The government’s decision to set up a National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (NCSEdBC) in place of the existing National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) meets long-standing demands. The Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEdBCs), and the Forum of BC MPs have asked for its constitution and the NCBC and the Parliamentary Committee on SEdBCs have recommended it. The usefulness and effectiveness of the commission depend on the functions entrusted to it and its composition.
The only function of the NCBC under the NCBC Act is to examine requests for inclusion of any class of citizens as a backward class in SEdBC lists and hear complaints of over-inclusion or under-inclusion of any class in such lists and to tender advice to the Central government, which shall ordinarily be binding upon the government. It is presumed that civil court powers given to the NCBC, provided to all commissions, will continue.
Another role of the NCBC is that it should be consulted by the Central government while undertaking the periodic revision of SEdBC lists “with a view to excluding from such lists those classes who have ceased to be backward classes or for including new backward classes”. The NCBC’s main function and its periodic role are laid out in the Supreme Court’s directions in the judgment of November 16, 1992, which upheld the constitutional validity of the V.P. Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, taken on the basis of my note as Secretary, Ministry of Welfare, in 1990.
If the NCSEdBC’s function and role are the same as that of NCBC, its usefulness for SEdBCs will be neither more nor less than the NCBC’s. Reportedly, the NCSEdBC will be entrusted with the additional function of grievance redress of SEdBCs. This is an improvement. Further, according to Union minister Venkaiah Naidu, a new Article 342(A) will make it mandatory to take the concurrence of Parliament for adding or deleting any community in the SEdBC list. This will introduce greater transparency. It is more difficult to get a wrong decision through Parliament, which is under constant public gaze and scrutiny, than through executive orders issued from within the four walls of the executive office.
SEdBCs require not only list-inclusion and reservation but also comprehensive and holistic development and advancement of each community towards equality with Socially Advanced Castes (SACs) in all parameters of development and welfare. The blueprint for this is contained in the Report of the Working Group on Empowerment of SEdBCs in the XII Plan prepared under my chairmanship, which stands even though the terminology of “plan” has been replaced by “vision”, “agenda”.
In view of this, the Commission should be entrusted with the work of advising and guiding the Centre and the states regarding measures undertaken and required to be undertaken; monitoring their effectiveness and the progress of SEdBCs and each Backward Class, and all other related tasks. This was recommended by the NCBC in its annual report of February 2000.
The existing statutory composition of a judge as chairperson, a central secretary-level officer as member-secretary, a social scientist and two persons possessing special knowledge of matters relating to SEdBCs should continue. All five members should be selected on the basis of objectivity, repute earned through long and sincere service for backward classes and knowledge and experience of society, social backwardness and developmental processes relevant to the advancement of SEdBCs. They should not be attached to any political party.
To infuse confidence in the SEdBC public, the practice of ensuring majority of membership from SEdBCs should continue. Due representation should be ensured for most and extremely backward classes, who form a good majority of SEdBCs, among them castes of artisans, service-providers, fisher-folk, indigent castes etc. The past two chairpersons belonged to most backward classes — this is a precedent worth continuing. One of the five members may be from a religious minority — the bulk of India’s Muslims and Christians belong to most and extremely backward SEdBCs.
Anxiety has been expressed that the proposed move is intended to delete certain communities from SEdBC lists. Exclusion of castes which ceased to be backward was recommended by certain past commissions and specifically directed by the Supreme Court. Castes can be excluded only on the basis of objective data, not on anybody’s whims and fancies. Parliamentary scrutiny can further reduce the scope for arbitrary decisions.
The real danger that leaders have to protect SEdBCs from is an inclusion of any socially advanced castes (SAC) in SEdBC lists. Certain SACs are making muscular efforts for this, knowing that they cannot succeed under the Constitution which provides for reservation and other social justice measures only for social classes who are victims of “untouchability” (SCs), victims of remoteness under vulnerable conditions (STs), victims of social inferiority or lowliness under the caste system (SEdBCs) and not for the poor or the unemployed. The poor and the unemployed who do not belong to these three social classes should be helped through means such as scholarships and educational loans, but not through the reservation. Parties should resist the temptation of using muscular agitations of powerful SACs for transient electoral advantage. There should be a common moral code based on constitutional norms and morality emphasised by B.R. Ambedkar, which should be binding on all parties. Issues relating to SEdBCs, SCs and STs are too serious and important for the vast majority of India’s population and for national progress to be made a football in electoral competition.
Another important task calling for the attention of leaders, the Commission and the government is the categorisation of SEdBCs into “backwards”, “more backwards”, “most backward” and “extremely backward” castes with sub-quotas, so as to spread the benefits of reservation and other social justice measures equitably. The Opposition should desist from knee-jerk and contradictory reactions. The government should improve its credibility by instituting, in article or rules, the process of members’ selection through a bipartisan collegium.
The name of “National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes” is correctly chosen in line with constitutional terminology. In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru insisted on this name in a new clause (4) of Article 15. The acronym should be “NCSEdBC” and not “NCSEBC” because “E” can be misunderstood and misinterpreted as “economically” and misused for SAC caste entry into SEdBC list.
The writer is former Member-Secretary, NCBC. The order appointing Mandal Commission was issued by him and the government’s decision of 27 per cent reservation for SEdBCs was based on his note