Do we still need Reservation in Education and Employment?

Chhatrapati Sahu Maharaj, the king of the princely state of Kolhapur (1894-1922), greatly influenced by Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, introduced 50% reservation in 1902 in employment for castes other than the 4 privileged communities of Brahmins, Shenvis (also Brahmins), Prabhu (Kayasths) and the Parsis in his state. One Ganpat Abhyankar, a brahmin from Sangli, appeared before him and opposed this reservation. The story goes, that Sahu Maharaj, took Abhyankar to his stable. The horses in his stable were each feeding from a container tied to their mouth. Sahu Maharaj ordered his men to pour the food on a mat and untie the horses. The stronger ones pushed forward and plunged for the food. The weaker, unwell, younger ones were pushed away and they waited for the stronger ones to finish. The stronger ones did not even eat properly as they kept struggling with the others to keep their space. At this point Shahu Maharaj asked Abhyankar, “What should I do with the weaker ones? Should I shoot them?” He explained to Abhyankar, “I knew this would happen and so I had tied each one’s share to their mouth so that they do not have to fight for their rightful share. This is called Reservation.” Abhyankar supposedly withdrew his complaint and went back but there are many such Abhyankars today who continue to raise the same claim and there are fewer Sahu Maharajas who have the will to defend the principle.

While the world is gripped in football fever, let us see this image with new glasses. Different people have different abilities, both physical and mental. In the left panel, each person is given the same benefit of a stool to watch the match. This is equality. But this fails to take into account the different abilities of the three different persons. The panel on the right takes into account the need of each person and provides accordingly. This is equity.

Determination of mental ability that supposedly defines merit, is far more complicated than this for obvious reasons. How do we measure mental ability? How do we determine privileges that are not economic? How do we measure discrimination that is ingrained in our language, in our food habits, in our everyday life? These are questions which are not very difficult to answer if we have the will to do so, but these become a challenge when we want to create barriers to accepting that there are historically given privileges that few people enjoy and also ensure that others have no access to these. These few people are our parliamentarians who make laws, our bureaucrats who implement them, our judges who defend them, and even our teachers who want to erase this discrimination against the largest section of our population from our minds. The discriminated many build our economy, they create what we call our society but they do not define it. To give them power to define our society and our economy, we need to ensure equity. The ramp to ensure equity in society is Reservation.

Understanding Merit

We often hear reservation in jobs creates inefficiencies. To go back to another Sahu Maharaj story, he once gave appointment in the court to a person from the Mang or Matang caste. The Mangs were classified as a criminal tribe by the British. All other employees from the privileged castes tried their best to drive him away but he held his ground. After a few days, an upper caste judge wrote a confidential report against him to the king about his inefficiency and recommended a 15 day deduction in his wage. Sahu Maharaj apparently placed the responsibility of making this ‘inefficient’ worker ‘efficient’ in the next 15 days  on this judge, failing which he declared, 15 days of wage will be deducted from the pay of the judge. Within 15 days, lo and behold! the Mang worker had been declared ‘efficient’ by the same judge.

Would we want to be treated by a Doctor who has got into medical school by reservation? Would we want our children to be taught by a teacher who has got the job by reservation? Would this not affect our health, the future of our next generation? And finally, what about our children who have done so well and yet do not get admission in the best colleges as seats get reserved for the undeserving SCs and STs? Have we not all heard this being said in our own homes, in the streets, in public places, shamelessly? To answer these questions simply, reservation is always at the point of entry. To make a student into a good doctor or a good teacher or a good anything is the responsibility of the institution where they enter. If a student turns out to be a bad doctor, or a bad teacher or an inefficient worker like the Mang worker in Sahuji’s court, it is the responsibility of the institution and therefore its failure. The problem that we face today is the lack of accountability of the system but we blame it on the policy of reservation. We have bad doctors and bad teachers and bad workers of all castes but we still blame reservation for it.

Is Reservation Enough?

