Can OBC reservations result in social development?

The appointment of lower caste officials can help in breaking down traditional upper caste patronage networks and hence reduce elite capture of government programmes. Caste bias in development projects has been widely documented in various sectors in India. A more representative bureaucracy can also make the State more accessible to a wider population and allow citizens to make demands.
After Prime Minister VP Singh announced reservations for OBCs based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests by upper caste students broke out throughout north India (HT) PREMIUM
After Prime Minister VP Singh announced reservations for OBCs based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests by upper caste students broke out throughout north India (HT)
Updated on Oct 15, 2021 11:38 PM IST
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ByPoulomi Chakrabarti

The affirmative action debate has always been riddled by the question of merit versus social justice. Critics of reservations argue that admission to public employment should be based on performance. In response, activists have rightly questioned the meaning of merit in a society as unequal as ours.

Political observers have written about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) reluctance to count Other Backward Classes (OBCs), fearing Mandal 2.0, a new wave of OBC mobilisation that could benefit regional parties. Data-inclined commentators have raised important issues regarding the vast class divide within OBCs and the possible implications of the census in restructuring the quota system.

These are all valid questions. But can reservations in public employment help development? Public servants, after all, are expected to work towards the public good.

Let us begin with some historical context. The term OBC goes back to the Madras Presidency in the 1870s. The British administration combined Shudras and Untouchable castes under the label “backward classes” to identify non-Brahmins. Untouchables were reclassified as Scheduled Caste (SC) in the 1935 Government of India Act.

After Independence, the Indian government continued to use this classification for affirmative action policies for SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs). The Constitution had, at least in principle, also resolved to make provisions for OBCs. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that “OBC” transformed from an abstract administrative category to a politically salient group.

After Prime Minister VP Singh announced reservations for OBCs based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests by upper caste students broke out throughout north India. Some scholars have argued that the emergence of the BJP as a strong electoral force during this period reflects an “elite revolt” against the rise of lower castes. Counter-mobilisation by the otherwise fragmented Shudras consolidated OBC politics, in what Yogendra Yadav referred to as India’s “second democratic upsurge”. OBC political representation increased significantly in the 1990s as a result. Parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party (SP) grew significantly with this “Mandalisation” of politics — which is what the BJP may be fearing now with the new caste census.

Not unlike trends of political representation, the sharpest increase in OBC reservations took place after 1993, following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Currently all states have some level of quotas for OBCs in public employment. What has been impact of such quotas on development?

We generally think of OBC reservations as a form of patronage. But public servants are the main individuals involved in the implementation of government programmes. Local bureaucrats are also often the most visible presence of the State in citizens’ lives. Their inability or unwillingness to design and enforce development projects can have important implications in determining the success of policies of the political class. I am currently working on my first book on how caste-based mobilisation has shaped development in India. Some findings from the research may be relevant to the current debate.

I examined the relationship between caste-based representation and public spending patterns in all major states from 1960 to 2012. Governments can choose to distribute their limited resources in either economic or social sectors. Economic sectors, such as industry, ports and highways generally support economic growth by attracting private investment. Social sectors such as education, health care, and social security promote the welfare of the masses. I studied the factors that affect redistribution, measured as the proportion of developmental budget that goes into social sectors.

Contrary to expectation, I found that both SC and OBC political representation are not associated with redistributive spending. But places with higher OBC political representation and higher OBC reservation in the bureaucracy are more likely to spend more in social sectors. Why might this be?

The interaction between legislature and bureaucracy remains a black box in the social sciences, but I have some insights from Bihar, where I carried out my research for many years. The appointment of lower caste officials can help in breaking down traditional upper caste patronage networks and hence reduce elite capture of government programmes. Caste bias in development projects has been widely documented in various sectors in India. A more representative bureaucracy can also make the State more accessible to a wider population and allow citizens to make demands.

Recalling the transformation after the RJD appointed more lower caste officials, a Bihar cadre Indian Administrative Service officer, for example, told me, “Lower castes would not have dared to enter the office of the DM (district magistrate) or BDO (block development officer). They thought that if they said something, they would be punished. That changed. Now they have the confidence to raise their voice against the DM. They don’t know if their job will get done, but they can enter his office without fear.”

Concerns of patronage and misgovernance in some states are not without merit, but it is important to note that OBC mobilisation is relatively new in north India and overall, backward castes are still underrepresented in most state governments. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are celebrated as models of social development, but the politics of these states was mired in what was dismissed as “identity politics” for decades. In the southern states, concerns for group-based and representational demands gradually gave way to a broad welfare agenda and an inclusive civil society over the long-term. Maybe we can expect the same in the north?

Poulomi Chakrabarti is an assistant professor in the department of political studies, Queen’s University, and a postdoctoral fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022