Friday, March 30, 2007

SC on OBC quotas

The media and some politicians seem to be over-reacting to the SC judgement on OBC quotas.

As the SC's judgement in the Mandal case shows, it is not against affirmative action. Indeed, it has said that reservation upto 49% is okay subject to the exclusion of the creamy layer. Out of 49%, 22% is the constitutional provision for SC/ST. But this does not mean that the balance is automatically open for OBCs. The government has to make out a case for any particular percentage that it wants to reserve for OBCs- to my mind, that is what the SC is saying.

In other words, the SC is not against the concept of reservation for disadvantaged groups. It is saying: please have a clear basis for identifying who these groups are.This, of course, means evolving criteria for backwardness and carrying out a census that will determine who exactly satisy these criteria.

The political class is up in arms against the SC judgement. It needs to realise that government has an obligation to take decisions that are administratively sound. Reserving 27% for OBCs on the basis of a 1931 census is, in the eyes of the SC, not a sound administrative decision.

While supporting reservation for OBCs, I had argued that the government should make a modest start- say, reserving 10% of the seats. It should then monitor OBC representation in centrally administered educational institutions. It could well be that a certain percentage makes it on the strength of merit alone. I had said that reservation should be 27%-x%, where x% represents the proportion that is able to get into these institutions on the strength of merit.

How does the government resolve the present situation? The minister for education has said that all legal options would be explored. One way would be to ask the SC to allow Phase I of the Moily committee roadmap to go ahead (out of a total of three pahses). In Phase I, the IIMs, for instance,are committed to 6% reservation for OBCs. The government could represent to the SC that OBCs are reasonably certain to constitute 6% or so of the population, hence the SC should allow Phase I to go ahead. That gives the government a year's time in which to come up with hard data that the SC has asked for.

Expansion of capacity in education institutions and budgetary allocations for these are welcome. So, there is merit in proceeding with Phase I of the Moily committee roadmap. That would also serve to buy peace for the time being.

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