A new deal on caste: The battle over reservations in promotions

For a nation to progress, caste is important to eradicate. But its perpetuation is also beneficial to many powerful communities
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a bunch of petitions on the policy of reservation in promotions for SC/STs in government jobs (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a bunch of petitions on the policy of reservation in promotions for SC/STs in government jobs (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Oct 12, 2021 11:53 AM IST
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Caste is ubiquitous in Indian society, giving some people and communities a leg-up while condemning others to structural failure or stagnation.

A road map out of this conundrum, as envisioned by the Constitution, is a blend of social policymaking (think abolition of untouchability) and socioeconomic prescription (think reservations) that can not only pull communities out of poverty but also mitigate social vulnerabilities.

For a nation to progress, caste is important to eradicate. But its perpetuation is also beneficial to many powerful communities. Hence successes such as the passage of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that tries to radically alter rural power equations is mixed with hurdles such as the indifferent implementation of quotas and the growing demand from dominant communities to be included in the affirmative action architecture.

But over the past three months, three developments in India’s socio-political and legal spheres have the potential to shape a new deal for India’s caste-marginalised communities.

Rumblings over reservation in promotion for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, reservation for other backward classes and Economically Backward Classes (EWS) in medical education, and an impending caste census can change the way India makes policy, looks at data, and thinks of reservation.

So, the first three installments of this new column will look at each of these three developments, see what they offer in terms of changing India’s largely staid caste-eradication policy, and evaluate what promise they offer to India’s Dalits and lower castes.

First, reservation in promotion.

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a bunch of petitions on the policy of reservation in promotions for SC/STs in government jobs.

Very simply, the central government and some state governments are asking the apex court to rethink two key decisions from 2006 and 2018 that put down conditions and criteria to implement reservation in promotions.

The first condition was that a government needs to have quantifiable data to show the lack of representation of SC/STs before allotting them quotas in promotion. Governments say such data is difficult to compile and it is unclear what quantum constitutes adequate representation, and whether it is to be considered per cadre, department, group or class – and therefore claim that hundreds of thousands of promotions are stuck. The courts also stipulate data on administrative efficiency.

The second condition is the exclusion of the so-called creamy layer from the scope of reservation in promotion.

Creamy layer is a concept that came into effect after the implementation of the Mandal Committee report in 1990, paving the way for Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation in government jobs and education. It refers to the more advanced and developed sections of a backward community – think of the layer of cream on a tumbler of milk – and seeks to limit quotas to the more backward and underprivileged sections of a group. Therefore, for OBCs, anyone with a gross annual income above 8 lakh is ineligible for quotas. The aim is to ensure that reservation benefits go to the most underprivileged.

What the Supreme Court’s 2006 and 2018 verdicts did was to extend this concept of creamy layer to SC/STs for the first time – but only in matter of promotion. So, SC/STs don’t have to deal with creamy layer while availing of reservation in jobs and education, but only during promotions for government jobs.

The court has already indicated that it doesn’t want to re-open its 2006 and 2018 judgments. So it appears that the controversial creamy layer stipulation is here to stay. But the hearings can shed light on two other equally important things:

One, actual data on the caste-composition of government services. If the central government or other governments have data on how many SC/STs and OBCs personnel serve in each layer of governance, it would present a transparent picture of how successive administrations have implemented (or hamstrung) quotas.

Data shows that large chunks of reserved posts remain empty for years (see government submissions in Parliament on top institutes). What impact does it have on career advancement? For example, are lower levels of service more dominated by lower castes? Are upper-echelons still the preserve of upper castes? We know anecdotally, for example, that sanitations work in cities are done by Dalits – a perverse kind of reverse quota where such menial jobs are taken by no other community – but is there hard data to bear this out? This hearing is our best bet to find out

Two, the debate between reservation and efficiency is as old as reservation itself in India, and continues to be popular both in everyday life and cultural tropes. Dalit students and scholars have, for decades, complained about shame and humiliation meted out by teachers, peers and institutions for availing quotas – such discrimination is rooted in the upper-caste belief that quality is compromised when reservation brings in diverse and under-represented communities.

Despite research (Ashwini Deshpande and Thomas Weisskopf showed in 2015 that reservation had no impact on productivity in the Railways, India’s largest employer) delinking quota and efficiency, such myths continue to exist and hurt marginalised students. A government study or pronouncement could put an end to this, once and for all.

The reservation in promotion case throws up some fundamental questions about rights, democracy and citizenship. What is a level playing field, and what does it mean for communities that have never experienced equality? Can governments better implement affirmative action policies? How can we use data to better understand where we are going wrong? And, how can we create a more equal country, at every level of government?


The views expressed are personal

India is unequal, and inequality cuts across the axis of caste, class, region, gender and more. Dhrubo Jyoti brings his keen observational skills, immersion in social movements and reportage to show a mirror to society, in his column for HT Premium.

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021