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Devesh Kapur: The honourable men

In the pursuit of social justice, we are destroying the very institutions that would create an egalitarian society

Devesh Kapur 

Even as India’s economy continues to stall and the ineptitude and venality of the Indian state have been laid bare, the country’s fractious political class has, thankfully, come together to address the malaise. The government is planning to call an all-party meeting and introduce a constitutional amendment Bill overturning the Supreme Court decision striking down the Mayawati government-instituted reservation-based promotions for the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs in Uttar Pradesh. 

The Supreme Court struck down the Uttar Pradesh Government Servants Seniority Rules – which provided for consequential seniority in promotions – holding that, although the Constitution has been permitted to enable consequential seniority, the state had failed to satisfy conditions relating to the determination of backwardness and the appropriateness of reservations. It is unclear what shape the proposed amendment will take, but it seems that the state does not even want to discharge the burden that the case for special treatment must be made out.

Over the past two decades, Parliament has severely altered the rules governing public employment. In 1995, Parliament enacted the 77th Amendment to the Constitution and inserted Article 16(4A) in the Constitution. This provision nullified the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Mandal judgment (Indira Sawhney), which had upheld reservations based on caste but had barred them in promotional posts. Subsequent amendments led to a scenario of “accelerated seniority”, whereby once a reserved candidate was selected through reservation in the initial appointment, he sought promotions through both the reserved and merit posts; as he rose up the ranks, he acquired artificial seniority and began to seek further promotions on that basis.

The Supreme Court recognised this and held that “accelerated promotion” to a higher post could not result in “accelerated seniority” to a further higher post — this would treat unequal groups equally. Parliament responded with the 85th Amendment to the Constitution to permit reservations “in matters of promotion with consequential seniority”. In 2000, Parliament went a step further and amended Article 335 of the Constitution, which mandates “efficiency in administration”. A proviso was added to the provision: it stated that the Article shall not prevent the “relaxation in qualifying marks in any examination or lowering the standards of evaluation, for reservations in matters of promotion to any class or classes of services or posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of a state”.

The honourable menThe political and moral rationale is, of course, that unassailable objective: “social justice.” A banal alternative might have first tried to ensure that maternal and child care for these social groups was decent; that teachers in the government schools they attended showed up, and actually taught; that their physical and mental development was not hampered by malnourishment; that when they fell ill, public health centres provided them with adequate care; and that efforts were made to ensure that children from socially marginalised communities completed high school, so that a large pool of well-prepared youth could be eligible for college.

But we didn’t do that — too hard, too boring and too few votes. The answer: more aggressive reservation policies for college admissions. But that was defensible, since the first was going to take a long time, and a more representative college student body – and thereafter their graduates – was valuable as a normative goal in and of itself. Further, this would help staff and build a more representative administrative system. And what did we do to ensure this? Hyper-politicise, under-resource and ultimately debilitate the state universities where the vast majority of the very students who most needed them would study. Having kicked away the very ladders of social mobility, the same politicians who were most aggressive about social justice began setting up their own higher-cost – and almost as worthless – private colleges.

That public administration in India is in a shambles is the country’s worst-kept secret, as is the harsh reality that the failures of public administration most adversely affect the most vulnerable and weak. If the rhetoric of social justice is to translate into even modest improvement in outcomes, enhancing the performance of public administration is fundamental. And that requires numerous changes, be it an overhaul of State Public Service Commissions, developing much better in-house training, limiting politically motivated transfers and linking promotions to job performance. Also, there is little doubt that the constitutional provisions for reservations for SCs and STs in public employment continue to be important, but if those joining from socially marginalised groups need additional skills to be able to perform better, additional rigorous well-resourced bridge training programmes (including overseas training) should be put into place. And if performance metrics are seen to be subjective and biased, external audit and evaluation systems, particularly from the very citizens they are supposed to serve, should be instituted.

No organisation can perform well if it lacks a shared sense of purpose and esprit de corps. That has already leached away in many parts of government. As one public employee wistfully put it: “Pehle paisa nahin tha, par izzat thi ... ab paisa hi izzat hai” (Earlier there was little money, but there was honour; now money is the only honour). Now, with this proposed amendment, someone who has put in years of service will watch as someone with less experience leapfrogs him solely on the basis of birth. And one can be sure that any semblance of a shared sense of purpose and public service will be further vitiated — hardly the way to rebuild a deteriorating public administration. It’s classic political divide and rule — who said we could not beat the British at their own game?

One might argue, correctly, that this was the case earlier, except the shoe is on the other foot. But that simply evades the question: who is the “social justice” for? The less than one per cent from these social groups who will get into the club? Or the more than 99 per cent from the same social groups who desperately need a well-functioning state but for whom a deteriorating public administration will ensure that they continue to get crumbs?

Ironically, those who cry most hoarsely about Ambedkar and Nehru have so flagrantly betrayed their legacies. For the Father of the Indian Constitution to see it repeatedly amended, particularly on issues for which he fought so hard, shows how little respect there is for him and the document he so wisely shepherded. And for Nehru, who saw the state as a critical agent of socio-economic transformation, to see the Indian state reduced to a platitudinous parasite, fundamentally betrays his core convictions.

Of course, those pressing for these changes are all honourable men (and women). But then, even Brutus, as Mark Antony said of him, was “an Honourable Man”.


The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania

First Published: Mon, August 13 2012. 00:47 IST