My key note address at the Babasaheb Ambedkar National Institute of Social Sciences, Indore, where the chairman and members of the national commission for economically backward classes were present was based on this. The workshop, on July 4, was organised at the instance of the commission for its benefit.
If the colonial administration pursued "divide and rule" policy, for which it has been blamed time and again, it had reasons, particularly the imperial interests. But when independent India persists with this policy in different forms and in different contexts, in whose interest is it doing so, and who should be blamed for it?
The answer to both is sections of India's ruling class, the pretentious practitioners of democracy, to whom any policy is good so long as it is self-serving. The manner in which the nation has been dealing with the constitutional provisions for the advancement of the historically deprived bottom groups of Indian society is an important example of this.
The Constituent Assembly, which framed the Constitution of India, made special provisions, generally known as reservations, for the social and educational advancement of the ) the most backward strata of Indian society and the not-so-backward residual category Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The framers of the Constitution might not have anticipated that instead of using the provisions for the real advancement of the groups concerned and their integration with mainstream society, successive governments would use them for vote-bank politics.
That explains the persistence of these provisions even sixty years after they came into force, the continuing backwardness of the SCs, STs, and the lower strata of the OBCs, emergence of the OBCs as a much hackneyed political category with many non-OBC groups brought under its fold on political considerations, and the state's refusal to gradually obliterate their traditional markers of separation and division.
A debate on these issues calls for a close examination of the nature of democratic governance and public policy in India and the nexus between the two. But the purpose of this write-up is to draw attention to the emergence of another more important and closely related issue.
The reference is to reservation for the economically backward population. A notification concerning this population, issued on September 25, 1991 by the PV Narasimha Rao led Congress (I) government, was a modified version of a decision taken by the VP Singh-led National Front government. This decision, contained in a notification dated August 13, 1990, provided for 27 per cent reservation in the Central services and public sector undertakings for the socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), comprising in the first instance the castes and communities common to the lists of the Mandal report and the states. The decision had an unprecedented backlash, with virtually the whole of northern India in the grip of a violent and devastative anti‑Mandal, anti‑Singh abreaction, which culminated in the fall of the 11‑month old Singh ministry.
Apart from retaining the 27 per cent job reservation for the SEBCs as notified by the Singh government, the Narasimha Rao government notification provided for 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward population not covered by the existing schemes of reservations.
In the Supreme Court rulings of November 16, 1992 on these two notifications eight out of the nine judges held the determination of backwardness only and exclusively with reference to economic criteria as invalid; and rejected the 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward sections.
Meanwhile, demands for reservation for these sections continued from different politicians, as for instance from the Congress (I) president, Sonia Gandhi in October 2001 in a speech in Uttar Pradesh, which she also used to attack the BJP-led Government here and at the Centre.
Not to be outdone, the BJP government maintained momentum on the same issue by repeatedly announcing its decision to provide reservation to the very same section, and constituted a commission consisting of Balmiki Prasad Singh, former Union Home Secretary, as chairman, and four-members. The commission was required to elicit views of the governments in various states and Union Territories, suggest criteria for identification of the economically backward classes among castes and communities other than the SCs, STs and OBCs, recommend the quantum of reservation, and submit its report within one year. The government justified its decision to the increase in demand from various quarters for such reservation; and said that since Article 16 of the Constitution was only for reservation for socially backward classes, reservation for economically backward classes would entail amendment of the Constitution.
The constitution of the committee was in January 2004. The general election to the 14th Lok Sabha was in April-May. The Congress (I) led UPA did not discard the commission after it came to power in 2004, and gave the impression that it was concerned about the well-being of the backward among the upper castes.
Its most recent move was constitution of a new commission. Apart from eliciting views of the governments in the states and Union Territories, from other commissions, and suggesting criteria for identification of the economically backward classes; the commission was mandated to recommend the necessary constitutional, legal and administrative modalities required for the implementation of its recommendation of welfare measures, and quantum of reservation in education and government employment, and so on. While the BJP government's reference was to Article 16(4) on job reservations, the UPA government also added Article 15(4) on educational reservations.
The government extended the commission's term by six months in January 2008, and by another one year beyond July 31, .2008. Though its report is thus due shortly, there is a general impression that the government is not serious about the commission's work and report. This is understandable, considering the fact that unlike the SCs, STs, and OBCs, which are compact categories, albeit in a limited sense especially in the case of the OBCs, the economically backward is such an ambiguous, loose, and elusive usage, that it is difficult to say "this is the category because it has this and this characteristic", which makes attempts to identify it a wild goose chase.
That apart, going by media reports, the commission's Bharat darshan has elicited only widely varying views, which may not add up for policy formulation.
