The Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre sprang a surprise on political rivals by announcing a 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the economically backward in the general category. The Cabinet has approved the Bill.
This comes with the Lok Sabha elections round the corner and weeks after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) defeat in Assembly elections in the Hindi heartland states, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh (MP).
Such a quota has been a long-standing demand of the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as well. However, it has never passed legal muster. To facilitate this, the government will introduce a Constitution amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday — the last day of the winter session of Parliament. It has extended the Rajya Sabha sitting by a day to discuss the Bill. The NDA government lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
The government has proposed a 10 per cent reservation over and above the 49.5 per cent currently in force for Scheduled Castes (15 per cent), Scheduled Tribes (7.5 per cent), and Other Backward Classes, or OBCs (27 per cent).
The Bill could introduce some criteria, such beneficiaries not having an annual household income above Rs 8 lakh and not owning more than five acres of agricultural land. They should also not own a flat of 1,000 sq ft or more, land of 100 yards in a notified municipality area, and 200 yards in a non-notified area, sources said.
According to one estimate, there are 50-55 million households in India earning less than Rs 8 lakh. If each household comprises four members, the quota could cover an estimated 200-220 million people.
The 10 per cent quota would encompass economically backward households across all religions. However, the Modi government’s move is an attempt to reach out to its core support base among Hindu upper castes.
The BJP believes sections of upper castes are upset that the Modi government restored the stricter provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and also at its failure to fulfil its 2014 promise to provide jobs and construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
The move also comes in the wake of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP nearly sealing a seat-adjustment formula for the 80 Lok Sabha seats of Uttar Pradesh, while the Congress contesting independently to eat into the BJP’s upper caste support base.
Sections of upper castes had campaigned against the BJP in the Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, MP, and Rajasthan, imploring people to vote NOTA (None of the above) instead of the BJP.
There have also been demands from communities such as Kapus, Kammas, Jats, Gujjars, Marathas, and Patidars that they get the benefit of reservation.
According to government sources, the amendment Bill is needed since the Constitution does not envisage reservation on the ground of economic conditions. The Bill would suggest amendments to Articles 15 and 16.
“The Bill will provide shelter for upper castes under the rubric of Fundamental Rights. The court’s rule of the maximum 50 per cent quota cannot fetter Parliament’s right to amend the Constitution,” a minister, who did not want to be named, said.
In its famous Indra Sawhney judgment, the Supreme Court (SC) had set a cap of 50 per cent on quotas.
Government sources said the proposed amendment would pave the way for the additional quota.
The major castes likely to benefit are Brahmins, Rajputs (Thakurs), Jats, Marathas, Bhumihars, several trading castes, Kapus and Kammas. The poor among the other religions will also benefit from, sources added.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said his party supported any move to give reservation to those who are economically backward. “However, this is an election gimmick. The Modi government has, by the note ban and the ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’, destroyed jobs and businesses, and caused a loss of Rs 3.5 trillion to the economy,” he said.
At least two-thirds of the members in both Houses need to support a Constitution amendment Bill. The high courts and the Supreme Court have in recent years struck down state laws in Haryana, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra for exceeding the 50 per cent reservation ceiling. However, Bihar has in place the “Karpoori Thakur” formula, which factors in economic backwardness to provide reservation.
Several of the BJP’s allies and Opposition parties supported the move. Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale, both allies, supported the move, as did Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal. BJP vice-presidents Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Kailash Vijayavargiya termed the move a “masterstroke” and “historic”. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also welcomed the move.
Criteria for the new proposal
- Annual household income is less than Rs 8 lakh
- Ownership of less than 5 acre agricultural land, or less than 1,000 sq ft flat or 100 yards in a notified municipality area and 200 yards in a non-notified area
What is the hurdle?
- Needs amending Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution to include ‘economic’ backwardness