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How Can Sub-categorisation of OBCs Work? Make Quotas Proportional to Their Population

Representative image: Reuters

Representative image: Reuters

If one looks at the evidence, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the OBC is treated as some sort of a compromise category.

The Justice Rohini Commission, which recently got its 10th extension, seems to be finally wrapping up its work. According to a news report, the commission is going to propose division of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in four subcategories, with the first category getting 2 per cent, second 6 per cent, third 9 per cent and the fourth 10 per cent share of the reservation pie, at 27 per cent.

It is not clear what reasoning has been followed by the commission to arrive at these percentages. However, whatever the logic the commission offers when it makes this proposal public, this issue is going to attract controversy. This is mainly because reservation quotas are supposed to be proportional to a reserved group’s population but without population numbers, the commission’s percentages are going to be perceived as random. The dictum of proportional representation has been followed in the case of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, the percentage of quotas offered to the OBCs has so far been based on guesswork, and the Government of India has felt neither inclined to enumerate OBCs nor to give them proportional representation.

A compromise category

When the Government of India first proposed reservations for OBCs in the early 1990s, it fixed the quota at 27 per cent as recommended by the Second Backward Classes Commission (popularly known as Mandal Commission). Using 1931 census data and a bit of guesswork, Mandal Commission had pegged the OBC population at 52 per cent. State governments were then and are still using their own guesstimates to fix the OBC quotas.

If one looks at the evidence, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the OBC is treated as some sort of a compromise category. Consider these three points. One, OBCs had to wait till 1993 to get reservations in employment and till 2007 for reservations in higher educational institutions. Two, while the Government of India faithfully collects data about SCs and STs in its decennial censuses, it has refused to do so in the case of OBCs. This is despite the voluminous literature produced by sociologists and economists that says collection of data along caste lines would help in fine-tuning government policies. Three, the government limited OBCs to 27 per cent quota because it wanted to honour court judgments saying reservations should not cross 50 per cent threshold but conveniently forgot the same while enacting a law giving 10 per cent reservations to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) from the Forward Castes in 2019.

One also can’t help but notice how smoothly the act for EWS was passed and how faithfully it is being implemented by all concerned institutions. Contrast this with the opposition V.P. Singh faced when he announced reservations for the Backward Castes in public employment in August 1990 (Mandal 1) and the widespread protests after Arjun Singh extended these to higher educational institutions in 2006 (Mandal 2).

How honest is the move?

The implementation of the OBC quotas has been another grim story. A Ministry of Education panel recently recommended that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) should be exempted from reservations in faculty appointment because the IITs are “institutes of national importance and are involved in research”. Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have also made the same demand consistently and are known for flouting reservation norms in faculty appointments. A case is also being fought in the court regarding denial of seats to OBC students in medical admissions.

One can go on.

Another worrying trend is the progressive reduction in public sector jobs, as assiduously pointed out by Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A in The Indian Express.

The sub-categorisation in itself is not a bad idea but when the government is either ignoring non-implementation of quotas by IITs, IIMs and other institutions or undermining reservations through its own policies, such as lateral entry in civil services and quotas for “economically weaker” Forward Castes, one doubts the honesty of this move.

Additionally, sub-categorisation without OBC enumeration seems like a farce. The main argument for sub-categorisation is that some castes in the OBC category are “cornering reservations” at the expense of other castes. However, this fact can be properly established only if we know the population of the caste that is benefiting “disproportionately” from reservations and the castes being left behind. Also, the whole issue of benefits and losses becomes redundant or sounds absurd when reservations are implemented half-heartedly on the one hand and the job opportunities in the public sector are being reduced on the other.

Before dividing OBCs into subcategories, the government also needs to spell out how this sub-categorisation will affect the roster system used to appoint teachers in colleges and universities. Scholars and activists had severely criticised the Allahabad High Court judgment of 2017 mandating the use of a 13-point roster instead of 200-point roster in faculty appointments. Their contention was that the SC/ST/OBCs lose out on seats when the 13-point roster is used as this roster treats an individual department as the unit for appointments and not the whole college or university. The sub-categorisation of OBCs will make proper allotment of seats to each reserved group and the general category in the 13-point roster a very difficult task. One can only imagine the horror, even if we summon the best mathematician in the world, if the OBC sub-categorisation is followed by SC and ST sub-categorisation as well.

The sub-categorisation will lead to beneficial results only if the following conditions are first fulfilled. One, enumerate the OBCs and make OBC quotas proportional to their population. Two, ensure that the OBC reservations are implemented properly at all levels and censure the institutions not doing so. Three, increase the number of jobs available to people in the public sector. And four, overhaul the roster system, plug all the loopholes in it and make sure the SC/ST/OBCs get the number of seats they are entitled to.

After all, artisanal and service castes, who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the sub-categorisation, deserve much more than a bureaucratic pipe dream.

The author is copy editor with EPW and commentator on social issues. Views are personal

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first published:February 18, 2021, 15:57 IST