Quota sys­tem out of sync in open econ­omy

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Amulya Gan­guli

JUST as Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi de­scribed MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act) as a liv­ing mon­u­ment to the Congress's decades-old ne­glect of ru­ral dis­tress, the quota sys­tem is the fall­out of, first, a sim­i­lar pro­longed fail­ure in the fields of em­ploy­ment and education and, se­condly, of political chi­canery. Haryana is bear­ing the brunt of th­ese fail­ures be­cause of the vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tion by the Jat com­mu­nity for reser­va­tions. Orig­i­nally en­vis­aged as a ges­ture for a lim­ited pe­riod to the Dal­its and Adi­va­sis who suf­fered so­cial and eco­nomic de­pri­va­tion for many cen­turies, reser­va­tions are now re­garded as a path­way to easy of­fi­cial jobs and out-of-turn ad­mis­sions to govern­ment schools and col­leges by the back­ward castes.

In view of th­ese ad­van­tages, which over­ride merit, the quota sys­tem has be­come a tool in the hands of vote-hun­gry politi­cians for but­tress­ing their sup­port bases. The prime vil­lain in this re­spect was for­mer prime min­is­ter V.P. Singh, who in­cluded the back­ward castes in the quota sys­tem in 1990 as a safe­guard against be­ing un­der­cut by his ri­val, Devi Lal.

The Pandora's box was thus opened with more and more com­mu­ni­ties seek­ing the ben­e­fits of se­cure jobs in govern­ment of­fices and seats for their chil­dren in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. How­ever, it is the stag­nant econ­omy and a mori­bund ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor which fu­elled the de­mand for pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. Had the econ­omy pros­pered and a greater num­ber of jobs been avail­able, there wouldn't have been such a rush for reser­va­tions. A buoy­ant econ­omy would have cre­ated an at­mos­phere of well­ness, en­cour­ag­ing greater pub­lic and pri­vate in­vest­ment in the ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor. But the 2/3 per cent Hindu rate of growth un­der the Congress's "so­cial­ist" regimes till 1991 en­sured that the econ­omy limped along, ag­gra­vat­ing the un­em­ploy­ment prob­lem and starv­ing the aca­demic sphere of funds. The post-1991 era of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion did not bring about a dra­matic im­prove­ment in the sit­u­a­tion de­spite the much higher growth rate be­cause the world had en­tered a pe­riod of au­to­mated tech­nol­ogy where ma­chines did the work of men. Hence the term 'job­less growth'.

Al­though more jobs were avail­able than be­fore in the ser­vices, real es­tate and in­fra­struc­ture sec­tors, they were not enough to sat­isfy the grow­ing de­mand, which was caused not only by a ris­ing pop­u­la­tion but also the lim­ited avail­abil­ity of agri­cul­tural land as the farm­ing fam­i­lies grew in num­bers. Need­less to say, it is not only the fail­ures on the eco­nomic front which added to the ap­peal of reser­va­tions but also an of­fi­cial in­abil­ity to en­force the pop­u­la­tion con­trol pro­gramme.

The dis­tor­tion which V.P. Singh in­tro­duced in the quota sys­tem was to in­clude the rel­a­tively well-off, though so­cially back­ward, com­mu­ni­ties like the Ya­davs of the Hindi heart­land who had con­sid­er­able clout in the coun­try­side. Now, the Jats who, like the Ya­davs, are an in­flu­en­tial group in the coun­try­side are also clam­our­ing for quo­tas in their favour. Not sur­pris­ingly, the Supreme Court de­scribed them as a "self-pro­claimed so­cially back­ward class of cit­i­zens" while turn­ing down the Congress-led cen­tral govern­ment's de­ci­sion to con­fer the back­ward caste sta­tus on them be­fore the last gen­eral elec­tion.

This warp­ing of the sys­tem has re­cently been ac­cen­tu­ated by the de­mand of the Pati­dars or the Pa­tels of Gu­jarat for reser­va­tions de­spite be­ing well-placed, both so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally. But the worst ex­am­ple of the skewed na­ture of reser­va­tions was the de­mand by the Gu­j­jars of north In­dia for rel­e­ga­tion from their present back­ward caste sta­tus to that of sched­uled tribes or Adi­va­sis.

The rea­son for this de­sire to re­treat into the com­pany of the Van­va­sis or forest­d­wellers, as the Adi­va­sis are some­times called, is the fear of the Gu­j­jars that the en­try of Jats into the back­ward caste cat­e­gory, which has been pend­ing since 1999, will re­duce their share of re­served jobs and ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties. As the judge of a com­mis­sion which con­sid­ered their de­mand said, "ear­lier the craze was to move for­ward. Now it is the op­po­site".

With even the "for­ward" groups like the Pa­tels de­mand­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in their favour, it has been sug­gested that the quota sys­tem should be opened up to in­clude not only the back­ward castes but also the eco­nom­i­cally weaker sec­tions of the "for­wards" as well. How­ever, per­haps the best course may be to abol­ish the reser­va­tions al­to­gether, as Hardik Pa­tel, the leader of the Pa­tel ag­i­ta­tors said, and let the var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties com­pete on the ba­sis of merit and not the ac­ci­dent of birth. Such a step will mean re­viv­ing the orig­i­nal goal of reser­va­tions which en­vis­aged do­ing away with them a decade af­ter their in­tro­duc­tion in 1950.

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