Reservation Bill for poor or for votes? Reactions from UP's hinterland

Introduced in the Lok Sabha on 8 January, the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill 2019 proposed the provision of a 10% reservation in jobs and educational institutions for the economically weaker sections (EWS) of Indian society. In a remarkably swift course of events, the Bill has seen relatively smooth passage from the Union Cabinet through the Lower and Upper Houses of the Parliament, before President Ram Nath Kovind gave it his assent on 12 January.  This almost unprecedented productive week at the parliament, it seems, has got the country buzzing.

Khyali Lal Shrivas, a councillor from Subhash Nagar in Mahoba, is in the chest-thumping support group, “In every society, there are some who are poor. What Modi ji has given, this reservation, is great; I am in support of it. Modi ji has made a historic decision.”

“The biggest issue is that because of caste-based reservations, poor people struggle getting access to education,” said another local from Bundelkhand, “Just over two or three marks, they lose out on the opportunity to enroll in good higher education centres, whether it’s engineering or MBBS. But with this new reservation, they may stand to benefit.”

This Bill seeks to amend Article 15 of the Constitution that prevents discrimination, and makes provision for the government to take special measures to promote socially and educationally backward classes. Introduced by the ruling party, this amended Bill will include “economically weaker sections” in Article 15, and will determine eligibility for an additional 10% reservation based on economic markers like income, agricultural land ownership and size of residential property.

“This is a great decision,” remarked Akhilesh Tripathi, from Chitrakoot, “At least the government has understood that poverty doesn’t see caste. Poor people can also be savarnas, and finally some government is talking about their needs.”

Until now reservations in India have been on the basis of caste, which meant only people belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes were eligible. Over the years, and with greater intensity more recently, communities such as the Marathas, Jats, and Patels have taken to the streets demanding reservations, citing economic and social disadvantage. But the judiciary has reiterated the need for a 50% cap on reservations, even if it is not representational of the Indian population’s demographics in which upper castes are in smaller proportions. That this Bill, however, will spill over the ceiling, and goes against the conceptual precedents of reservation, is a view that has many takers too. 

With 22.5% of all available seats reserved for SCs and STs, and 27% reserved for OBCs, the remaining 50.5% is where the General Castes or savarnas compete — which includes everyone from the upper-castes to those in the middle of the pack.

Touted as “historic” and supposedly in line with PM Modi’s 2014 campaign tagline, “Development for All”, the Bill faced nearly no resistance from the Opposition — only three people voted against the Bill in the Lok Sabha, and seven in the Rajya Sabha. This could clearly be a political strategy — no party would like to be viewed as anti-poor. The fact of this being poll year isn’t lost on anybody, least of all Bundeli natives who often find themselves on election manifestos, mentioned in convenient mandate-pleasing points.

“Because it is elections season, this is an electoral issue,” noted Mahoba native Hargovind Pairiya, who is of the opinion that the ruling party is doing what it can to shore up its voter base. “It is only after Congress beat them in three of four places that the BJP is giving us this reservation,” said Mahesh Chandra Gupta, another Mahoba resident. The immediate trigger for the Bill does seem to be the BJP facing backlash from the upper caste population in the recently concluded Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Many point to the timing of the Bill, “If they’d given us this reservation before, it would have been a completely different matter — savarnas would have supported it too. But we’re going to benefit from this anyway.” Facing no ideological conflicts in being reduced to a pawn in electoral gambits, he said, “If during campaigning season, we savarnas are getting benefits, it is a good thing.”

Mahoba’s Sanjay Kuman Valmiki raised suspicion about the timing  too, “It is only because of the upcoming elections that this Bill is being passed so quickly. For caste-based reservations, people had to fight for years. But for this bill, there was no struggle, it was just passed.” Unlike Gupta and Pairiya, Valmiki was skeptical about the supposed benefits of this Bill in the first place. “The services that the poor should ideally get, they don’t even get those. Reservations only help those in positions of power or those with the right connections. Reservations don’t help the poor,” he added.

Chitrakoot’s Ram Vilas Varma agreed. “When everybody is in the upper echelons, nobody listens to the little guys,” he said, alluding to the supposed casteless-ness of this reservation quota which is exclusively available to the forward castes, “And now you’re giving them the benefit of reservations.”

In 1979, the Mandal Commission contemplated on the need and aims of reservations. They determined the quota of 27% reservation for OBCs by focusing on ideals of social justice and inclusion that were dependent on the sharing of state power with historically and socially disadvantaged groups. The basis for their selection of Other Backward Classes was to look beyond economic criteria, towards the social and educational positioning of different groups and communities in India. In the watershed Indra Sawhney case, the Supreme Court held that using economic criteria exclusively to determine the application of reservation was unconstitutional, since the category of poor did not reflect social backwardness. A purely economic criterion would allow those on top of the social hierarchy to monopolise state power, when they already dominate the Parliament and the judiciary, counteracting the very purpose of the reservations.

Romesh Dhaturaha in Chitrakoot doesn’t believe the Bill is fair. “There is no way this Bill is useful. If the goal is respect, then it will never be achieved in just 10%,” he said, “There are so many poor people, in so many communities.” The relatively generous economic markers — an annual income of less  than 8 lakh, ownership of less than five hectares of agricultural land, residential property of less than 1,000 sq. ft, and a residential plot that is less than 109 square yards — can accommodate up to 95% of the Indian population. With such a large group of competitors, one can’t help but wonder how much of an improvement this would be from competing for seats in the General category, and whether this move is all but lip-service.

Deepak Parihar in Chitrakoot is not optimistic about his chances, “I don’t think we’ll ever get it. I’ve given up all hope — that’s why I run a roadside shop.”

According to Chandrashekhar Swarankar, the ex-district head of the Samajwadi Party, Mahoba, the fundamental problem of the lack of jobs in the country remains unchanged. “BJP promised to create 2 crore jobs every year, which means in their term there should have been 10 crore new jobs — but they haven’t even come close to the target,” he said. Quick to dismiss this as an electoral curveball, he added, “They haven’t fulfilled a single promise they made during their last campaign.” Outside of the creation of employment opportunities, the central government today is struggling to fill up reserved seats — so even reservations can’t guarantee employment. Swarankar denied the benefit of this bill to any savarnas and said firmly, “The country needs jobs, not reservations.”

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 17:25:45 IST