FROM BUSINESS WORLD OF 19 DECEMBER 2006
Privilege & handicap
Against passionate opposition from the upper castes, the government has pushed through Parliament the Central Education Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Bill. Arjun Singh, the minister of human resource development who was the major force behind this bill, has promised that he would bring forward further legislation to extend reservations for Other Backward Castes to other educational institutions. It was extensively pointed out, on the basis of official data from National Sample Survey, that OBCs are backward only in name and that over the decades they have been catching up with forward castes in education as well as access to lucrative occupations. But the compulsion of the Congress to win over vote banks is so strong that rational argument had no chance.
It is in the context of this political inclination of the party in power that the Sachar Commission report is being viewed. The government enacted OBC reservations for political advantage when the economic case was weak. The Sachar Commission has avoided the word, but recommended something close to reservation in a number of fields, such as credit and education. In any case, the Commission provides an empirical basis for Muslim reservation to anyone who needs it. For a government that has gone in for OBC reservations in the face of facts, the factual case for Muslim reservations will not only be welcome but compelling.
In our view, reservations as a means of tackling backwardness have outlived their usefulness. Fairer economic criteria are today just as easy to use as caste criteria, and economic backwardness can be more appropriately tackled by means of economic assistance than by reservations. This is as even more true of Muslims than of other social groups. For Muslims, unlike scheduled castes, have not historically suffered from social exclusion. Most of their common occupations are not demeaning or isolating. In fact, an unusually high proportion of them are self-occupied: they are craftsmen and small businessmen. Business is generally the avenue to riches. It has not, however, been one for the Muslims. If it has not been one for Muslims, it is because they are concentrated in handicrafts and traditional occupations that have declined because of competition from modern industry.
In these circumstances, it is not Muslims that need remedial action, but their occupations. In countries that industrialized earlier, when modern industry was less productive and its intrusion into the economy more gradual, it was common for workers in traditional industry to acquire industrial skills and be absorbed into the modern sector. It has not occurred to the same extent in India because industry today is more productive and employs much fewer people to produce the same quantity of output; it is also because modern industry has located itself in the south and the west, whereas the north was the home of traditional industries, especially those of which Muslims were masters. Although the remedy may have become less effective, it has not disappeared. The best way for Muslims out of backwardness is through modernization of their traditional crafts. We have a structural rather than a communal problem; the solution is to transform the structure rather than create new niches in already overburdened educational institutions and public services.
However rational structural solutions may be, they are not likely to appeal to politicians who are driven by electoral compulsions. It is also difficult to bring a radically different principle of assistance into operation when reservations have been the favoured means for over a century. So a second-best solution also needs to be thought about. The present jigsaw puzzle of reservations cries out for rationalization. The lists of those who are included and excluded differs between the centre and the states, and from state to state. The quotas differ equally widely. Quotas within quotas were initially used by the British government to win over sections of local populations; their indigenous successors have practiced this art with even greater guile and finesse. And yet, a caste or religious group should be eligible for reservation or ineligible on the basis of its social indicators. There is no scope for degrees of eligibility, and no empirical basis for the precise percentages of subquotas.
Hence what the centre, and the states under its leadership, need to do is first of all to standardize the list of those to be included, and then to institute a standard, common quota for them all without distinction of caste, creed and religion. Ideally, there should also be a mechanism for judging the progress of communities and to remove them from the quota when they have ceased to be backward. But let us at least progress from a nation of a thousand castes to one of two classes – one going forward on merit and another on reservations.