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A great leap backwards: Patel agitation is making reservations a zero-sum game

The violent agitation by the Patidar Patels in Gujarat demanding OBC status and quotas in education and jobs is one more indicator that the whole business of affirmative action has become counter-productive in India. Instead of helping the really backward classes overcome their historical handicaps so that they can lift themselves up by the bootstraps, India's caste-based quotas have become the route for the relatively well-off to demand special treatment and deny them to the more deserving.

Far from helping people move out of backwardness, reservations are making the better off demand crutches and abandon their ability to walk unaided. Like the Patels in Gujarat, we have had the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Gujjars and Jats elsewhere demanding this status - and spineless politicians with short-term votebanks in mind have usually caved in.

 A great leap backwards: Patel agitation is making reservations a zero-sum game

Hardik Patel along with other protesters. PTI

In the case of the numerically and economically powerful Patels - who constitute a quarter of Gujarat's population and control many major levers of power - there is no case whatsoever for favoured treatment in jobs. Patels - including the ones who run motels in the US - have huge resources, and the top two politicians in the Gujarat BJP - CM Anandiben and Finance Minister Saurabhbhai - are Patels. The very fact that the organisation at the apex of the Patel agitation - the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti - is so well funded and can bring thousands of people to a rally in Ahmedabad at the drop of a Gandhi cap tells us that the Patidars are not economically challenged.

Any sensible state government would have to give the Patels a firm "no" and instead promise more investments in educational institutions so that all people have the opportunity to advance themselves.

However, there is a need to now make a larger point about extending mindless reservations. It should be obvious to any politician with some good sense that what is unarticulated may actually represent a majority opinion in society rather than the vocal demands of a powerful section. If we accept that the interests of the whole have to be protected against the demands of a section, this may be as good a time as any to call the bluff of forward communities. Simple arithmetic will tell you that as more people get shoe-horned into the same class of quotas, everybody gets less. The only thing that any government can reasonably promise is to give everyone an equal opportunity to skill and educate themselves.

The Patidars may be flexing their 25 percent population muscle, but sensible leaders should point out two things: that only a very small percentage of them will actually benefit, and, even more obviously, if more communities are to share the same number of jobs available, the quantity available for everyone will be even lower. If Patels get 25 percent of the 27 percent reservation for OBCs, the rest of the real OBCs will get a lower share of 27 percent. It is a zero-sum game. For every Patels clamouring for a quota seat, there will be three non-Patels losing out.

There is, of course, the Tamil Nadu non-solution: raise the total quotas to 69 percent, which is defiance of a Supreme Court judgment which capped quotas at 49 percent. But while this has expanded opportunities for the OBC castes in the short run at the expense of the forward castes, the sheer number of OBC castes in Tamil Nadu has limited the actual benefits to them. The same will happen in Gujarat if the Patels are accommodated.

Raising quotas from 49 percent to 69 percent is ultimately self-defeating for it not only constrains merit, but ensures that the creamy layer among OBCs will end up excluding the other. More deserving, OBCs.

In fact, one way to end the quota nonsense is to go to the other extreme and raise the reservation limit to, say, 75 percent, and then proffer sub-quotas to all communities from SC/ST to OBCs to the forward castes. Each community can them compete on merit within its sub-quota, where selections are made on the basis of giving 50 percent weightage to merit and the remaining 50 percent to income status. This way both merit and real backwardness will become important. When quotas are sub-divided for each community (X percent for Patels, Y percent for Kshatriyas, etc), the pathetic total availability of government jobs available to each community will be visibly small. Hopefully, it will enable politicians to explain the limitations of quotas and focus on real solutions.

The most sensible way for any politician to get out of the quota trap is to specify that only the bottom-most income segments in any community will get quota benefits - and this will automatically split all communities internally on class lines.

Quotas ultimately have to be about class and income levels - weighted by relative merit - and the first politician who picks up the courage to take this position will become a true leader. It is time to turn the quotas debate away from caste to class. The Patidar agitation provides the opportunity to concentrate minds in this direction.

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Updated Date: Aug 28, 2015 07:25:14 IST