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Surjit S Bhalla: OBC: the Oh, so average Indian


Surjit S Bhalla  |  New Delhi 

To advocate even affirmative action for the OBCs, let alone reservations, is to take from the poor and give to the average.
The original civil society thesis was that one needed affirmative action for the truly disadvantaged and the truly discriminated against""the schedule castes (SCs) and the schedule tribes (STs). As a social scientist I must admit that I was a bit surprised by the "fact" that for 2,000 years, if not more, Hindu society had ostracised, or considered untouchable, or systematically discriminated against, more than a quarter of its population. If one adds the conventional wisdom notion that a disproportionate number of the Muslim and Christian converts were from the lower castes, and if one adds the numbers of OBCs (otherwise backward castes, the new claimants to the mantle of affirmative action and reservations) then it is the case that civil society today believes that historically, more than 70 per cent of the Indian population was severely discriminated against.
These numbers are staggering. Note that it is deep discrimination we are talking about. Monarchies and feudal society across the world, and history, have always managed to treat more than 90 per cent of the population as dirt. If that represented the reality in India in 1947, then we should have had reservations for 90 per cent plus of the population and not just for the SCs (those that were most socially discriminated against) and the STs (those that constituted the very poor). Given that education, jobs, etc. have been guaranteed to the SC/STs for the last 60 years, it wouldn't surprise anyone to know that it would make sense for large numbers of people to "convert" to SC/ST status. We have no evidence that this has happened on a large scale; but there is now solid evidence that large-scale fake "conversions" are taking place in the case of V P Singh/Mandal/Arjun Singh's children""the OBCs.
Until 1999-00, the best available evidence on the number of OBCs in the Indian population was 36 per cent, with OBC Muslims at 4 per cent and non-Muslim OBCs at 32 per cent. Now, just five years later, we are told by the National Survey Organisation that total OBCs in the population are 41 per cent of the population (data on Muslim non-Muslim OBCs are not yet available).
Such an enormous population increase in such a short period of time should be in the Guinness Book of World Records, and by a record margin. It also ridicules the social engineering efforts of our so-called "leaders". It also means that we have collectively lost our minds in the context of reservations for the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the disprivileged.
The OBCs not only fail a test for reservations but also fail the test for any "affirmative action". Taxes exist (in my view) for the primary purpose of defence, law and order, and income redistribution towards the truly disadvantaged. Affirmative action has a long history around the world, and in all cases (e.g. the blacks in North America, the blacks in South Africa and the Malay Muslims in Malaysia) the per capita incomes, the standard of living, the social indicators of those discriminated against are vastly below the average (30-60 per cent lower) prevailing in society. This is regardless of whether those historically discriminated against are a small percentage of society (the blacks in the US are less than 15 per cent of the population) or a majority (in both South Africa and Malaysia).
But India is, again, unique and bizarre. It is the only society that has affirmative action for the average of its population.
I have found that it is very hard to convince people who have ideologically made up their minds. Neither theoretical logic, nor empirical evidence is something the so-called civil society puts great store by. For them, it is enough that in God's eyes they are doing the right thing. And when God and policy makers form a combine, then we mere mortals have to walk the extra mile. With this in mind, the table documents the status of the OBCs and the average Indian for 20 indicators""one can compute several more, but the overwhelming answer is the same boring one: the OBC is average.
Let us start with average income (actually consumption) levels. The Hindu OBC has a mean consumption level 92 per cent of the average, i.e. 8 per cent lower. However, their poverty level is the same as the average, and their wage level is only 6 per cent lower. Their employment and unemployment rates are vastly better than the average. Their share among high-school graduates in the population is at 81 per cent, an "outlier", compared to all other data pertaining to consumption, poverty, wage, employment, and unemployment. This is suggestive of the possibility that the lower high school enrolment and graduation rates of the OBCs are out of choice rather than discrimination.
Part II of the table pertains to social indicators (from the National Fertility Health Survey). There are a few noteworthy statistics""among illiterate married women, aged 15-49, the OBC woman is only 5 per cent worse than the average. Fertility levels of OBCs are average, and a higher percentage of OBCs have child delivery attended to by a health professional. The OBC women are "worse" at reading newspapers, but a significantly higher proportion of them watch movies. Slightly fewer women are anaemic (about 1 per cent less) and slightly more children are underweight (about 2 per cent more).
You can add any new indicator you wish, but the conclusion cannot change""the OBC is the average Indian. Just like you cannot fool mother nature by making margarine look like butter, you cannot subvert reality by pretending that the OBC is discriminated against, or has been discriminated against (except I guess by forcing the women not to read newspapers!). The simple conclusion is that there is no moral, philosophical, logical, economic or social basis for any affirmative action for the Hindu OBCs. To pretend so, and worse, to advocate or make policy, is to subvert the principles of fairness, and to discriminate against the truly needy. To advocate affirmative action for OBCs is to do Robin Hood engineering in reverse.

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First Published: Sat, November 11 2006. 00:00 IST