Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Red Signal to Mandal - II

At last the honorable Supreme Court has questioned the rationale of a 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in central educational institutions, and asked for a fresh count of OBCs.

The court has stayed the government decision on OBC quotas by zeroing in on the logic of 27 per cent reservation. That figure has simply been derived from an apex court ruling that caps the upper limit of quotas at 50 per cent.

With SCs and STs already getting 22.5 per cent reservation, the maximum quota for OBCs cannot possibly exceed 27 per cent.

However, such a simplistic method of devising public policy for affirmative action just does not pass muster. It also says a lot about the political compulsions of such a decision.

The SC order presents an opportunity to nail the fuzzy category that the OBCs represent. As the term OBC suggests, it is not an exclusively caste-based classification.

Unlike SCs and STs, who were singled out in the Indian Constitution for reservation, there are no clear guidelines on defining OBCs.

Over the years, however, caste has increasingly become synonymous with class for the purpose of reservation. This easy correlation needs to be interrogated, and the only way to do so is to conduct a national survey where the relation between caste and deprivation is explicitly targeted.

The last time caste figured in a census was back in 1931. That survey was guided by Orientalist and static notions.

A caste-based census need not merely enumerate groups that can be classified as backward. It would be a worthwhile exercise only if it looks at income and other social indicators of different groups and how they have changed over time.

This would help in drawing up a clear — and necessarily complex — picture as to who are the real 'backward' classes that merit affirmative action.

A caste-based survey would ensure that the so-called 'creamy layer' — groups that have benefited from quotas and no longer need it — are identified.

It is an irony, as the Supreme Court has noted, that more and more groups are queuing up for backward status. There is enough evidence to suggest that OBCs such as Yadavs, Jats or Nadars, among others, cannot be considered backward any more.

A caste-based census would help in weeding out such groups. The government's recent admission that if the creamy layer is kept out, most reserved seats would go empty is a sign that the blind application of quotas isn't working.

A caste-based survey would at least identify the groups that really need affirmative action. Only then can government ensure that these groups actually benefit from state policies.

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