Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More on OBC quotas

One of the central criticisms of reservation for OBCs in centrally-administered educational institutions is that caste cannot be the determinant of backwardness today. Another is that proportion of OBCs arrived at by the Commission rests on a badly dated census, that of 1931. The Supreme Court itself had raised these issues recently while hearing the challenges to the Quota Bill.

MS Gill, who was secretary to the Mandal Commission, addresses these issues in today's TOI. First, about the criticism that caste alone cannot be used as a determinant of backwardness, Gill says that the Commission considered as many as 11 indicators of social and educational backwardness of which caste was only one.

The remaining 10 indicators pertain to: dependence on manual labour for
livelihood; marriage at a tender age; level of female participation in work;
number of children who never attended school; rate of student drop-out;
proportion of matriculates as compared to the state average; value of family
assets; residence in kuchcha houses; source of drinking water beyond half a
kilometre; and availability of consumption loans. These indicators objectively uantify the degree of social, educational and economic deprivation as compared to the state averages, and none of them is based on caste per se.

Fair enough. But what about the second criticism, namely, that identification of OBCs based on these criteria isn't satisfactory? The way I understood Gill, the Commission's identification was based on a survey of two villages and one urban block in every district of the country. Is this a good enough substitute for a comprehensive census?

The proportion of OBCs to the population was based on the 1931 Census. The Commission's survey identified 3747 OBCs. The proportion of these to the population in 1931 was determined. The present proportion of OBCs was presumed to be the same as the proportion then because "whereas the country’s population may have grown nearly four times since then, the proportion of its various constituents has obviously remained more or less the same."

What Gill says may be broadly true but the problem arises because some of the castes identified as OBCs are perceived to be manifestly advanced. Some well-placed castes in Kerala and Karnataka figure in the OBCs. This is what upsets people. So, while the Mandal Commission's estimates may be broadly accurate, there may be scope for fine-turning.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem, one that I believe arouses the most opposition to reservation for OBCs. It is that reservations tend to become permanent and particular castes hang on to their quotas long after they have ceased to be backward.

For reservation policy to have broad acceptance, we must have a mechanism for monitoring backwardness on an ongoing basis. OBCs that cease to be backward must be eliminated from the reserved category. A basis for this could be cut-off scores in competitive exams. If scores for OBCs as a whole or for particular converge with those of the general category, that would be one indication that reservation has outlived its utility.

In other words, ensure that reservation policy for OBCs has built-in mechanisms to self-destruct once the goals of reservation have been achieved. Then some of the anger amongst other groups will subside.


Abi said...

I certainly agree. A clear articulation of how our program of reservation is to come to an end will go a long way towards winning the hearts and minds of people -- particularly those who oppose reservations. This demands, like you said, an on-going effort to keep track of who the real beneficiaries are. Since this involves pruning the OBC list as well as decreasing the number of reserved seats, this effort has to be sustained over a long time indeed.

This is something that I wrote about -- sorry for the plug! -- over a year ago.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Hello Abi,

Yes indeed- I note that you have given this matter detailed treatment in your post.

When the issue erupted more than a year ago, I had proposed three elements in the design: phased implementation upto the 27% limit; expansion in capacity so that the present general category intake remained unaffected; and a review mechanism to adjust quota levels in line with requirements.

The first two, as you know, are part of the government's implementation plan. In its draft report, the Moily committee appeared to favoured a review. However, they were not inclined to press for it in the final stage.