Towards competitive backwardness

The Constitutional scheme of affirmative action cannot work unless reservation is truly inclusive and non-discriminatory, writes Sanjeeb Panigrahi.

Towards competitive backwardness

The long-awaited reservation for Marathas, constituting about 32 per cent of Maharastra’s population, is going to be a reality soon. In fact, the Fadnavis Government is replaying a charade which was unsuccessfully played in the past by the Congress- NCP Government. Providing additional reservations for Marathas has been a long-drawn process since the demand was first made by late Annasaheb Patil in 1981.

The recently submitted report of the State Backward Class Commission headed by retired Justice N.G. Gaikwad, which was specifically tasked with looking into the demands of Maratha reservation, has said Marathas are socially, educationally and economically backward and classified them under an independent category called Socially and Educationally Backward Class (SEBC). The state government accepted the report. But the Government’s proposal of additional 16 per cent quota for Marathas raising the reservation to 68 per cent is hit by the 50 per cent cap as held in Indira Sawhney Case (1992).

Caste-based reservations in India first emerged to promote equal treatment in a society descending from the yoke of untouchability. But it has degenerated to become a monopolistic tool for the privileged few and catalysts for caste-related conflict. With the Lok Sabha election and many state elections impending, the motivated political expediency manipulates the strategies like fresh demands for reservation for Jats in Punjab and Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat, Rajputs in UP and so on.


The common factor among these demanding groups appears to be that although dominant in number their economic status has been declining over the years due to agrarian crises. Though reservation is a potent instrument for compensating the historic social injustices and deprivations to some communities, the governance deficit in expanding the economic cake to the hitherto neglected classes often propels such demands repeatedly.

Since India became a republic, the issue of reservation has fostered a nationwide torrent in securing government jobs and other social welfare programmes, admission in educational institutions, etc. More than any other recent experiment in social engineering, the reservation policy has evoked public outcry against overinclusiveness, violation of merit principle and reverse discrimination.

Nonetheless, with the spirited support of the apex court, the reservation policy has set the standard for equal opportunity in public employment and admission in educational Institutions. Today, the so-called change in social dynamics is more linked to economics than sociology.

The demand for reservation for Marathas, traditionally seen as “upper castes” who play a central role in electoral politics and the political economy of Maharashtra, militates against the principle of affirmative action that determines the eligibility for reservation. In the present case, such demand mirrors some imminent side effects of the failure of successive governments to address their genuine concerns viz. their inability to move up in the economic ladder, lack of job opportunities, avalanche of migration, urbanisation, sluggish agrarian economy etc.

The Constitution of India articulated through Article 46, casts an obligation on the state to promote, with special care, the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections. In fact, the whole scheme of the Constitution has been sharply formulated to strike a fine balance among various competing interests.

As a result, reservation in excess of 50 per cent has been regarded as discriminatory. However, the only exception has been Tamil Nadu wherein reservation of 69 per cent has been ratified by Parliament vide the Constitution (Seventy-sixth Amendment) Act, 1994. The possible remedy of including Maratha reservation legislation in the Ninth Schedule is also remotely possible especially after the I.R. Cohelo Judgment( 2007).

There is absolutely no rational thinking among the political classes; they often acquiesce to these types of demands for educational or employment-centric reservation especially ahead of elections. Instead of an instinctive move for ameliorative social justice, political parties use reservation as a ploy to sidetrack people’s attentions from their mis-governance. The aspirations for government jobs are increasing, so does the demand for competitive backwardness.

It must not be forgotten by the ruling class that making reservation over-inclusive has no meaning if primary and secondary education is neglected and employment opportunities are not expanded. It is also pertinent to note that the caste hierarchies are not static and keep changing in response to increasing opportunities.

The Mandal Commission, in addition to reservation for OBCs, recommended so many other measures for the upliftment of the backward castes like skill development for empowering the backward castes for job market and free hostels that have not been seriously pursued by the ruling classes. They are only interested in expanding the reservation base for vote bank politics.

Contemporary discourse demands progressive rethinking on reservation by uplifting the economic and social condition of the underprivileged though the wave is far from reach. Indian Judiciary has time and again indicted against the move for adopting economic criteria as the determinant for backwardness. The caste-based reservation system has put to sleep the genuine instinct for social justice and dynamism that would have otherwise stemmed from the religion-neutral underprivileged.

The issue cries for concrete solutions and not a temporary balm like reservation to appease some disgruntled communities that are historically neglected. Contemporary transformed consciousness suggests reservation should be based on economic criteria rather than caste as a criterion, wherein the poorest of the poor are unjustly debarred at the cost of the affluent beneficiaries of the reserved castes.

To be brutally frank, the current beneficiaries of the caste-based reservation vehemently lobby against such a move as they want to eat the sizable portion of the cake leaving the poorest of the poor in the lurch. In case of the SC/ST communities, relatively the wealthier or well-educated or the “creamy layer” is syphoning off the reservation benefits given to them by the state government as well as the Central government. The constitutional assurances for the development of the backward classes cannot be ensured without making the reservation policy truly inclusive and non-discriminatory.

The author is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India.