The National sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) count of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has confirmed two facts. First, the various guess estimates regarding the proportion of OBCs, including the Mandal report’s figure of 52 per cent, have been incorrect. Second, the policy of across-the-board reservation is flawed. With the exact proportion of OBCs in the population of India unclear, the government’s attempts to reserve a fixed proportion of seats in jobs and educational institutions for them have been tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. After all, only when you know the extent of the problem can you fix it. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court sought an explanation from the government on three issues: the basis for fixing 27 per cent reservation for OBCs; the rationale for determining who belongs to an OBC; and the way it would implement the reservation policy.
Now the NSSO’s 2004-05 survey puts the OBCs’ share of population at 41 per cent. It also presents a varied and nuanced picture of the status of SCs, STs and OBCs vis-à-vis the rest of the population. For instance, it finds that the literacy rate among STs is 52 per cent, among the OBCs, 65 per cent, and among forward communities, 78 per cent. However, the buying power among OBCs and forward communities in rural areas is about the same. In rural areas, the proportion of the chronically unemployed is the highest among forward communities, while in urban areas it is among SCs.
By bringing to light accurate data on the problem, the survey fixes one part of the question. The other part is: given that some form of affirmative action is required, what form is the most suitable? Clearly, a one-size-fits-all reservation formula is not the solution. The survey points out many gradations among and within the various castes and classes with respect to literacy, employment and income. Clearly, the problem cannot be macro-managed. What is required are targeted, contextualised and result-oriented policies that give a lift up to people wherever and whenever needed.