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Backward forward

Who is backward in India?s divergent caste mosaic? Is caste the only indicator of social disadvantage? Can we underpin, and progressively modify, our social justice policy with fresh empirical evidence? India?s last systematic caste-wise census was in 1931.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2006 22:55 IST

Who is backward in India’s divergent caste mosaic? Is caste the only indicator of social disadvantage? Can we underpin, and progressively modify, our social justice policy with fresh empirical evidence?  

We don’t have clear-cut answers to these questions because we never tried to find out. India’s last systematic caste-wise census was in 1931. The Mandal Commission effectively used statistics of 1891 to 1931 but no votary of caste-only-criterion is anxious to update these figures. We have had thousands of probe commissions but no White Paper on strengths and weaknesses of reservation policy in five decades.

Let us face it; we can’t move beyond tokenism because we don’t have scientific data about our society’s caste or region wise extent of backwardness. The political class has understandably avoided stirring the hornet’s nest with at least 300 million voters wearing the backward tag. Even constructive introspection is perceived to be fraught with electoral dangers.

Indian democracy is a political success story despite its bizarre paradoxes. Its humble education system accounts for a fourth of the world’s cutting edge software professionals but its economy can’t support one third of world’s poor and a fourth of its malnourished children. We run the world’s most extensive reservation policy, but when our own youth seem disillusioned, we are loath to discuss more credible adaptations.

If we want the present debate to synthesize constructive ideas, we need both a caste-wise census and a rigorous status report on reservations. The country needs to exclude those caste groups from the list of backward communities, which have gained substantially from agrarian reforms and the expansion of irrigation network since independence. 

Despite the urban, upper caste disposition of anti reservation protests, we can’t brush them aside. We know that the volcano of contrary opinion has erupted even though the UPA spin-doctors are throwing easier-said-than-done-buzzwords like ‘status quo’ and a ‘percentage increase’ in overall seats. The youth can be persuaded to accept affirmative action provided there is a modicum of fair opportunities for everyone.

The graphic on the right shows that we need Rs 11,000 crore to maintain the status quo at the centers of excellence. About 10 million Indian students pass X+2 exams every year. We need an equal sum to accommodate 0.5 per cent of them (57,000) in low cost engineering, medical and management institutions. Since premier institutions take up to five years to establish, we need four times more money every year to set up low cost institutes, just to increase the seats by 2 per cent.   

HT Research team lists the limitations of the Mandal Commission’s parameters below and then proposes alternative models to compensate social deprivation. The two models (the first by sociologists Satish Deshpande of the Delhi School of Economics and Yogendra Yadav of CSDS, and a second by JNU linguist Purushottam Agrawal) are not cast in stone. They are meant to be building blocks for a more inclusive system for all underprivileged people, including the poorest of the forward communities.