Last week’s Supreme Court judgment, which gives a thumbs up to the 103 rd Constitutional Amendment that sets out a special 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections of society in government jobs and educational institutions, is a watershed moment in the reservation policy of this country. Social backwardness is not just a factor of caste alone but of many other causes, and backwardness cannot be measured on a community basis alone. This is not the first time that the apex court has attempted to go beyond caste and examine social disadvantage through a wider lens.

In an earlier case in 2015, then Justices Rohinton Nariman and Ranjan Gogoi, striking down the UPA government’s move to include Jats in the reserved category, said that the state must go beyond the “perception of the self-proclaimed socially backward class”. Though the judges admitted to caste playing a role in determining backwardness, they stressed on other factors being taken into account. These could include not just income disadvantage, but discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, sexual orientation and urban-rural differences. The 2015 judgment urged the Centre to come back with a ‘matrix’ that mirrors the complexities of discrimination on the ground, but that is yet to happen. In a way, this is not surprising.

Carving out quotas creates tangible vote banks in a way that a more complex system of affirmative action cannot. Yet, the time may have come for all-concerned to think afresh on the subject and adopt a data-driven approach to reservation. Affirmative policies cannot and should not be framed in a vacuum but rather on hard evidence of backwardness of an individual or a community. It is time to examine the results of the reservation policies followed since Independence from data collected through a ‘caste plus’ census to identify those genuinely backward and target reservation at them. The census should be conducted at periodical intervals to capture and map emerging socio-economic conditions. .

Finally, quotas are more relevant in education than in government jobs, with the size of government generally having shrunk over time. The demand for quotas shows up a colossal supply-side failure in providing quality education to large sections bereft of social and economic capital — for whom education provides the only means for socio-economic advancement. Quotas have served to camouflage the basic reality that the size of the cake itself is too small. There are demands from myriad communities for larger slices of a cake that is only growing smaller. There is no escaping a much higher public investment in education both at the Central and State levels. That alone will open up greater opportunities for the backward to get ahead in education and jobs. In sum, given the historical injustices, and the constant creation of newer ones in society through lopsided economic development, a data-driven, broad-based approach alone can ensure successful affirmative action.

social-fb COMMENT NOW