By Neha Khator:
It happens only in India. And it happens mostly during elections, when political parties out to secure votes begin doling out reservation quotas like cash or gas subsidy. For the 2014 general elections, the drive to bribe as many votes as possible has already begun.
First, the Jains, a community comprising mostly upper-class and middle-class, were given minority status and related benefits. Congress then went ahead demanding quota for Jats, another tribe of rich land-owners capable of taking care of themselves. (Though Congress vehemently denies the link to elections but Jats are present in large numbers in nine North Indian states.) Now, the Congress-led UPA government has moved the Supreme Court seeking inclusion of Muslims in the 27% OBC quota.
Let it be said here in the beginning that reservation has today truly lost its meaning. The quota system was officially introduced in India in 1982 to ensure the historically disadvantaged communities with no equal access to resources live a dignified life and get a level-playing field. To put words into action, it was decided that 22.5% of seats in educational institutes and government jobs will be filled by SC/STs.
Over the years, however, as senior journalist Tavleen Singh wrote, “it has given birth to a distorted mindset that the government would take care of everyone’s needs even if nobody lifted a finger.”Â The reservation system has today become an easy way, creating a population that feeds off welfare payments and lacks the motivation to improve their surroundings and status. Myopic politics continues to win even as merit is damned.
Reservation can never be the route to equality. It is a tool that works as a propeller for few, not an equalizer for all. If, however, everyone gets equal resources, do we then still need a reservation system? If I say the disadvantaged would not be that disadvantaged in terms of access to resources, is there still a need to secure them under a socialist environment when the majority struggles in a free-market one?
Consider the UPA government’s three crucial flagship schemes – MGNREGA, Right to Education and Food Security Bill. Though the three populist schemes have earned their share of laurels and labels from its supporters and critics, the UPA’s trident has raised a more pertinent question: If the government is giving guaranteed employment, free food and free education to all, do we then need caste-based reservation?
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act was launched in 2010 to give every child an equal education. According to the Census 2011, around 36% of the entire illiterate population in the country is from the backward classes – the ones that need access to education most urgently and the ones that the RTE Act hopes to reach. According to the 2012-13 annual report of the HRD ministry, in 2009-10, before enactment of RTE Act, the enrolment of SC/ST children was 5.77 crore which has increased to 6.11 crore in 2011-12.
The National Food Security law, as it states in the bill, is more deeply connected with ensuring that “people get quality food to live their lives with dignity”. It aims to provide highly subsidized food grains to approximately two-third of India’s 1.2 billion people. Interestingly, as defined in the law, 75% of the beneficiaries will be from rural areas. Considering that 73% of India’s population lives in the villages, it means that everyone in rural India will be eating quality food at a negligible cost. What is more important is that out of the 73% rural population, 30% are SC/STs. Hence, dalits form one of the biggest beneficiaries of the food bill. As revealed in NFHS-3 data, 54% of SC/ST children are severely malnourished.
In case of the MGNREGA scheme, the government’s own admission is worth reading. “Five crore families have been benefitted so far and two lakh crore rupees spent. Out of this, 50% beneficiaries are from SC, ST sections and 70% of money has been utilized for giving wages.”
The three schemes together guarantee the SC/STs an equal right on quality food, nourishment, education, prosperity and livelihood – the crucial elements that can ensure they sustain a dignified livelihood and enable them for the challenges of a free-market system. Why is reservation needed when every child, irrespective of their caste, gets the same food to eat and same books to read? Why is reservation needed when everyone begins from the same point?
Emancipation of any caste cannot be achieved by mere seat allotments. What is immediately needed is an effective, quality implementation of the three schemes to see they deliver to every caste the promised access to equal resources and opportunity that the quota system has and will fail to plug. These three schemes, if properly implemented, can create an infrastructure that enables hard-work and merit to rise from any caste or class bracket of the country. Most importantly, they can put an end to the present toxic culture of handing out free, untied welfare benefits to everyone who is not needy and undeserving.
There comes a time when almost everything overstays its welcome and India’s reservation system is one of them. The idea was brought-in in the hope that it would erase the caste lines and divisions in the Indian society, but it ended up etching them even deeper, redefining the hatred among general castes against lower castes. It was thought that reservation would promote greater social mobility for the weaker sections and would empower them but it ended up making them vulnerable tools of vote-bank politics. It is thus time we let it go. And we have three very good reasons to do so.