On Monday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said he backed reservations in the private sector. His call comes on the heels of the Bihar government providing for reservation in services that the state government outsources to contractors. In 2016, the Bihar government had announced 35 per cent reservation to women in state police jobs and also implemented 50 per cent reservation in judicial services. Kumar's call comes at a time of shrinking jobs in the government sector, and increasing number of communities demanding a share in the job reservation pie. There is ample data to suggest that reservation is implemented more efficiently in class C and D services. The jobs in government departments offer more jobs but are now increasingly outsourced to private contractors. According to an estimate, less than one per cent jobs in the organised sector come within the ambit of reservations. Kumar and other politicians who have espoused the cause of social justice want to expand the size of the reservation pie. In northern India, Jats and Gujjars have demanded to be included in the list of the 'socially and educationally economic backward classes' that are offered reservations. The Patidars in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra have also raised such demands. The demand for reservations in the private sector isn't new. There have been demands ever since the Mandal Commission report was adopted in 1990 that there should be reservations in the private sector. Contrary to public perception, the Constitution has no provision for reservations being given to 'economically' backward communities, but only to those which have suffered social discrimination. Union cabinet minister Ram Vilas Paswan has frequently raised the issue of reservations in the private sector, as have Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal's Lalu Prasad.
It may not be the dominant view within the Bharatiya Janata Party, but its Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Classes) leaders support such a move. While not on the subject of reservations in the private sector, but Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said in Jaipur that reservations should continue as long as there is caste discrimination in the society.Successive governments have, until now, desisted from passing a legislation to provide for reservations in the private sector. In 2005, the then Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh had pushed for reservations in private educational institutions. But the Bill is yet to become a law. In October 2006, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had constituted a high-level coordination committee under the chairmanship of the Principal Secretary to the PM to carry forward the dialogue with the industry on affirmative action, including reservation in the private sector. The committee, serviced by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, has been holding meetings with industry chambers. Some of the industry associations have also developed their respective voluntary code of conduct for member companies. In 2016, the National Commission for Backward Classes had recommended to the government to pass a law to have reservations in the private sector. It had found support from a large number of parties, including the BJP. In the midst of this, neither UPA nor the current government has made public the data of the socio-economic caste census relating to OBCs. Narendra Modi government has made much of its efforts of giving statutory status to the National Commission for Backward Classes. With 2019 Lok Sabha elections drawing near, and demands for including more communities in the list of those that get reservations, a legislation for reserving jobs in the private sector could be a potential vote catcher. However, successive governments have, at least until now, resisted from passing such a law in the face of the opposition from the industry that has argued that it would be the 'death of merit'. Similar arguments, however, aren't made when seats are 'reserved' through capitation fees in colleges. As the government continues to disinvest from public sector undertakings and outsources services to private sector, coupled with growing jobless growth, demands for reservations in the private sector are set to reach a crescendo. The question isn't how, but when a government at the Centre takes the political call. It could be sooner than we think.