The implications of the Maharashtra OBC survey on society, economy, and politics

This collection of empirical data — when it happens — will be crucial to the core issue of political reservation for OBCs in the state
Political reservation for the OBC community only started in 1994, after an amendment to the 1961 Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act to include 27% reservation in local bodies (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Political reservation for the OBC community only started in 1994, after an amendment to the 1961 Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act to include 27% reservation in local bodies (HT PHOTO)
Updated on Oct 18, 2021 08:16 PM IST
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Mumbai: Three months after the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission (MSBCC) was formed to collect empirical data on various Other Backward Class (OBC) communities receiving political reservation in local body polls, the survey is yet to begin.

The commission was constituted after the Supreme Court on March 4 read down a section in a law — one among the five in Maharashtra which governs elections in rural and municipal local bodies — and asked the state to use recent empirical data to justify political reservation for OBCs. The apex court was hearing a case that challenged the 27% political reservation granted in local body elections to OBC candidates.

The SC read down the provision to mean that reservation in favour of OBCs in local bodies can be notified to the extent that it does not exceed 50% of the total seats reserved in favour of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) as well as OBC candidates taken together.

It also asked the state to conduct a “contemporaneous rigorous empirical inquiry into the nature and implications of backwardness of the concerned group” since the computation of 27% was based on data from the 1931 caste census, which was also used by the Mandal Commission in its 1980 report, recommending reservations.

A day before the judgment was delivered by the Supreme Court, the state appointed retired justice AV Nirgude as the new chairman of MSBCC, though the three-year tenure of the previous commission ended in November 2020. The 10-member commission was constituted on June 29.

This collection of empirical data — when it happens — will be crucial to the core issue of political reservation for OBCs in the state. Starting February 2022, 15 municipal corporations, 29 of 36 district councils, and over 90 municipal councils will go to polls. But its impact will likely be more far-reaching.

What will the commission do?

Soon after the commission was formed, the state government sought details from the new commission on the method it will adopt to collect empirical data.

After holding two preparatory meetings, on July 2 and 14 in Pune, the MSBCC sent a letter to the government on July 28, listing out its needs: Manpower, infrastructure, and budget. The commission further pointed out that the estimated budget for the survey (subject to further revision) was 435 crore.

However, on September 30, deputy chief minister (CM), Ajit Pawar, confirmed that the CM had communicated to the commission on the previous day. He did not elaborate on what CM Uddhav Thackeray told the commission. “As per my information, yesterday [September 29] only the CM wrote a letter to the commission (over [the] collection of empirical data). Now the commission will tell the state about their requirements, right from manpower to the budget and the state will provide them accordingly,” Pawar told reporters.

Indra Mallo, principal secretary (in charge) OBC welfare department, said that an intra-department meeting was held on September 30 regarding the commission, but refused to share further details on its outcome.

A go-ahead from the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government is still awaited, Laxman Hake, a former professor at Fergusson College, Pune and a member of the commission, said. “We are still waiting to hear from the state government. We don’t know when the process to collect empirical data will have to be started as there is no communication yet,” Hake said on October 7.

What does the survey entail?

The MSBCC intends to compare the population and socioeconomic status of the OBC community with SC, ST and Open Category (OC) communities. It will conduct a socioeconomic survey of OBC and OC families.

The data will be collected from six types of local bodies (zilla parishads, panchayat samitis, gram panchayats, municipal corporations, municipal councils, and nagar panchayats) and will cover both urban and rural local bodies.

“We have planned to collect socioeconomic data of OBC as well as Open Category families by holding household surveys with the help of personnel from various government departments such as revenue, rural development and general administration department. We have decided to appoint collectors and municipal commissioners as nodal officers for the household surveys in the rural and urban areas. We have also decided to collect the data — offline and online, which means after physically collecting the data through a questionnaire, it will be transferred in[to] a software for big data analysis. We want to give it an evidence-based approach to make our conclusion foolproof,” Hake said.

The commission will collect information such as land ownership, education levels, employment of women in the household, the distance between home and school, or home and hospitals, among other things.

For field surveys, the commission hopes to engage teachers from all government-run schools, including zilla parishads, nagar parishads, and aided schools, who will go to households with questionnaires. They estimate that around 143,000 teachers will be needed to cover all households, and each teacher will be tasked to cover 800 to 1,200 households.

There are 28,627 local bodies in the state, which includes 34 zilla parishads, 351 panchayat samitis, 27,855 gram panchayats, 27 municipal corporations, 236 municipal councils, and 124 nagar panchayats.

