Affirmative Action Dilemmas in India

From India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, by Dietmar Rothermund (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 168-170:

Before [V. P.] Singh was toppled, his government had introduced the 27 per cent reservations for the backward castes in August 1990. The Congress government under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had to live with this new rule and made no attempt to reverse it. It was soon faced with a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in November 1992, which forced the government to establish a National Backward Classes Commission with quasi-judicial powers to determine the claims of castes for the recognition of their ‘backwardness’. The judgment of the Supreme Court was due to a lawsuit initiated by some members of backward castes. The judges feared that they would be inundated with such suits and realized that they had no criteria by which to determine such cases. Moreover, they felt that litigants who were not at all backward as far as their economic situation was concerned would nevertheless try to obtain the benefits of affirmative action. The judgment of 1992 therefore included an injunction which obliged the government to define the criteria by which the ‘creamy layer’ of the backward castes would be excluded from such benefits.

The debate concerning the ‘creamy layer’ highlighted the problem created by the synonymous use of the terms ‘caste’ and ‘class’. All official statements referred to ‘backward classes’ when they really meant backward castes, the term ‘caste’ being deliberately avoided as it referred to an undesirable aspect of Indian social life. However, caste and class are not at all identical. Many members of the high castes are poor labourers, whereas there are many rich people of low caste origin. Since speaking of a rich class among the members of the backward classes seemed to be incongruous, the term ‘creamy layer’ had to be used.

The National Backward Classes Commission was established by an act of Parliament (Lok Sabha) in 1993. Even before it was constituted, a special commission had reported on the problem of the ‘creamy layer’. It was decided that the children of high government officials or of persons with an annual income above Rs 100,000 would not be entitled to the benefits of affirmative action. In 2004 this limit was raised to Rs 250,000 (approximately US$ 5,000). But whereas the ‘creamy layer’ could be defined in this way, it was much more difficult to fix the basic criteria for defining ‘backwardness’. Of altogether 1,133 applications received from various communities during the period from 1993 to 2003, the commission accepted 682 for inclusion in the list of backward classes and rejected 451. In its report submitted in 2004, the commission admitted that it had to base its decisions on inadequate data and often had to fall back on the census of 1931 as it was the last one which contained information on castes. The commission therefore recommended that future census operations should once more provide data on caste affiliations as it would otherwise be impossible to base affirmative action on reliable social data. It is doubtful whether the Indian government will follow this recommendation concerning census operations in view of the political trouble it might cause. Moreover, once it is known why such questions about caste are asked, interested parties would see to it that the respondents answered them in a suitable manner.

The problem of defining the criteria of ‘backwardness’ came up once more in 2006 when the Congress-led coalition government decided to extend the reservation for OBCs to educational institutions. The reservation of government jobs was controversial enough, but educational reservations cut even deeper as far as the career prospects of students from higher castes were concerned. Due to India’s rapid economic growth, many students look for jobs in the private sector rather than for government posts. But whatever job one wants to get, access to higher education is the necessary precondition. Once more the Supreme Court played a decisive role. It asked the government to specify the criteria for OBC reservations. In addition, doctors launched a nationwide strike against this new policy since they are the only group of educated people whose strike really matters. The government stuck to its policy. The political equation is obvious: there are probably about 400 million OBCs in India and their vote will decide the outcome of the national elections which are due in 2009.

In the absence of census data, the National Sample Survey Organization finally supplied some relevant data in 2006 which were based on a sample survey of 125,000 households. According to this, the proportion of OBCs in the Indian population amounts to 41 per cent whereas the Scheduled Castes account for 20 per cent and the Scheduled Tribes for 8 per cent. As far as household expenditure was concerned, the survey showed that in the rural areas the OBCs attained about the same level as the ‘forward communities’ in this respect, whereas in the urban areas these communities were far ahead of the OBCs. Of the members of urban ‘forward communities’ 52 per cent spent Rs 1,100 per month whereas among the OBCs only 28 per cent reached that level.

The politics of affirmative action has certainly strengthened the solidarity of the Other Backward Castes…. The ‘social federalism’ of a caste-based society is also reflected in the pattern of regional parties whose rise was discussed in an earlier chapter. The notions of hierarchy associated with a caste system have vanished from political life where the manifold patchwork of regionally dominant peasant castes is much more important than notions of hierarchy and hegemony. But one particular element of stratification has survived in spite of all affirmative action: the stigma of ‘untouchability’.

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