The Union Cabinet has approved a proposal to set up a panel to examine sub-categorisation of the Socially and Educationally Other Backward Castes (OBCs).
The stratification of OBC quota could lead to a quota within quota in OBC reservations. This is a move which could affect educationally and socially advanced communities within the backward classes who have benefited from the policy of positive discrimination over the past three decades.
Regardless of the political impulse that led the government to announce creation of a committee to look into sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBC), it provides an opening to ensure social justice in an efficient manner.
Mandal Commission resulted in a paradigm shift in the national polity
The Mandal Commission was established in India in 1979 by the (Janata Party) government with a mandate to “identify the socially or educationally backwards.” It was headed by Indian parliamentarian B.P. Mandal to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination and used eleven social, economic, and educational indicators to determine backwardness.
In 1980, the commission’s report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of Other Backward Classes (OBC), were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government Jobs and slots in public universities. 27% seats in central government jobs and educational institutions are reserved for the backward classes after Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented by the government in 1990, resulting in a paradigm shift in the national polity. The decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sawhney Case.
Earlier this year, the government gave constitutional status to the National Backward Classes Commission through a Constitution amendment Bill.
Sub-categorisation of OBC in central list too
Nine States — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Karnataka, Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu — have already implemented sub-categorization of Other Backward Classes. There is no sub categorisation in the central list.
Recently, the government approved setting up of a commission to examine the sub categorisation of backward communities in the central list to ensure that the benefits extended to OBCs reach all the backward castes.
The Cabinet also increased the ‘creamy layer’ ceiling for the OBC category to Rs 8 lakh per annum from the existing Rs 6 lakh for central government jobs.Those in the OBC category earning up to Rs 8 lakh per annum would now get the reservation benefits.
Mandate of the commission on OBC subcategorisation
The commission will examine the extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation among the castes/communities included in the broad category of OBCs, with reference to the OBCs included in the Central list.
It will also work out the mechanism, criteria, norms and parameters, in a scientific approach, for sub-categorization within such OBCs, and take up the exercise of identifying the respective castes/communities/ sub-castes/ synonyms in the Central List of OBCs and classifying them into their respective sub-categories.
The Commission will submit its report within 12 weeks from the date of appointment of the chairperson of the Commission
The jobs-claimants mismatch
The National Sample Survey (NSS) data from 2011-12 shows that about 19% of the sample claims to be Dalit, 9% Adivasi, and 44% OBC. Among the population aged 25-49, less than 7% have a college degree. By most estimates, less than 3% of the whole population is employed in government and public-sector jobs. A vast proportion of the population eligible for reservations must still compete for a tiny number of reserved and non-reserved category jobs. It is not surprising that there is tremendous internal competition within groups.
If we want reservations to make a significant difference in the lives of the marginalised groups, there are only two options. Either the government must drastically increase the availability of government jobs and college seats or it must reduce the size of the population eligible for these benefits. Out of these two options, the viable option is to reduce the size of the eligible population, possibly along the lines of sub-categorisation proposed by the government.
However, while the media and claimants to the popular OBC status such as Jats, Kapus and Patels are busy arguing over the merits of this proposal, very little attention is paid to the practical challenges facing sub-categorisation. How will we know which castes are the most disadvantaged? At the moment, the only reputable nationwide data on caste comes from the 1931 colonial Census and some of the ad hoc surveys conducted for specific castes.
Lack of credible caste information from both Census and SECC data
The Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 was supposed to provide up-to-date comprehensive data. However, the results remain hidden in mystery. When releasing poverty and deprivation data from the SECC in 2015, it was found that about 4.6 million distinct caste names, including names of gotra, surname and phonetic variations were returned, making the results almost impossible to interpret.
For nearly 80 million individuals, caste data were believed to be erroneous. In 2015, the then NITI Aayog Vice Chairperson was asked to head a committee to chair the caste classification using SECC data. But little seems to have come of it.
SECC data have not been able to shed light on socioeconomic disadvantages faced by different caste groups: addition of caste information was an ill-conceived graft on what was supposed to be a Below Poverty Line (BPL) survey. This patchwork solution had to be adopted because in spite of widespread demands to include caste data in the Census of 2001 and 2011, the Office of the Registrar General was reluctant to add this burden to the decennial exercise. As a way of appeasing the OBC lobby, it was decided that the BPL census would incorporate caste information.
However, after the probable failure of this effort, it would make sense to rethink collection of caste data in Census.
Address caste-based inequalities
What would it take to eliminate caste-based disadvantages in next three or four decades?
A two-pronged approach that focuses on eliminating discrimination and expanding the proportion of population among the disadvantaged groups that benefits from affirmative action policies could be a solution.
The present policies focus on preferential admission to colleges and coveted institutions like IITs and IIMs. But these benefits may come too late in the life of a Kurmi or Gujjar child. Their disadvantage begins in early childhood and grows progressively at higher levels of education.
The India Human Development Survey of 2011-12 found that among families where no adult has completed more than Class X, 59% children from the forward castes are able to read a simple paragraph while the proportion is only 48% for OBCs, 41% for Dalits and 35% for Adivasis.
So, Improving quality of education for all, including those from marginalised groups, must be a first step in addressing caste-based inequalities.
The second line of attack must focus on ensuring that benefits of reservations are widely spread.
It makes little sense for a young man to obtain admission to a prestigious college, get admitted to a postgraduate course, get a job as an assistant professor, and be promoted to the position of a professor using the same caste certificate. It would make even less sense if his children are also able to obtain preferential treatment using the same caste certificate.
Thus, use of the OBC quota must be limited to once in a person’s lifetime, allowing for a churn in the population benefitting from reservations.
Linking the Aadhaar card to use of benefits makes it possible that individuals use their caste certificates only once, spreading the benefits of reservations over a wider population.
The present move by the government to rethink OBC quota creates a wedge that could potentially be used to ensure that we have better data on caste-based disadvantages for future discourse.
It is somewhat disheartening to think that even after 70 years of Independence, we still must rely on a colonial Census to tell us about the condition of various castes in India.
It also indicates a mood that wants to ensure that the benefits of reservation are widely spread. Increased attempts at linking benefits to Aadhaar allow us with an option to ensure that reservation benefits are not captured by a few.
Preparations for Census 2021 are on-going. There is still time to create an expert group to evaluate the methodology for collecting caste data and include it in the Census forms. Losing this opportunity would leave us hanging for another 10 years without good data for undertaking sub-categorisation of OBC quota or evaluating claims to OBC status by different groups.
This should probably be taken as a good opportunity to reshape the nature of an affirmative action in India.