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Friday, August 28, 2015

The Politics of Reservations: How Long?

It has been sixty-eight years since we started governing ourselves through elected representatives to the Parliament, the highest executive body of independent India. Yet, we cannot claim to have matured as a democracy being ruled by statesmen. True, we have innumerable political parties headed by equally intelligent leaders articulating their own ‘ism-s’ for their own prosperity, but seldom have we come across a statesman who ruled this nation solely driven by the ambition to uplift the country’s prosperity. 

Take for instance the concept of ‘reservations’: it was advocated by the framers of the Constitution as a temporary measure—for a specified period of ten years—to aid the most marginalized Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes  to catch up with the other more privileged sections of the society. But this exceptional and interim measure adopted for speedy social justice has since been mutated into a strategy for capturing power by the political parties of this country. And examples are aplenty: VP Singh extended reservations to OBCs; Arjun Singh extended the OBC quota to IITs, IIMs and Central Universities; over it, some political parties are clamouring to extend reservation quota to minorities and so on.

And today we have the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), led by its convenor Hardik Patel, agitating across Gujarat for the last two months demanding their inclusion in the OBC list. Ultimately, what a huge damage the assemblage of 5 lakh people in Ahmedabad demanding reservations has inflicted on the nation! A little earlier, it was the Gujjars from Rajasthan and then the Jats from UP who resorted to similar agitations.

Recently, the Supreme Court, overturning the inclusion of Jats in the OBC list, categorically stated that “the perception of a self-proclaimed socially backward class of citizens cannot be a constitutionally permissible yardstick for determination of backwardness.” The Court indeed warned against “a caste-centric’ definition of backwardness and called for new practices, methods and yardsticks to be evolved to identify the socially disadvantaged groups for extending the benefits of reservation.  

Intriguingly, even the Patels of Gujarat, who as a class are said to be politically, socially and economically well off and are endowed with an entrepreneurial drive, are said to have earlier opposed reservations asserting the fact that the “basis for job quotas should be economic status, not caste”. 

Despite these facts, we have today come to such a pass that no political party—having already distorted the concept of ‘reservation’ by political and populist abuse—has the courage to talk against reservation, though such demands are evidently ridiculous, for the fear of being eliminated from the seat of power, no matter even if it safely buries the meritocracy in this country!

That said, we also cannot ignore the fact that ‘poorness’ is often inherited. And this inheritance is certainly not caste-defined. It is defined more by the financial status of the parents to whom one was born. Which means, there are poor even in the Patel community that is otherwise known for its overall affluence. And it is also important to realize that the poor not only lack money but also often found short of basic skills that are required to better themselves. Indeed they are found to lack even faith in their own abilities. Nor are there institutions in countries like ours that offer them support to overcome these limitations. Hence, the economists who studied the problem of poverty at length often argue that even the best of the schemes meant for lifting people out of dire poverty appear to “work only for some people, in some places, some of the time.”  

Now, if we accept this reality, it becomes evident that our prevailing political system needs to undergo a paradigm shift in its conduct.  Which means, political parties need to have leaders whocould outgrow their parochialism and behave like statesmen. For, once they become statesmen, they can easily engage people to deliberate upon the issue of ‘reservations’ and its downside—the benefits accrued from reservation quotas are often reported to be garnered by those better endowed with  resources within the earmarked group; unwittingly, this phenomenon has made the absolute poor within the notified backward class remain poor even after being extended such affirmative action; reservation in education and jobs on caste lines has only perpetuated the irritants between the  castes, literally dividing the society along caste lines, thereby  jeopardising the social harmony which is a sine qua non for the overall growth of the nation—and nudge them to find ways and means to overcome them. They can also bring the people out of their entrenched caste interests and engage them in finding an acceptable path for their economic development.

Once the government and the opposition headed by statesmen behave like mature parties concerned about national good, they can effectively work towards breaking down the correlation between poverty and inheritance by diversifying the economic structure of the country in such a way that it affords the less endowed with the required economic support to move upwards, that too, irrespective of their caste.

This new approach to address the poorness of the people is a must in the context of the ongoing market reforms; for although the average standard of living is rising substantially, the economic inequality is also reported to be increasing significantly within the groups that have been identified as poor. Hence the warning is: as the Supreme Court has suggested, the national leadership should boldly explore new practices and methods to address this disease forthwith. And the obvious course of action is, replacing the existing unproductive ‘reservations’ with offers of economic assistance to all those who are less endowed to better their skills and undertake economic activities with a new-found vigour and confidence. This, of course, costs the government more—indeed a huge capital outlay will be required—than what the current reservation system does.  But once merit starts ruling the roost, productivity is sure to rise, which means more GDP and greater scope to allocate more capital. But the question is: Will the leadership rise to the occasion?



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