Reservation, as per the constitution, is for backward castes – the Scheduled Castes (SCs), the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) – who constitute 16.6%, 8.6% and 41.1% (2011 census) respectively. This together adds up to 66.3% of the population while reserved seats in government and public sector employment for SCs, STs and OBCs is 15%, 7.5% and 27% respectively, all together adding up to 49.5% of total positions, less than 50% as per a Supreme Court order. The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendation of 1980 for OBC quota in 1990 by the National Front government with V P Singh as Prime Minister led to violent anti-reservation protests led by upper castes across the country. For the first time we saw upper caste men self-immolating themselves in public to create a political environment that was inflammatory. The birth right of all upper castes, especially the Brahmins, over all public services was being challenged and the government for the first time since 1950 was serious about ensuring equity.

The Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented despite the lawlessness, despite the threat to tear apart the country. The government showed its power and its will but that we soon realised is not enough. The upper caste social elite knew how to scuttle this too. 15 years later, in 2015, according to a RTI response, only 12% of employees in central government ministries were OBCs. This gets worse as we climb up the ladder. In 2012, it was found that there were no SC employees in the top 149 government jobs and that over 40% of SCs employed in government were consigned to menial jobs (Group D). The rationale given for this is again that of merit or lack of it. However, with lack of accountability attached to the institution, in this case the government itself, discrimination is rampant both at entry and in promotions. There is no mechanism in place to break upper caste domination and its promotion of its own.

Further, as we move increasingly towards ‘less government, more governance’, the number of jobs in government are declining drastically every day. The Sixth Pay Commission recommended to do away with Group D jobs where the largest number of SCs found employment. This was professed as a move to reskill those in the Group D jobs such that they move to Group C but what it attempted in reality is to eliminate the entry level Group D jobs forever barring access even to the lowest end quality jobs for the SCs. Large number of services in public employment has already been contractualised so the total number of jobs available in government and public sector, where reservation is implemented, is also dwindling.


If reservation is Inefficient, why are the Gujjars, Patels and Marathas demanding it?

Have you ever wondered what is common between the Patels in Gujarat, the Jats in Haryana, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh who are demanding reservation in government jobs and educational institutions? They are all largely landowning peasant cultivators in each of these areas. In the last 70 years, the Marathas, the Jats, the Patels and the Kapus had all been very content to be considered middle castes, linked to land or business. The aspiration to move up the caste hierarchy was evident till the agrarian crisis hit the countryside. They had all at the time of the Mandal agitations opposed reservation bitterly. With agrarian economy in crisis and becoming unsustainable to support families, people from these landed communities began migrating to cities in search of jobs. The inability of successive governments to create jobs in urban centres has created large scale unemployment and underemployment. This continuing migration is also depressing wages and conditions of work in the jobs that are available. These irregular jobs without security, at low wages, without social security are not jobs that a landowning middle caste community left their homes to take. Hence the demand for being included in the OBC category to access public sector and government jobs.

How do we move Forward?

In 2014, India’s labour force size was 49.6 crores of which only 3.55% was employed by government. The remaining jobs are all in the private sector. Thus the ambit of reservation, is only restricted to 3.55% (1.76 crore) of the working population and if reservation is applied in its entirety, only 87 lakh jobs which is only 1.75% of all jobs would be reserved. So reservation can obviously not be the decisive policy that ensures that we do not get jobs.

What we clearly need is more jobs, jobs that are decent, jobs that are regulated, jobs that are able to take care of us and our families and jobs that ensure that the caste hierarchy is not perpetuated. The problem that we are faced with will not get resolved if we expand reservation to more middle castes. The problem will not get resolved if we do away with reservation for the SCs, STs and OBCs in public services. In fact to ensure equity we need to expand reservation to include jobs in the private sector which employs many more people than the government does.

Radical as it may seem, private sector reservation is not very uncommon. Affirmative action was introduced as a result of the strong civil rights movement of the African Americans from the 1950s in the USA, culminating in the Civil Rights Act, 1964. Subsequently reservation for coloured persons was extended to private parties under government contracts and even to the private sector. South Africa with its history of struggle against apartheid has its affirmative action enshrined in its Employment Equity Act in order to redress racial and gender imbalances in the workplace. However, even after 17 years since it was implemented in 1998, according to a report of South Africa’s Commission for Employment Equity, more than 73% of the top private sector jobs are claimed by whites of which 60.9% are claimed by white men. The report argues that this is because most private sector companies “lack the commitment” to transform the workplace just as in government jobs in our country. Thus commitment and accountability is key to the implementation of affirmative action.