Why the Maratha quota judgment gets it all wrong
In a significant judgment, the Bombay High Court has upheld the reservation given to the Maratha community. It has brought down the quantum of reservation from 16%, as determined by the state assembly, to 12-13%. But the fact that it has deemed the quota legitimate and valid will come as a major source of relief to the community, which had been agitating for affirmative action benefits. It will also bring cheer to the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government, which took the decision in response to the movement, and will hope to reap political dividends in the upcoming Assembly elections. The HC judgment means that Maharashtra will now have 64-65% reservation in education and government jobs, second only to Tamil Nadu, which has 69%.
The judgment may well be challenged in the Supreme Court. But it should make the political class pause and think about what reservations have come to mean. Originally envisaged as a temporary tool to uplift India’s most marginalised communities — Dalits and tribals — and create a level playing field, reservations slowly became an instrument of displaying and seeking political power. From social justice, its objectives expanded. It became a policy device against backwardness, for employment creation, even power-sharing.
In recent years, erstwhile dominant communities — Marathas, Jats, Patidars — launched movements seeking a share of the reservation pie. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of these movements — the crisis in agriculture; limited educational opportunities; the lack of jobs in the formal economy — the political elite decided to take the short-cut and provide quotas. Maharashtra did it for Marathas. And the Centre did it, right before elections, by providing 10% reservations to those in the general category, through a constitutional amendment which bypassed the 50% bar on quotas set by the Supreme Court. Given the fact that government jobs are shrinking, there is overwhelming competition for seats in public educational institutions, and only a few from any community can actually avail the benefits of quotas, reservations are no panacea. Unfortunately, India’s political establishment, across party lines, does not have the courage to confront this truth.