, government service across A, B, C & D categories: 14.68 per cent. The committee concludes that even in the case of premier administrative service like the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the representation of the community in direct recruitment is zero, whereas all those in IAS now are promotes.

Despite several programmes aimed at them, the literacy rates and health remain the most controversial issues in respect of STs, often exemplified by rampant incidents of malnutrition. The Affirmative Action in Australia and Canada includes funding Aborigines, education, Aborgine-oriented criminal justice programmes and compensation. However, in these countries, the need is now being felt to protect the indigenous culture of the aborigines. However, consider the fate of the adivasis in India. In USA, the implementation of the AA is more morally binding and borne more out of the religious faith of doing welfare for those underprivileged.

In India, due to the age-old religious beliefs and structures, there is no social binding. Besides, the poor quality of education infrastructure has aggravated the problem especially in rural parts of the country. Comparatively, because of Social Security and Unemployment benefits in USA, fewer Americans are really bothered if they do not get jobs. Not so in India where reservations are needed because of the inability of the society and State to be just and fair to all its constituents. It is being argued as vital and consistent with the goal of moving from political to economic development.

Though AA was first introduced in India by the British in states like Kerala and  Karnataka, even after five decades of independence it has to be backed  by enacting strong legislations. In stark contrast, in the USA, Australia, Canada and South Africa, AA is a much recent phenomenon and relies largely on voluntary efforts backed by quasi-voluntary element for its success. In USA and elsewhere, the laws and regulations were framed authorising, either directly or by judicial or administrative interpretations, race-conscious strategies to promote minority opportunity in jobs, education and governmental contracting. In South Africa, after the end of the apartheid era, special reservations were devised to ensure protection to the minority Whites population.

In India, AA has been limited only to the public sector, but the private sector is kept out of its purview. In USA, the action mandates out-sourcing of contracts to firms run by the under-privileged. It is worth noting here that despite the Maharashtra Government enacting a law in 2006 paving the way for reservation quotas in the private sector, it has not been enforced due to stiff opposition from the corporate world.The problem of reservation becomes even more serious in higher education where despite legislative backing, implementation is flawed due to stiff resistance. Where the avenues of employment and opportunity are limited, the opposition has been more; a fact typically exemplified by the undergraduate medical students opposing reservations at post graduation level where seats are limited.

The middle path now proposed is to increase the number of avenues but that is disputed on grounds that it will dilute merit. The experience in the USA is that neutral or merit-based admissions have resulted in increase in black students entering educational institutions.

In the matter of the AA programme benefits reaching out to those on the fringes in the deprived classes, the spread has been uneven. It has largely got to do with the rulingelitist political class which has used the programme in such a way that the SC, ST and OBCs remain divided amongst splinter political outfits and dominant political parties. A case in point is the splintered Republican Party of India and off-shoots like the BSP.The quotas have always been used by the dominant political class to ensure that their own dominance stays unchallenged. In India, the AA has become a mere tool for achieving political gains and far away from the desired aim of achieving equality. But in the electoral politics, the action has ensured that the deprived classes have had adequate representation in politics, but it has generally remained servile to the dominant political class.The fact is that the NSSO's 61st round undertaken by the government of India in 2004, tells us that OBCs constitute 41 per cent of the total population of India; OBC percentage in some religious communities, say Hindus, is 42.8 per cent, and among Muslims it is 39.2 per cent.

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