In a huge boost to the concept of India as a meritocracy that also cares for citizens left behind by history, the Supreme Court refused to reopen its 1992 verdict that had capped affirmative action reservations at 50 per cent of all seats at educational institutions and in government jobs. This will ensure that India remains at the cutting edge of the global merit system.
The Supreme Court order upholding the 50 per cent cap on quotas, except in extraordinary and exceptional circumstances, and its refusal to reopen the verdict that capped quotas at half the total available opportunities is a welcome judgment in favour of merit.
This will help India maintain its status as one of the world's leading knowledge centres and enable Indian professionals to retain the premium they command across the world.
A little background will be in order here. In a judgment dated November 16, 1992 in the Indra Sawhney & Others versus Union of India, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court had ruled that, among other things, affirmative action quotas for backward castes could not exceed 50 per cent of total seats / vacancies in educational institutions and government jobs.
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The idea behind affirmative action in India was to help historically deprived groups, comprising Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, find their feet and compete on an equal basis in Independent India. Subsequently, more groups, under the umbrella classification of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) was added to the list of castes that were entitled to reservations in educational institutions and government jobs.
But over a period of time, as the competition for jobs became more intense and the overall pie of government jobs began to shrink – even as the fast growth that Indians had got used to began to taper off – even dominant castes in states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and a few other states began to demand reservations for themselves.
To extend education and job quotas to all these dominant castes, the Supreme Court-mandated cap of 50 per cent reservations would have to be breached. In turn, that would reduce the number of opportunities for general category candidates and strike at the heart of the conception of India as a merit-based society. It was also, potentially, a steep and slippery slope. If the 50 per cent quota is allowed to be breached, there is nothing to stop politicians from expanding reservations to 100 per cent of all opportunities available, at least theoretically.
That, in a nutshell, was the case the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court was adjudicating upon.
The apex court ruled that the cap remains sacrosanct and that there is no reason to breach it at this point. The quota ceiling is an attempt by the State to balance the need to correct historical wrongs inflicted against some caste groups with the requirement to foster a merit-based society, which is the bedrock of any modern, upwardly mobile nation.
It also ruled out the possibility of referring the question of expanding the quota beyond 50 per cent to a larger bench. Since a nine-judge bench had given the Indra Sawhney verdict, it was beyond the jurisdiction of a five-judge bench to overturn it. It could, however, refer it to another bench comprising nine or more judges, which it refused to do.
But away from the legalities that were thrashed out in court, the question of expanding quotas is really a cry for additional job and livelihood opportunities from sections of society that have been left out by the economic liberalisation process.
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Any reform creates new sets of winners and losers. The rise of India’s knowledge-based economy has left many previously dominant caste groups behind in the race for fishes and loaves of success.
The newfound economic success of many historically less privileged castes and classes has upset age old social relations in many parts of the country. Then rising levels of education is bringing in its wake the demand for jobs – and government jobs are still more coveted than private ones among large sections of the Indian population.
So, shorn of the politics of reservations, the demand for new quotas is, in reality, a demand for a more equitable distribution of the country’s economic pie – in the form of access to education and jobs.
The ongoing Covid pandemic has caused further damage to the economy and the job prospects of many eligible candidates. The Modi government has to pay heed to this demand.
Its reforms measures, such as the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to attract foreign companies to set up manufacturing facilities in 13 selected sectors will help create thousands of new jobs. But given India’s population, much more is needed.
Happily, the Modi government is alive to the problem. The dream of achieving a $5-trillion economy is nothing but a way to expand the pie – to ensure that each Indian gets a larger slice of it.
More reforms; greater thrust for generating consumption demand; and higher growth. These have become imperative to address the aspirations of Indians.