Don't bet on backwardness The formulaic approach to reservations should be abandoned in favour of more subtlety and sensitivity. This would be an unequivocal gain for the cause of social justice, instead of plotting acts of institutional vengeance Sukumar Muralidharan Delhi The Supreme Court, on March 29, 2007, imposed an interim stay on the application of the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admissions) Act of 2006, throwing well-advanced admission procedures in these institutions into considerable disarray. In introducing legislation for reservation of seats for "socially and educationally backward classes", the court held that the government had been inattentive to material realities. It is a curiosity of India's policy on reservations that its legislative foundations are rather thin. Mandal II, or the move to reserve seats in higher educational institutions run by the central government, was indeed the first occasion that a law was enacted, rather than the customary 'government order' on reservations. That this first attempt by Parliament has encountered a judicial roadblock is a bitter blow to the political establishment in Delhi. Coming after a sequence of several other such rulings by the court, this has led to much resentful murmurs about the judiciary as an institution becoming an impediment to social justice. Yet, with all the arguments that have been produced in making the case for reservations, there has been little attention devoted to its actual track record as an element of social policy. As a well-known media commentator recently observed, for all the importance of reservations in India, the best work on the efficacy of this manner of undoing the disadvantages of history have come from scholars overseas. In India, reservations are simply not a matter where cool logic and rational argument can be applied. If, for a moment though, the passions and partisanship were to be kept aside, certain key findings on reservations would seem relevant. It has been found, as it would be intuitively obvious, that students benefiting from reservations generally under-perform in relation to those who gain their admission through the 'open category'. Their rates of graduation also tend to be lower. On this account, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they would probably perform less well than the open category candidates who risk being displaced by the reserved quotas. Outside the university setting though, once the candidates have graduated and entered the workforce, there is no reason to believe that their performance is any less efficient or useful to society. Reservations, in other words, contribute to the democratisation of decision-making in society. They also engender significant benefits in sectors where people-orientation is necessary, since the individuals performing these tasks are likely to be more understanding and empathetic towards the disadvantaged. It has also been found that over time, there has been a convergence in the qualifying requirements: the gap at entry level between the beneficiaries of reservations and the open category candidates has been narrowing over time. But there is little to suggest that the beneficiaries are being drawn from a broad-based section of the target groups. In fact, the better off among the backward classes have gained and continue to gain disproportionately from reservations. If these fairly well established findings were to be factored in, a number of fine adjustments would suggest themselves in policy. Unfortunately, none of these issues seems to have come up for discussion in either legislative or judicial forums. The basis on which the Supreme Court issued its interim order was the numerical imprecision of the central government's estimate that the "other backward classes" number 52 per cent of India's population. The court relied upon a recent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which estimated that OBCs number 41 per cent of the population. It did not go into the nuances of this issue, since the NSSO used a rather different methodology of estimation, merely asking respondents whether or not they belonged to a backward class. The 52 per cent estimate, in contrast, is based on an official list maintained by the Centre and extrapolations of population growth from the 1931 census, the last occasion when castes were enumerated. The material point uncovered by the NSSO survey has been lost in this quibble. The OBCs, whatever their number, still continue to suffer enormous social disadvantages, registering numbers well below average on virtually all welfare indicators. Despite these realities, a feeling still persists that the process of identification of backward classes suffers certain serious infirmities. This is a conceptual vacuum in which varieties of high-voltage pressure politics have flourished. Since the Mandal Commission report became part of official policy in 1993, backwardness has become an appellation that various social groups have been willing to fight for. A case in point would be the Jats of Rajasthan, who, despite winning on average 40 per cent of all seats in state-wide elections, began agitating for the tag of backwardness in 1999. Ashok Gehlot, then chief minister of the state and himself a member of a notified backward community, had little time for this demand and paid the price, with Jats mobilising state-wide to inflict a severe drubbing on the Congress. Soon afterwards, empowered bodies at both state and national levels conceded the Jat demand. It could be asked whether a community that is able to mobilise so powerfully and articulate its case with quite this kind of energy can be described as backward under any criterion. The issue, it turned out, was not their deprivation in relation to society as a whole, but in relation to the politically dominant Rajput community. This is an issue that stretches back to the 1920s when the Jats first began mobilising against Rajput dominance in all spheres of activity. Some part of this battle was fought on the terrain of land reforms and tenancy legislation. Another chapter in that battle came after Independence, when the Jats managed to use the new panchayati raj institutions to shore up their social power. When the Mandal recommendations were implemented, reservations became another weapon in this battle of attrition. In the process, reservations stood diminished, it became a weapon of political contest between two powerful communities, rather than an instrument of promoting the general social welfare. Another category of problem relates to the equity of reservations within particular categories. OBCs are a broad and heterogeneous grouping and unless sub-quotas or certain criteria of exclusion are specified, there is little likelihood that the agreed quantum of reservations would be shared out equitably. This is a problem that is already evident in the realm of Scheduled Castes reservations. It is a firmly established fact that certain castes within the SC category – like the Jatavs of north India and the Mahars of Maharashtra – have been, over generations, gainers from reservations to a degree that goes beyond their share within the SC population. This has led to a demand by others, such as the Valmikis of north India, for a sub-category within SC reservations. Needless to say, admitting such a demand would prove immensely challenging in an administrative sense, and politically, it could quite possibly be promoting the infinite fragmentation of society. Informed observers believe, though, that there are ways around these difficulties. But that would require, above all, that the formulaic approach to reservations be abandoned in favour of more subtlety and sensitivity. If the Supreme Court order is viewed in this light, rather than as an occasion for plotting acts of institutional vengeance or one-upmanship, that would be an unequivocal gain for the cause of social justice.