The union government and Indian industry appeared headed for a confrontation over the question of increasing employment for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) in the private sector through affirmative action.
While industry spokesmen said they would oppose reservation quotas at any cost, Minister for Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath almost threatened them in response. "The legal option is always open if companies do not fulfill their commitments on affirmative action," said Nath.
While Nath stopped short of specifically mentioning reservations, some of his cabinet colleagues have not. Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and Minority Affairs Minister Abdul Rehman Antulay have both recently called for making it mandatory for the private sector to reserve jobs for the socially underprivileged.
The private sector’s position was made clear at a meeting on Wednesday between representatives of the industry chambers and officials of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. The latter will convey the views of the industry to the Task Force on Affirmative Action, headed by Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, T K A Nair.
"We have made it clear that we are against quotas," said J.J. Irani, former Managing Director of Tata Steel, at the end of the two-hour meeting. "We are against reservation. Any move to impose it through legislation will be unfortunate."
Irani was the chairman of the task force jointly set up by CII and ASSOCHAM to draft a voluntary affirmative action plan for private industry. The plan was submitted to the government a few months ago.
Amit Mitra, Secretary General of FICCI Amit Mitra held the same view. "We have conveyed to the government that there should not be quotas in jobs," he told Hindustan Times. "Nowhere in the world are there job quotas in the private sector."
However, Indian corporates were willing to implement the voluntary affirmative action plan and allow their performance in this sphere to be monitored by government agencies. “They also offered to help set up industries in districts with more than 40 per cent population of SCs or STs in public private partnership,” said Mitra.
Kamal Nath acknowledged that the private sector had expressed certain reservations about implementing affirmative action, but advised it to “look beyond these concerns”. He said the government would look at “all options” to ensure a balance between industry’s concerns and the need for social justice.
Irani countered by saying that if quotas were imposed through legislation, private industry’s energies would be largely focused on how to dodge them.
“We have said that enterprises which employ more than 400 people should implement the plan suggested by the J.J. Irani committee immediately. This benchmark of the number of employees should be gradually brought down to 200 by the end of the third year,” said Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat. Industry representatives also said they would be meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for further discussions after six months.