“The process of collecting empirical data will take at least seven to eight months if it is started on [a] war footing, else it will take up to a year and a half. To begin with, we have to collect data of population and social backwardness of the OBC community to compare it with other communities such as SC, ST, and after analysing the data, identify the reservation of the OBC community,” Hake said.

“We need to cover around 120-130 million people in the state. We also have to complete the entire process in seven to eight months,” said an MSBCC member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Centre-state tussle over data

A large part of the analysis that the MSBCC plans to do requires the Centre’s data on the SC and ST communities collected in its decadal census.

But the state hoped to get its hands on the Centre’s 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) soon after the Supreme Court’s March 4 ruling (directing the state to appoint a dedicated commission for collecting empirical data), and in July, filed a petition seeking the data for the empirical survey.

In 2011, the Centre had, with the help of the office of the registrar general of India (ORGI) conducted the SECC which studied the socioeconomic status of rural and urban households, and ranked households based on predefined parameters. It covered all castes and communities, including those who fell in the OBC category.

However, on September 21, the Centre refused to share the data claiming that it was riddled with errors.

“As far as Maharashtra is concerned the analysis of SECC data pertaining to Maharashtra showed that out of the total population of 10.3 crores (103 million), population with “no caste” was 1.17 crore (11.7 million), whereas the total castes enumerated were as many as 428,677. Pertinently, as against more than 4.28 lakh (428,000) castes which have been enumerated in the SECC 2011, in the state of Maharashtra, the existing castes which are published in Maharashtra in SC, ST and OBC categories are only 494,” the 59-page affidavit filed by R Subrahmanyam, secretary ministry of social justice and empowerment, stated.

“Considering the aforesaid, it is apparent that the caste enumeration in SECC 2011 was fraught with mistakes and inaccuracies. Further analysis showed that more than 99% of the castes enumerated had a population of less than 100 persons,” the affidavit added further.

“The MSBCC will have to collect empirical data by following the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court. But collecting such huge amounts of data is a time-consuming process, and cannot be completed in five-six months. Based on the empirical data, the MSBCC will have to make recommendations for OBC reservation to the state government. Article 243(B) of the Constitution has empowered the state assembly to provide reservation to a backward community. Here again, the 50% cap imposed by the Supreme Court will not be breached. Whatever reservation the state government intends to provide will have to be under the 50% ceiling,” Ulhas Bapat, a former law professor and constitutional expert, said.

The difference — 428,000 as opposed to 494,000 (of which 388 are OBC, 59 are SC and 47 are ST) — is too large to ignore and the political implications are potentially tremendous.

The political impact

Following the order, the ruling MVA coalition government promulgated an ordinance amending two laws to ensure OBC reservation in rural local body polls, while sticking to the 50% reservation cap. However, the amendment meant that not all districts can allot 27% reservation to OBC candidates.

“The ordinance was promulgated considering the elections in the local bodies next year,” said a senior minister on the condition of anonymity.

Political reservation for SC and ST candidates depends on their population in a district. Political reservation for the OBC community only started in 1994, after an amendment to the 1961 Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act to include 27% reservation in local bodies. This, even though OBC communities make up more than 50% of the state’s population.

In many districts, especially those where tribal communities were more populous, the combined reservation of all three communities — SC, ST and OBC — often exceeded the 50% cap set by a nine-judge bench of the apex court in 1992.

The MVA government’s September 24 ordinance will allow SC and ST communities to continue receiving the population-based reservation, while OBC communities will receive reservations up to 27%, such that all reservations remain within the 50% ceiling.

“Soon after the SC verdict on OBC reservation, we suggested bringing the ordinance so that it can be restored within 50% ceiling, but the ministers were not convinced with the idea as they didn’t want to take a risk of losing a single seat of the community in the polls. But they could not understand the fact that it was better than depriving the entire community of reservation benefits in the local bodies’ polls,” said a senior official.

This is the first time that Maharashtra is conducting such a survey to chart the population of the OBC community. According to political experts, this may create another political issue for the Uddhav Thackeray government as the OBC community may demand an increase in the reservation quota of 27% in case their population is found to be significantly higher.

“Once it is clear that the population of the community has increased from 52%, then they may demand a hike in reservation quota, which may create fresh trouble for the MVA government as no ruling party would dare to upset the community and the Opposition party in the state — the Bharatiya Janata Party — will also try to capitalise the situation by pushing their demand aggressively,” said political analyst Hemant Desai.

But Maharashtra has already attempted to deflect any political pushback and pass the onus on to the Centre: On July 5, the state government passed a resolution to demand that the Centre bring about a constitutional amendment and remove the 50% ceiling on reservations.

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    Faisal is with the political team and covers state administration and state politics. He also covers NCP.

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