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Reservation Gimmick

Reservation Gimmick

It may have come as a surprise to many. Never before has it happened in the Indian legislative history. A Bill, approved by the Cabinet a day earlier, is cleared by the Lok Sabha the next day and the Rajya Sabha the day after.  This being a constitutional amendment, it needed a two-thirds majority in both Houses. Surprisingly, only a few members voted against the Bill. In fact, all the amendments proposed in both Houses were rejected. The Bill was passed, as it was proposed.

It happened despite the Opposition voicing its opinion against the Bill during the debate in both Houses. Some termed it anti-constitutional; some even said it will face the wrath of the Supreme Court and some pointed out that the Bill would not serve any purpose as the government jobs were reducing day by day.

Yet, when the Bill came up for voting, only a few voted against it. It showed the extent to which the politics of reservation has travelled in the country. None of the major political parties dared to oppose the 10 per cent reservation of seats in educational institutions and government jobs to the economically poor sections of society. Of course, this is beyond the existing 49.5 per cent reservation given to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes etc.

It can certainly be termed as Modi’s masterstroke after the BJP lost in the recently conducted elections in three states. During the last four and a half years of the BJP rule, we have seen many, including the upper castes, demanding reservation. Leaders from communities like the Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra protested against the government, demanding separate reservation. They lose the race when people with lower scores get a seat in an education institution or a government job easily because of reservation.

Some demanded scrapping reservation altogether. Not only this, the BJP has been feeling that its main voter – people from the upper castes – is turning against it. It found the keyword “quota” or “reservation” to tame not only the Opposition but the upper castes as well.

The fact that the Bill got passed in both Houses during the last day of the session shows the continued importance of upper castes for political parties for winning elections. Had the Opposition not supported the Bill, it might have faced their wrath. The fear of a loss mobilised all to stand together in favour of the economic poor.

Now let’s delve a little deeper and find out who will benefit from this Bill? To toe the line of the government, one would simply say anyone who does not fall in any other quota with a family income of less than Rs. 8 lakh a year or anyone who does not have an agricultural land measuring 5 acres or a flat with 1000 sq. ft area in an urban notified area or 200 sq. mt area in a village, would benefit.

Reading the above, many of us would say, “This is for me”. Yes, that seems to be true. This is for us all. But will all of us get the benefit of this 10 per cent? Certainly not. It will, again, be something like the ones who pass the test on the basis of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest (read richest).

The recently released data on per-capita income for 2018-19 shows that an average Indian earns Rs. 1,25,397 a year. The average family size in India is five. In other words, the average household income would be a little over Rs. 6.25 lakh a year. This is certainly less than the cut-off of Rs. 8 lakh.  Does this mean that a household that earns more than the average Indian household is economically weak? The idea seems to be absurd. In fact, 95 per cent of the Indians would be eligible for this reservation based on the income criteria.

On the contrary, a person earning more than Rs. 2.5 lac a year is liable to pay tax. In fact, the one who earns Rs. 8 lakh falls in the 20 per-cent tax slab? Is the government clear on its definition of the economically poor? If yes, why should the government ask him to pay tax?

Similarly, the recently released results of the agriculture census done in 2015-16 reveal that 86.2 per cent of landholdings are less than five acres. This also means that more than 86 per cent of the people are eligible for availing of this so-called quota for the economically weaker section. Now we all may wonder that everything is simply great. Where is the problem? 

The official data shows that around 16.14 lakh people were working in Central government jobs in 2006-07. The figure has dropped to 11.31 lakh in 2016-17. Likewise, the number that stood at 8.77 lakh employees in 2012-2013 for public sector undertakings has gone down to 8.67 lakh. The state government jobs do not have a different story to tell. With shrinking government jobs, what are we going to fight for? It would be like 2 lakh people fighting for one slice of pizza.

Some may think, if not jobs, people will benefit as they may get the reservation in educational institutions. Well, the scenario remains the same with the government investing little in the education sector. India’s higher education system may be termed as the third largest in the world, next to the US and China but it is inadequate for the Indian population. In fact, it has expanded largely due to the presence of private players rather than the government's investment in this sector. The number of government colleges and universities has hardly increased over the last decade. To cut the story short, the struggle remains the same.

In any case, those having an annual household income of Rs. 8 lakh will be at a better place than those getting Rs. 2.5 lakh. The former will certainly have more resources to compete for government jobs or educational institutions than the latter. With lesser unreserved seats, a few people sitting at the helm of affairs may exploit the situation to their advantage. Not only this, babus or officials, who would be issuing certificates for claiming reservations, too will have a gala time.

Ultimately, the richest of the (so-called) economically poor will end up having the reserved or the unreserved jobs or seats in the educational institutions. This will certainly hurt people who are genuinely poor. 

So for whom is the government working? For the economically weaker section, is it? If the government were serious, the criteria for availing of reservation should not have been so broad. It would have been something like the income tax exemption limit or slightly higher, where fewer people competed or genuinely poor could benefit.
The quota Bill is exactly like a “sixer in slog overs”, as Ravi Shankar Prasad quoted, as it will give a temporary joy or respite to people until the next ball is played. It is certainly not like six sixes in six balls.

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com .)

(Published on 14th January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 03)