Examples of a cross section of the views expressed include the following:
* From the Left Front government in West Bengal that there is no need for a survey by the commission, as there might be people who are economically backward in all the communities;
* From states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala that there should be no further reservation, though Kerala would like to have welfare measures;
* From the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh the demand for 14 per cent reservation;
* From the Punjab government that the commission should place thrust on education and skill upgradation for poverty relief, while deciding the criteria for economic backwardness the income limit of the family should not be more than Rs.1 lakh per annum with other conditions such as applicant should not be a tax payer, should not possess more than 5 acres of agricultural land, should not have a four wheeler, and so on;
* From the Gujarat government that the race for inclusion in the backward class category would not help welfare of the poor people; the development strategies must derive intended results, and bring the backward above the poverty line;
* From the Struggle Committee for Social Justice that demands of the classes could be met by introducing new schemes catering to their needs; and
* From the Social Justice Forum that the economic criteria prescribed for identifying creamy layer among the OBCs should be followed for open general category only.
In a press release the commission said that "We have visited 17 states and had spoken to their officials, NGOs and other persons; most of them are not in favour of further reservation in government jobs and education, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala."
All said, what the commission's work has done is open the Pandora's Box; and from the welter of confusing, contradictory, and non-quantifiable views, it can hardly make a coherent and socially relevant report.
In this context it is important to ask if there has been any periodic impact assessment of the policies covering the SCs, STs, and OBCs. The answer is an emphatic NO, and betrays the failure of the state. So, why should the derelict state introduce more such policies?
A write-up in The Pioneer of June 2, 2005, by Chandraban Prasad, on the plight of Dalits and Adivasis despite the existence of the special provisions for their advancement for 60 years is a telltale of the state's callousness and lack of concern for the backward and indigent:
Around 30 million Dalit and Adivasi children are enrolled in thousands of primary schools; out of them, 49.35 per cent drop out before joining junior high school; as a result, a large number of Dalits and Adivasis are unable to take up more respectable jobs and are forced to slog as labourers, who earn as little as Rs 40 a day.
Around 67.77 per cent Dalit and Adivasi children drop out before joining Class IX. What kind of work would these children be able to do when they grow up? Most of them will forever toil as labourers and earn a measly Rs 45 a day, which is less than $1.
Government statisticians, however, list these children as 'literate', and celebrate the report. All attempts to arrest this mammoth drop out rate, despite offering mid-day meal as incentive, have failed miserably. Parents of these children live in utter poverty, but they want their wards to see better days. That's why they get their children enrolled in Government schools despite financial hardships. But after a few days or months, they realise that their children are needed more at home so that they can contribute to the family's income. These children, nearly three fourth of all Dalit and Adivasi children, remain wage earners all their life.
To conclude, the justifications given for the constitution of the commission run thus:
Several states have been raising the issue that the backward classes among the general category need affirmative support; parts of the general category irrespective of caste and religion are poor, educationally backward, and have low access to competitive opportunities; if backwardness criteria are applied to some of these groups they would be found to be equally in need of affirmative measures as the already identified OBCs; otherwise people belonging to them will not be able to benefit from the constitutional guarantee to right to equality.
But these justifications are hollow. For poverty and economic backwardness are not the same. The latter is wider than the former. The argument that the backwardness caused by poverty is such as to make its victims similar to the backwardness of the OBCs is hogwash. For, the backwardness of the really backward among the OBCs as the working out of their traditional existential conditions has been a lot more complex and grave than a mere economic or poverty issue.
One possibility to overcome this problem, and by implication overcome one of the manifestations of India's continuing divide and rule policy, is endorse the assertion by Justice Kuldip Singh (who was the only judge among the nine judges in the Mandal case not to endorse the argument that the determination of backwardness only and exclusively with reference to economic criteria is invalid) that a class of citizens can be identified as backward solely on economic criteria, and his argument that poverty, which breeds backwardness all around the class into which it strikes and invariably results in socio-economic and educational backwardness, is the "culprit cause" of all kinds of backwardness.
If this assertion and argument are pushed through legislation in Parliament and pressed through the judiciary as some novel, legal gobbledygook by the Sorabjees of India, there will be no need for any backward class commissions. Instead, the need will be for high power national (and even state) development commissions on a permanent basis (like the proposed exclusion commission), which can take a holistic view of the basic problems facing the country, by going into the nitty-gritty of poverty, deprivation, development, and so on; that is, basic needs of individuals such as food, clothing, education, employment, health, and shelter, and infrastructure and development needs of the collectivity, and ensure that both these coalesce; probe into causes of the extreme disparities in income and assets; bring in some semblance of uniformity in compensation packages for various comparable jobs and professions; and regulate compensation in industries such as corporate houses, films and sports, so that the luxury of a few will not be the ruin of many.
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