Reservations in Globalization Era

The issue of reservations in both jobs, and admissions to institutes of learning is once again being hotly debated. Passions have been aroused and emotions for and against reservations are running high. Demonstrations have taken place and clarion calls given by both sides. A recent judgment by a double bench of the Supreme Court, staying the implementation of The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, till the government satisfies it fully on certain queries. Obviously, this recently enacted law will not affect the process of admission in higher educational institutions in the academic session 2007-08.

If one looks around, one finds that both the supporters and the opponents seem to be oblivious of the changing scenario in the world and its impact on India. Their actions are influenced more by emotions than the realities of globalization. Their statements and actions are based on the assumptions of the bygone days. Before we demonstrate this, let us peep into the genesis of reservations for socially backward classes.

During the freedom struggle, national movement committed itself to the uplift of the socially backward classes in general and dalits (the so-called untouchables) and the tribals in particular. Constitution of India made special provisions to this effect. It reserved seats in Parliament as well as State legislatures for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and provided for job reservations for them. For other backward classes, Article 340 of the Constitution provided for the appointment of a Commission to investigate their conditions. To quote: “The President may by order appoint a Commission … to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes … and the difficulties under which they labour and make recommendations….”

In pursuance of this, the first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1953. It formulated four main criteria to determine social backwardness. They included (a) a degraded status, (b) lack of education, (c) under-representation in civil services, and (d) insufficient job opportunities in secondary and tertiary sectors. Accordingly, the Commission prepared a list of 2399 castes to be included in the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). They accounted for 32 per cent of the total population of the country.

A quarter century later, the Morarji Desai government set up another Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of B. P. Mandal. Its report came in December 1980. It identified 3743 castes to be included in the OBCs. They accounted for 52 per cent of India’s population, but had only a 12.5 per cent share in civil service jobs. It thus recommended for the reservation of 27 per cent jobs in civil service and public undertakings for them. Already 15 per cent and 7.5 per cent jobs were reserved for SCs and STs respectively. In all, 49.5 per cent jobs were to be reserved.

This report remained in the cold storage till the second half of 1990 when the V. P. Singh government resurrected it to corner the BJP and garner the support of the OBCs in its inner power struggle. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report polarized the society and led to disturbances. As a result of prolonged litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that, in no case, the extent of reservations should exceed 50 per cent and the “creamy layer” among the OBCs must be kept outside.

Within a year of the announcement of the implementation of the Mandal Commission, the Narasimha Rao government with Dr. Manmohan Singh as its finance minister came to power. In the beginning of the second half of 1991, it went in for the acceptance of globalization based on the Washington consensus and economic reforms as mandated by it began. They included, inter alia, drastic reduction in the size of the government, privatization of public sector undertakings and strict fiscal discipline. Consequently, not only the number of jobs in the government sector fast declined but also any future possibility of their expansion completely vanished. Adherence to fiscal discipline meant not filling up the existing job vacancies. A large number of existing employees were retired by giving attractive packages under VRS (voluntary retirement scheme) and jobs vacated by them were seldom filled up. The buyers of public sector undertakings too bade farewell to many of the employees on the plea that they were overstaffed. Technological changes led to the decline of jobs in public sector banks, insurance companies, and posts and telegraph departments. Prof. R. Vaidyanathan of the IIM, Bangalore, in the Business Line (August 12, 2004), stressed that the employment opportunities in the government and public sector undertakings stagnated during the 1990s and declined thereafter. According to Economic Survey 2006-07, the total number of government (central government, state governments, quasi-governments and local bodies) was 19,445,000 in 1994, which declined to 19,314,000 in 2000 and to 18,197,000 in 2004, the latest year for which data are given. Obviously, the roller coaster of globalization rubbished the Mandal Commission recommendations.      

In 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), headed by the Congress assumed power at the Centre, its Common Minimum Programme undertook “to provide for full equality of opportunity, particularly in education and employment for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, OBCs and religious minorities.” The work began at two fronts. First, a group of ministers was set up in September 2004 to initiate talks with the private sector to accept reservations in jobs for SCs, STs, and OBCs. A coordination committee was set up in the Prime Minister’s office in October 2006 to possibilities and ways and means to introduce job quotas in the private sector. The private sector does not seem to be inclined towards it. To quote a typical reaction, J. J. Irani, a former president of the CII and managing director of Tata Steel: “We are all on the same side – the Government, Industry and the target population group and we have assured that the chambers and industry will voluntarily take steps towards the improvement of the SC/ST.

“We have made it clear that we are against quotas. We are against the reservation. Any move to impose this though legislation will be unfortunate.” Obviously, imposition of job quotas may lead to a decline in investments and both indigenous and foreign. Investors may shift somewhere else.

Second, the Directive Principles of State Policy talk of the “Promotion of educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections” and ask the government to “protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” In accordance with this, The Constitution (93rd Amendment) Act, 2005 was brought in, which provided that state could make laws for reservation in admission for SCs, STs, and OBCs. The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Bill 2006 became a law when the President signed it on January 3, 2007. It was to be enforced from the academic session 2007-08. Now it seems, after the Supreme Court order, it will be indefinitely delayed.

Meanwhile, another move is afoot, which, if it fructifies, will largely nullify the introduction of reservation in admission to institutes of technology, management and medical education. It is the move of foreign universities to open their campuses in India. A team, led by Karen Hugh, the Bush administration’s envoy of public diplomacy, has already held talks with the government officials in India. As the New York Times reports: “The United States wants an easing of rules under a draft law on foreign investment in Indian education, which is to be introduced in Parliament in April.” There is no doubt about the passage of this law because there is a strong lobby in the government favouring FDI in university education. “If the law is approved, foreign institutions would be exempt from strict rules that currently apply to all government-accredited universities in India on fees, staff salaries and curriculums.” They will be autonomous in the matter of admissions and will not like any reservation.

Once this move succeeds, the wards of the haves will go to the Indian campuses of foreign universities and the rest to Indian universities, perpetually starved of funds, competent staff, adequate equipment and library facilities. Already, IITs, IIMs and top medical institutions find their good teachers shifting elsewhere for better emoluments and research facilities.

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