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Merit, Mandal and equal opportunity

The benefits have been captured by the well-off groups from the depressed classes, writes Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: May 24, 2006 20:56 IST

Job reservation in India is passing through predictable absurdities. Government and Public Sector employment is shrinking and quotas are going up. The babus are efficiently subverting the system through creation of huge backlogs by simply not filling the vacancies in government departments and educational institutions.

Aspirants for quality professional courses, who may have to compete for just 18 per cent of all seats, have taken to streets but the political class has already decided they don't have a case.

Politically, things look even more bizarre. Top heirs of the Varna system, the Brahmins and Rajputs, are demanding job quotas pleading extreme backwardness in parts of North India.

They are emulating the Jats, one of the region's most influential caste group of landlords, builders and businessmen, who have sneaked into the OBC ranks, cornering up to 85 per cent of all OBC vacancies in certain categories of jobs in Rajasthan. The political message is that you have a case if you have the numerical strength.

About 3.5 million people have benefited from reservations since Independence. With access to reasonable education, healthcare and nourishment, their children have formed a thick creamy layer blocking benefits for the poorest of SCs and STs. Could the nation now request the children of IAS and Class I officers, Cabinet ministers, the recipients of privileged distributorships and major business loans to please step out of the quota queue? Could we ask those who have used reservation to get admission in top professional courses to compete for jobs so that the policy is able to benefit more disadvantaged people?

It is considered politically incorrect to question the creamy layer even if one supports affirmative action. India's political class knows that the old constitutional provision needs corrections. Privately, many recognise that wider policies for land reforms, rural infrastructure, entrepreneurship, procurement policies and universal, quality education would help transcend the burden of caste but that wouldn't immediately translate into votes.

India needs millions of doctors but opening thousands of new medical colleges is not even being considered even though it will benefit both quota and non-quota students apart from bridging a huge gap in the nation's healthcare system.

The quota has helped only 5 per cent of SCs and STs in the past 55 years. Without a radical rethink, the constitutional commitment of compensating for historical disadvantages would take centuries. There is no doubt that the private sector can do a lot for the vulnerable sections but merely extending the tokenism of job quotas would mean only more lip service and no affirmative action.