Recents years have been turbulent for Maharashtra with the state witnessing massive protest over reservations in job and education by several outfits. Maratha agitations have especially drawn the attention of the nation given the massive turnout in their rallies and the fact that they hold enormous social and political powers in the state.
Last year around this time, Marathas carried out peaceful rallies across the state with lakhs from the community thronging the major cities. This year, it turned violent with protesters burning vehicles, disrupting services, and vandalising public property, forcing the government to shut down internet services. One of their major demands has been reservation in jobs and education.
Rural distress and unemployment have largely been two factors that triggered the Maratha unrest. Agriculture sector across the country, including Punjab, is reeling under acute crisis. Traditionally, Maratha community has been engaged in agricultural works. The unsustainability of agriculture in drought-prone areas like Marathwada has forced younger generation to look for alternate job opportunities. They feel left out in a very competitive market which force them to resort to popular, politically efficient demands like reservation.
But, would reservation be the solution to their problems? Even if it is, will it be constitutionally possible to provide them with reservation? Only if parliament passes a bill, but that is easier said than done. There are only two ways to grant quota to Maratha: (i)by bringing Marathas under the ambit of Other Backward Class (OBC), which a very few Marathas would be agree to, or (ii) by introducing a separate quota for them through parliamentary route.
First option is irrelevant given the fact Marathas cherish their proud history and wouldn’t compromise their identity. Moreover, the OBC community, which has already been enjoying the 27% quota, will undoubtedly wreck havoc if any such attempt is made. This option is not feasible politically as well given the community is a strong supporter of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is eyeing on the second term for PM Narendra Modi. Maratahas constitute around 33% of the state population. Rest 67% of the non-Maratha population consists of Dalits and OBCs. While BJP wants to hold grip on its traditional OBC votes, it is leaving no stone unturned to woo Dalit votes either. Any attempt to carve out the OBC reservation would prove fatal for the BJP in run-up to general elections scheduled next year.
This leaves only one option- separate quote. This would overturn a Supreme Court ruling which set a maximum threshold of 50% on the reservation. Marathas are demanding for 16% reservation. First of all, it is a very tardy process as it can be challenged in the top court once again even it gets clearance from the parliament. If it happens, influential Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana and Delhi will spurt into agitations demanding reservations. So it looks impossible to grant them any reservation.
In fact Maratha problem is less political and more policy-oriented. This is not a Maratha problem, it is agrarian problem at large. The agitation started from Aurangabad, which is the administrative headquarters of Marathwada. The irrigation facility is very limited, leaving the marginal farmers to depend on the uncertainty of rainfall in the drought-prone region. In March earlier this year, around 50,000 farmers from different parts of the Maharashtra walked up to Mumbai with almost similar demands. Give the complexities of the agricultural problem, no political party or politician is willing to holistically address the crisis. Despite agriculture being the largest employer in the country, government has been ignoring its farm sector. After being consistently neglected, the farm sector became a business of losses. The distress in the agricultural sector has taken dangerous proportions. The issue is non-profitable as well for political parties as farmers don’t sum up to any major vote bank. Their votes are scattered along the cast, religion and ideological lines. For governments, it is easier to talk of reservation than to make a course correction. For the Opposition, too, the reservation discourse is convenient because it allows them to keep subscribing to the consensus over economic policies, avoiding a critical approach to the root causes of the problem. For the agitators, reservation appears as a more immediate remedy compared to long-term structural repair and reform. There should be a persistent and strong will to make any fundamental change possible which doesn’t look in sight.
The farm is so severe that journalist P Sainath, who has covered rural economy extensively, demands for a special parliament session to discuss the crisis.