The purpose of reservation

By Gail Omvedt

THE WAVE of rioting at the time of the Mandal Commission showed that the goal of reservation had not simply been unfulfilled, but totally distorted. It revealed, among other things, the degree to which educated upper caste youth had gotten into the habit of considering the Government administration not as "public service'' but as a source of employment - with lucrative salaries and pensions, not to mention ample scope for bribe-taking.

Bribery - a major theme of Phule's polemical 19th century writings - has not apparently changed very much. There are undoubtedly many honest officials, but they are fighting a system that gives them very little scope, one which binds together politicians and bureaucrats in a nexus of corruption. International surveys of corruption in Government show India at the bottom of the list; losses in ``transmission and distribution'' of the State electricity boards; the necessity of giving ``weight'' in order to get projects approved or papers moved through desks in administrative offices, all remain flagrant. In this context, the idea that reservation somehow has an adverse effect on ``merit'' and ``efficiency'' looks somewhat laughable. Since the mass education which all the anti-caste radicals so fervently sought has also remained a distant dream, this has rendered the masses of toiling people more dependent on the literate officials and activists.

How much do the upper castes dominate in Government service? The Mandal Commission report itself made interesting revelations. According to its statistics, the ``forward castes'' estimated at 25.5 per cent of the population made up 78.34 per cent of employees of Central Ministries and Departments; the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes together were 16.83 per cent and the Backward Castes were 4.83 per cent. In Class I, these figures were 90.23 per cent for the ``forward castes,'' 7.18 per cent for the ``Scheduled'' communities and 2.59 per cent for ``other backwards''. Clearly, reservation had provided some scope for Dalits and Adivasis, but the ``other backward'' communities, 52 per cent of the total Indian population, were hopelessly behind.

Of course, this was twenty years ago. Has the situation changed? There is almost no way of knowing. In contrast to advanced countries, where disciplines such as sociology focus on issues of ethnicity and class, or the degree of inter-marriage among various social groups, there have been no surveys of Government employment, no effort to link caste and economic status at the top levels of the social order. American sociologists such as C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff devoted efforts to study the ``power elite'' and the ``ruling class'', in contrast, this has been a subject about which Indian sociology has kept an embarrassed silence. With continued resistance to taking up the issues of caste in the census operations, there is simply no information available. Thus all the debates today about whether caste remains an important category of behaviour are taking place in an informational vacuum. It would perhaps not be so fantastic, then, to assume that the situation revealed by the Mandal Commission continues. The lack of information and the resistance to procuring information are itself revealing.

Most of all, the insertion of an economic exclusion clause was the primary way in which elite resistance to the major goals of reservation sought to deprive it of its efficacy. For many years, opponents of reservation had argued that caste was irrelevant, that while admittedly the ``ex-untouchables'' and ``tribals'' might require some compensation, the large sections classified as ``backward classes'', that is the ex-Shudras, in fact contained wealthy and affluent sections. Rich farmers, rich cowherders, rich barbers, and rich washermen - all of these, it was argued, were the biggest enemies of Dalits. The opposition to reservation clothed itself in marxist dress, saying that reservation should be based if anything on ``economic backwardness'' - that is to say, on ``class' as an economic category. This had even been the major theme of the Left for many years, with West Bengal being one of the laggards in any kind of State-level compensatory discrimination policy. The phrase ``socially and educationally backward classes'' referring to the ex-Shudra sections, seemed to provide an opening - although throughout the British period terms like ``Depressed Classes'' and ``Backward Classes'' had invariably been used to refer to jatis. Backed up by this seemingly disinterested support of a mechanical marxism, the Indian elite grabbed on to the notion that the ``affluent OBCs'' should be excluded from the benefits of reservations.

What is wrong, it may be asked, with this? First, there is no country in the world outside of India that has accepted the notion that Government employment is a logical or legitimate way of dealing with the problems of poverty! The whole concept is somewhat fantastic; removing poverty requires broad-level economic policies, including those for growth and those directed at mass education and mass access to resources including land and forest wealth. Taking a few of the poor out of poverty by providing Government employment for them is a mockery. The principle of ``compensatory discrimination'' is meant to be applicable to ``ethnic'' (or non-class) social groups or communities which have been, for various historical reasons, systematically excluded from wealth and positions of power in society. This does not apply to the processes of simple class stratification.

But, in giving its assent to the Government order for implementation of the Mandal Commission report, the Supreme Court in 1992 not only limited overall reservation to 50 per cent (thereby in effect reserving 50 per cent for the ``forward castes''), but also inserted an economic exclusion clause under the name of ``creamy layer''. The term itself was a clever innovation, implying that by ``skimming off the cream'' a rather healthier glass of milk could be made available. The term ``creamy layer'' was used both to refer to the slightly better off economically among the backward castes (luckily this could not be applied to the Dalits and Adivasis) and to better off jatis among them.

The costs to the nation of inserting the ``creamy layer'' exclusion clause have been considerable. Financial and administrative costs have mounted with the continual national and State-level Government commissions designed to set up criteria for determining a ``creamy layer'', with continual court cases focussing on this issue. The Supreme Court has even forced States such as Kerala, whose own experts had determined that there was no ``creamy layer'' in the State, to find one, regardless - or be liable for ``contempt of court''. All of this has provided considerable employment for social science ``experts'' but it has added little to the information available about caste and occupation in India. It has certainly stalled implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations.

If the ``creamy layer'' clause were actually enforced rigorously at determined levels, it would have the effect of excluding today even children of Class III Government employees or moderately well-off farmers. But it is not of course rigorously enforced; it has simply added to the burden of bribery upon those hoping for employment for their children and has provided another source of under-the-table income for the local-level officials who provide the certificates.

Thus the reservation system was instituted not so much on the basis of the Constitution as on that of the decades-old elite resistance to restructuring public employment. It serves several purposes. It allows the elite to maintain the facade of a generous patron of Dalits and Adivasis while continuing to deprive them of mass-level education and access to resource. It provides a process to absorb some of their brightest members into a system still based more on extortion and corruption than true public service. Finally, it continues to block a true representation of the majority of the nation's population, a representation which the founders and leaders of the anti-caste movement had always seen as part of a full-scale political and social-economic transformation.



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