Pavan K. Varma | Caste census to hide Nitish record? Let's rethink quotas

The unfortunate truth is that increasingly reservations have become a substitute for administrative competence and good governance.

Let me begin by first wishing readers a very Happy Diwali. May the year ahead be full of health, happiness and fulfilment.

As we approach the 2024 parliamentary elections, the Opposition has picked upon a new plank to spearhead its campaign: Caste census. The argument is that no such census has taken place since 1931. Every census in Independent India has published date on Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), but not on other castes. The National Census was last held in 2011. It was due in 2021, but was not held because of Covid, and new dates have not been announced.

Undoubtedly, there is need for affirmative action for those who have been educationally and socially discriminated against for centuries. The Constitution guaranteed affirmative action for SCs and STs, by providing them 22.5 per cent reservation (15 per cent for SCs and 7.5 per cent for STs). After the Mandal Commission report, 27 per cent further reservation was guaranteed in 1991 to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), taking the reserved category to 49.5 per cent. In 1992, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court (SC), in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case, decided to cap reservations to a maximum of 50 per cent. Any further increase was to be exercised only with ‘extreme caution’.

However, the SC ruling has been repeatedly breached. A new 10 per cent category of Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) was added by the Central government in January 2019. This has already taken reservations to 60 per cent. Moreover, individual states have unilaterally added new quotas: Madhya Pradesh has 73 per cent reservations; Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra 69 per cent, and Rajasthan 64 per cent. All of these are in violation of the SC ruling. Notwithstanding that, there are agitations all across the country by more castes — Marathas, Gujjars, Patidars, Jats, etc., to be included in the reservations category.

The government in Bihar has now done a caste-based survey, and concluded that OBCs and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) constitute 63 per cent of the population. Adding the SCs and STs, reservations would be required for 80 per cent of the population. Significantly, such surveys have no scientific or constitutional validity, since only the Union government has the power to conduct a census. There is no audit of the data, nor is the methodology known, and already sub-castes within OBCs and EBCs are questioning the numerical strength ascribed to them.

The key question is: Have reservations helped substantially to improve the lives for whom they were intended? In some measure yes, but far from optimally. Over 42 per cent of teaching positions for OBC, SC and ST candidates in 45 central universities are lying vacant. Forty-two per cent posts for the same category in various Central government ministries are also vacant. In Bihar, the Nitish-Lalu combine has been in power for over 30 years. Bihar is exactly where it was 30 years ago, the poorest and the most backward state. Besides, even in 1992, the SC had raised the question of major benefits being garnered by a “creamy layer”. The current Bihar Cabinet is a good example. The largest number of ministers are Yadavs representing the dominant OBC community. The EBCs, as per the survey, constitute 36.01 per cent of the population of Bihar. Do they have proportional representation in the Cabinet?

The unfortunate truth is that increasingly reservations have become a substitute for administrative competence and good governance. The UPA government did a socio-economic caste survey in 2011. Why did it not release the data then? Why did the JD(U)-RJD combine in Bihar, for long in power, think about a caste census only now, when elections are round the corner? Affirmative action is necessary, but it should actually impact beneficiaries, and not use them as cannon-fodder to win elections. Data is important, but is a survey needed to know what the urgent priorities of the deprived are? Those who rule in their name, and claim to know what their requirements are, cannot use lack of data as a shield for poor governance. For instance, in spite of three decades of the adoption of the Mandal Commission report, even basic education and primary healthcare in Bihar remain abysmal, and poverty is rampant.

I am reminded of the old adage: History repeats itself as tragedy or farce. When the Mandal report came out, it was a landmark decision because it marked a definitive moment in the empowerment of other socially and educationally backward castes, apart from SCs and STs. That development was historic. But thirty years down the line, to try and repeat the same event in the garb of a caste census, is like trying to reinvent the wheel when it already exists.

In Bihar, Mandal politically empowered an entire generation of leaders, among them, most prominently, Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. But when these leaders insist now on a caste census, people are entitled to also interrogate their governance record in capitalising on Mandal. Lalu Yadav converted Bihar into an anarchic wasteland, where Yadav dominated politics prospered and the state sank further into deprivation, corruption and poverty. Nitish Kumar showed promise to begin with, but anyone in Bihar can tell you that over time his image of “sushasan babu” has sharply declined. Can a caste census, and more reservations, hide this shabby governance record?

India is a country of deep inequalities, and the need to do more for the millions of the underprivileged is still relevant. But reservations were never meant for politicians to flourish at the cost of the real aims for which the policy was introduced, and later expanded. The makers of our Constitution placed faith in the governance abilities of the leaders of independent India. That is why they had originally specified a time limit for reservations to continue. That faith appears to have been misplaced, and a caste census cannot change that.

The SC judgement on a cap of 50 per cent reservations still holds. It is time for it to give a considered ruling to prevent legitimate affirmative welfarism from becoming competitive reservations anarchy.

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