Over a year after the Maratha agitators took to the streets of various cities in Maharashtra to press for a host of demands, the Maharashtra government has only partially succeeded in placating them. While the Devendra Fadnavis-led government has sought to garner political capital from its move to extend reservation to Marathas, lack of progress on other demands continues to rile members of the community.
The chief demand of the protesters — reservation in jobs and educational institutions — has, to an extent, been met. While the Bombay High Court upheld the quota under the category of Socially and Educationally Backward Class, it directed that the quantum of the quota should be 12 to 13 percent, rather than 16 percent, which the state government sought to implement.
Among other demands, the prominent ones are amendments to the SC/STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to curb its alleged misuse, construction of a Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea and hostels for Maratha students. The state government may have found itself in a bind on the first two issues — tinkering with the Atrocities Act could spark off anger among Dalit and tribal communities, while the work on the Shivaji statue has been halted due to a Supreme Court order. Meanwhile, Maratha leaders have raised the issue of lack of infrastructure in hostels and have alleged political neglect in this respect.
For political parties in Maharashtra, the support of the Marathas is crucial as they constitute roughly one-third of the state's population.
In Marathwada, several people from the Maratha community say that the reservation was needed, and that they believe that the state government's move was good. One of them is Vibhishan Lakde, a farmer from Latur district's Borwati village. Lakde owns about 9 acres of land where he cultivates soybean. However, he says that in the past couple of years, the economic situation has been bleak, which is why he took up additional work as a driver in the nearby Latur city. "In 2016, demonetisation had a negative effect on the rural economy. On top of it, the rains have been erratic in the past few years. So, when farm income dropped, I had to take up additional work in the city," he said.
"The quota for the Maratha community is necessary. Members of the community do not get good opportunities in jobs and education. Now, that the quota has been introduced, that might change, but I am not sure yet whether the benefits will actually reach the community."
Pralhad Shinde, a resident of Parbhani's Manoli village, also cited decreasing farm income as one of the reasons why the quota for Marathas is needed. Shinde owns about 17 acres of land and grows soybean and cotton. "Income from agriculture tends to be unpredictable. Just days ago, there was a hailstorm which damaged a part of my crops. The season for rabi sowing is now approaching. I would have liked to sow wheat, but there hasn't been enough rain, so it will just have to be jowar (which needs lesser water). There's also the issue of the rising costs of fertilisers and labour. The situation is no better when it comes to government or private sector jobs. For the new generation, employment is hard to come by."
Shinde said, "Members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have managed to improve their condition due to quotas, and have also got concessions in terms of eligibility for jobs or admission to educational institutions. Now, the Marathas can also get similar benefits." He, however, struck a more pessimistic note and contended, "The present situation of unemployment in the state is such that if there are 100 jobs on offer, there are 1,000 candidates who line up to apply for them. In such a situation, to what extent will the reservation help?"
A retired Mathematics professor and a farmer Chandrakant Nilvarn agrees that the present generation finds it more difficult to secure employment. A resident of Parbhani's Manvat taluka, Nilvarn recalls, "When I took up the job of a professor, it was not that much of a challenge for me. But if someone were to seek a job as a professor today, he or she would face more difficulties."
Nilvarn said that the Maratha reservation was required. "Although the community was socially dominant in the past, only a small percentage among them is doing well now. Most of them are farmers. Land holdings have become smaller and the government does not ensure that we get the minimum support price. The community has suffered a lot in terms of access to jobs and education. Although the government has announced the reservation now, one does not know whether it will withstand legal scrutiny, or whether it will be stayed, like it was during the tenure of the Congress-NCP government."
Although the Bombay High Court has upheld the reservation, petitions against it are pending in the Supreme Court. The Congress-NCP government had also introduced 16 percent reservation for Marathas, but a division bench of the Bombay High Court had stayed it in 2014.
A fact-check on Nilvarn's assertions reveals that the claim that the community is socially and economically backward is only partially correct. According to the findings of the India Human Development Survey quoted in Economic and Political Weekly, in terms of incidence of poverty, Marathas are similar to Brahmins and other forward castes, and are less similar to OBCs, but they have a significantly lower poverty incidence as compared to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. They have similar access to government jobs as Brahmins and SC/STs, and better access than other forward castes and OBCs.
However, there is some truth to the claim that Marathas lack access to educational opportunities. In terms of average years of education, they are significantly worse off than Brahmins. Nevertheless, in this respect, they are similar to other forward castes and OBCs, and better off than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It is also correct that land holdings in India have been declining generally. Although this is true across communities, Marathas would be among the groups that are more deeply affected, as they are primarily an agrarian community. According to the 2010-11 Agriculture Census, the average size of operational land holdings in the country has nearly halved from 1970-71 to 2010-11— having reduced from 2.28 hectares to 1.15 hectares.
The State Backward Class Commission, on the basis of which the reservation was announced, had stated that 37.28 percent of Marathas in Maharashtra are living below poverty line (BPL) and 93 percent families from the community have an annual income of less than Rs 100,000. However, Sanjeet Shukla, the main petitioner in the case at the Bombay High Court, was quoted as saying by News18 that the commission only compared the condition of Marathas with the Kunbi caste group (which is classified under the OBC category), and did not compare them with other castes.
Political war for credit
Meanwhile, the BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP coalitions are engaged in a battle over credit for the move. BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari told Firstpost, "It is only the BJP which has succeeded in implementing the quota. The Congress and NCP were never serious about this issue. They made a half-hearted attempt to introduce a law to provide reservation, but it was struck down in court. When we decided to do so, we managed to pass the test of judicial scrutiny. Further, we have ensured that upper castes are not negatively affected by the decision through the ten percent reservation for economically backward sections among the general category."
On the other hand, Congress MP Husain Dalwai said, "The BJP cannot rightfully claim the credit for implementing the Maratha reservation, as the idea was first mooted by the Congress. I personally have raised the issue of reservation in education for the Marathas for the past thirty years or so. Also, the manner in which the quota is being implementing will sure anger other communities."
Virendra Pawar, a leader of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, which had spearheaded the agitation, said, "Our organisation is not lending support to any political party during the election. People from different ideological viewpoint had joined our movement. Nevertheless, it must be said that community members are largely satisfied that the announcement about reservation has come."
However, listing out other demands of the community, he said, "We have demanded that some provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be amended. It is certainly true that Dalits and tribals are facing atrocities. However, as of now, the law is being used more as a weapon. Another issue is that of the statue of Shivaji. Work on the statue has not been completed, and it does not look like it will be completed anytime soon."
Speaking about the condition of hostels for Maratha students, Pawar said, "In some of the hostels, there is no mess facility, and food joints are far away. There has been neglect from the political class on this issue."
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 14:31:14 IST