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Modi govt’s 10% quota for economically weaker sections is by far the best policy initiative for the poor, Muslims

Surjit S Bhalla

Several noteworthy points about the 10% quota bill that has just been passed in the Lok Sabha. Given the biases BJP office holders are known to have, it was not surprising that BJP spokespersons did not emphasise the fact that the 10% quota for economically weaker sections (i.e. those not SC, ST or OBC) was the first time in India s long non-secular history that a government welfare programme specifically included Muslims under its umbrella of recipients. What was surprising, however, is the fact that the secular liberals had a lump in their throat which prevented them from uttering the M-word. Instead, all the utterances and the profound insights on TV and print media was how this was a poll bound jumla, and that it showed the desperation of the BJP to gather votes.

Several contradictions abound. If it was a jumla, then why did the political opposition all come out in praise of the policy? It was supported near unanimously in the Lok Sabha; by the time Rajya Sabha came along, some of the parties found their misplaced conscience and abstained from voting. Then the critics, some of them lawyers, came out of their hiding and pronounced legal judgements that the 10% will not pass muster in the Supreme Court, because the SC had passed path breaking legislation disallowing any Central government reservation beyond 50%.

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Let us take it from the beginning. Reservation is an issue that I have studied in some detail over the past two decades. My own view has been, and is, that India should never have proceeded on the path of reservations, and that by doing so, it pursued the wrong means for correct objectives. The downtrodden, especially those historically so, like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, did deserve special consideration, and should have been identified and provided with state-defined extra income support. What might these have been? Income support programmes from the very beginning and huge extra-aid for schooling of the SC/ST kids such that SC and ST children would attain the average educational level of those with upper caste backgrounds.

This was most emphatically not done. The liberal elite had other ideas, one that required their feudal-inspired largesse to help the poor and those that had been historically discriminated against. Hence, Indian governments conceived of every which way to help the elite, and not help the poor; if the latter, then they made sure that there were plenty of opportunities for corruption to run amok. Instead of expanding primary health care and primary and secondary schools for all, we allowed private schools to flourish and public schools to be starved of expenditure and facilities and expansion and to be staffed by teachers who did not even come to class but had permanent employment and could not be fired (or released from public duty!) What did this result in the elite went to private schools, paid large fees, and then entered temples of wisdom created and expanded for their benefits (like prestigious universities such as Delhi University and IITs and IIMs).

Except by a very few, all of this was welcomed and supported, and especially by the SLs (secular liberals). Indeed, most of these SLs protested when bus fares were raised to ferry them from their tony homes to the North Delhi campus. And when some misguided souls advocated the raising of fees at Delhi University, they protested, went on hartal, and complained about their rights to free education being violated.

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The lack of good primary and secondary education for the non-elite meant that the dominantly poor (SC, ST and Muslim) students did not get a good education. But because of special reservation quotas, the SC/STs expanded their education base and were also able to get government jobs. In 1983, an average SC/ST youth had 2.4 years of educational attainment and an average Muslim youth (5-24 years) had 3.3 years; in 2011/12, an average SC/ST youth had 7.1 years of education, and a Muslim youth had the least educational attainment in the country of 6.9 years.

But the Muslims do come under the OBC (Otherwise Backward Class often confused with Otherwise Backward Caste) classification and so should be eligible under the OBC classification. However, Muslim OBC youths have significantly lower educational achievement (5.8 years) than non-Muslim OBCs (8.5 years) in 2011/12. Further, as the Sachar committee report documented, Muslims in government jobs are about a third lower than their population levels.

What deserves emphasis is that the 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of the population (around 30% of the total population) is the first reservation system for those not currently covered by government support. This will be the first time that poor non-OBC non-SC/ST individuals will get a chance. And, given that Muslims are the poorest (economically weakest), they should obtain preference in the EWS 10% quota.

The limit for eligibility for this class has been fixed at Rs8 lakh per family. This seems a bit high, and it is objectively quite high. Much has been made of the fact that, as per income surveys conducted by NCAER (IHDS survey) and wage surveys conducted by NSSO, the Rs8 lakh household income cap makes 99% of households eligible. But these surveys are able to capture only 25-30% of personal incomes. In reality, the Rs8 lakh limit makes 20% of households ineligible.

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But where did the Modi government obtain the guidance for fixing this limit? From that fixed for OBCs by different governments since 1993. In 1993, the OBC creamy layer was defined at Rs1 lakh per family. In 2013, this limit was raised to 6 lakh (with intermittent increases as follows: up to Rs2.5 lakh in 2004 and Rs4.5 lakh in 2008). Note that all these increases were instituted by the Congress. The total increase in limit has been 700%; increase in CPI during this period has been 413%. In 2017, the NDA government increased the limit to Rs8 lakh an increase of 33%, with a CPI increase during the same period of 21%.

Given this correct expose of the pathway to the Rs8 lakh limit, I humbly ask the jumla experts in the media and elsewhere where were you in 2004 and 2008 and 2013 and 2017 when the OBC limit was raised to the present exorbitant levels? Only now, that an NDA government has instituted the change, is the limit deemed excessive (which it is). And why? Because some poor Muslim, Sikh and Issai will now get the benefit that was almost the exclusive preserve of Hindus before? As discussed above, Muslim OBCs are unlikely to have benefitted much from the OBC quota.

The Modi government needs to be congratulated for two reasons allowing Muslims the benefits of misguided social policies, i.e. quotas and reservations. The second reason is embedded in the first finally, the doors are open for a genuine debate, a genuine reconsideration, of bad social welfare policies of the last 70 years.

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The only explicit reservation policy contained in the Constitution is for seats in the legislature, i.e. reserved constituencies for SCs and STs. Even this reservation was for 10 years through amendments, it has been renewed every 10 years, and the next amendment is due in 2020! Otherwise, there is Article 15 (4): Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Special provision does not mean a quota; note also that socially and educationally backward is highly correlated with being backward (poorer) in incomes. Hence, this is the first chance for poor Muslims, and poor Patels, and poor Brahmins to get social benefits. After they do so, let us think about revising the present bad system of quota governance.

The author is Contributing editor, Indian Express and consultant, Network 18. Views are personal
Surjit tweets @surjitbhalla