You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Sunil Jain: Going forward on backwards


Sunil Jain  |  New Delhi 

Unless it simply defies the courts, it is difficult to see how the country's political class can possibly get over the implications of the Supreme Court's stay of its plan to reserve 27 per cent of seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in higher education institutes, starting the coming academic year. Indeed, while asking why the reservations are being proposed without actually knowing just how many OBCs there are in the country and how many of these can be considered "creamy layer", who are too prosperous to really need any sort of reservation, the Court has thrown open a can of worms. If reservations in educational institutes cannot take place without knowing how many OBCs there really are, logically they cannot take place in jobs either. No one has challenged job reservations on these grounds before, but there's no reason why it cannot be done now""after all, the 27 per cent reservation for OBCs stems from them supposedly being 52 per cent of the population.
Based on what's being talked of right now, it appears the government is going to argue that various states have conducted their own OBC polls and these show that the proportion of OBCs is very high. It seems unlikely the courts will accept this logic for a variety of reasons. For one, there is no way to know how accurate these surveys are""several states have given the Planning Commission their estimates of poverty, for instance, and these are way above those estimated by the National Sample Survey (NSS)!
There is then the matter of the NSS data of 1999-00 and 2004-05. While the 1999-00 survey put the number of OBCs at around 36 per cent of the population, the 2004-05 one put this number at 41 per cent. While this is a far cry from the Mandal estimate of 52 per cent, there is a huge problem here as well. For, if the OBCs proportion has to rise by 5 percentage points, this means the OBC population has grown by 4.28 per cent per annum (in independent India, this kind of growth has never been seen!) while the non-OBCs declined by 0.04 per cent per annum! Which means that OBC women are now breeding like rabbits, at rates several times those of non-OBCs. Since there is nothing to indicate this is indeed the case, it just means that because there are benefits to being classified an OBC, more and more people are claiming to be OBCs and that local governments are increasing the lists of those castes who can claim to be OBCs.
The data get more dodgy when it comes to the Mandal estimates of 52 per cent. As Mandal himself admitted, "it was rather disappointing to see that hardly any state was able to give the desired information (on the number of OBCs in their jurisdiction) ... for any meaningful inference which may be valid for the country as a whole." So, Mandal did a limited field survey keeping in mind "practical considerations, realities of field conditions, constraints of resources and trained manpower and paucity of time". All of which, the report went on to say, "obviously militates against the requirements of a technically sophisticated and academically satisfying operation". To convert "caste" into "class" (the Constitution talks of reservation for other backward "class", not "caste"), Mandal then gave weights to social and economic criteria and as Arun Shourie has pointed out in his Falling Over Backwards, while the social status was given a weight of three, the educational indicators were given a weight of two and economic ones a weight of one. Change the weights and backwards become forwards! But where did the 52 per cent figure come from? From the proportion of these castes (sorry, classes) in the 1931 Census!
So was the 1931 Census dodgy? Apart from the obvious point that relying on a Census done more than 75 years ago means assuming society has remained amazingly ossified. The Census Report says: "The castes shown are representative only and not a complete tabulation of the whole population"""while the total population covered by the caste-wise table was 220.7 million, the country's population at that point in time was 352.8 million!
It's interesting to note what Shourie quotes of the Census officials at that time. The Census said "the institution (of caste) itself is undergoing considerable modification ... there is a tendency for the limitations of caste to be loosened and for rigid caste distinctions to be broken down". The Census then illustrated how various castes were constantly changing their description in different Census""the caste known as the Kamar, for instance, called itself Kshatriyas in 1921 and Brahman in 1931, and so on. Essentially, when it was seen as important to be an upper caste, people changed their caste names upwards; now, when there's profit in being a backward caste, people are doing the rational thing by lowering their caste definitions! NSS 2009-10 will probably report a 52 per cent proportion of OBCs, as will the next Census if the government decides Indians are to be counted by their castes! The foundation of what an OBC is, is truly a shaky one.
Since the country's establishment, as represented by the likes of software czar Naryana Murthy, under whose "leadership" the country's top business school said it would implement the reservations in double quick time, is unlikely to rise to the occasion, challenging the job reservation is probably another challenge for the Youth for Equality movement. It's just, as was said in the case of the Babri Masjid, a question of one more push (dhakka).

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.
We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

First Published: Mon, April 02 2007. 00:00 IST