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Creaming the people:Chetan Bhagat

October 3, 2015:The Times of India

In India, we stay away from certain issues in the name of political correctness. Sadly, those are the issues that most need attention. One such contentious issue in India is caste-based reservations. While often dormant in people’s minds, it doesn’t take long for the issue to flare up again. Patel community protests in Gujarat are an example. They attracted so many people that the state government had to ban internet and SMS services to contain the wildfire. While protests may have stopped spilling over on the streets for now, the issue remains in people’s hearts.

You cannot ban the internet every time. If at all the protests had a lesson, it is that the current reservation policy, although well intentioned when it was formulated, needs a relook. This is exactly what RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat suggested when he asked for a review of reservation policies so they become fairer.

Of course, his comment was seen as a political mistake. It may help consolidate the anti-BJP dalit vote in Bihar. Hence it is no surprise that nobody from BJP or any other party actually concurred with the RSS supremo’s view.

However, we must factor in the longterm interest of the nation. We must also have a reservation policy that best achieves the primary objective – to have a fairer, more equal society. We must also accept that reservation is a short cut. It is a stopgap, artificial albeit quick way to create equality in society.

It doesn’t create opportunity. It simply takes opportunity from someone deserving and hands it to another, purely on the basis of birth. In doing so it divides society, fosters mediocrity and demotivates the talented. Hence, reservation is neither victimless nor costless to society.

Around 50% of enrollment in central government educational institutions as well as government job placements are reserved for OBCs, SCs and STs. OBCs have a concept of creamy layer, where families with incomes of more than Rs 6 lakh per annum cannot be eligible for reservation benefits. This does not apply to SCs and STs.

Historically, and in parts of India even to this date, people from backward castes have been denied opportunity and discriminated against. However, this sentence was valid even in say, 1965. Has nothing changed in the last 50 years? Haven’t these same reservation policies, which were meant to create a fairer society, achieved their goal to a certain extent? Of course things have changed.

One National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes study reveals that SC candidates (not including ST/OBC) comprised around 1% of Class I (the more elite) government jobs in 1965. This share of Class I jobs had increased to 10% of total Class I jobs by 1995. The number is probably higher in 2015.

This dramatic rise of the share of people from backward communities in top government jobs shows the reservation policy has been successful. However, do note that children of these high-grade SC/ST officers still get reservation benefits. This feudal upper class within the SC or ST category will inherit the benefits of growing up in an affluent environment from their previous generations and also be eligible for a quota like any other below poverty line SC/ST candidate.

The cream in the creamy layer is only going to get thicker, denying benefits to the truly needy. The solution lies in linking reservation benefits to something more quantifiable as an indicator of denied opportunity – income.

Household income is a pretty good indicator of whether a child in that house would have had the opportunity to study for an IIT or prepare for IAS as much as a middle and upper class student. It also seems fair.

What is wonderful about having economic criteria is that as per capita incomes rise, the pool of people eligible for reservation will automatically decline. We may even see a day when we won’t need reservation at all.

Today technology allows us to measure, track and monitor household income like never before. Imagine an India where your caste was irrelevant, only your talent mattered, and if you were born to a poor family, you would get help to develop your talent. That seems like a much fairer India than now, where a list of castes gets reservation, and so-called upper castes kill themselves to fight for the leftover seats.
Some argue that reservation is not only for economic uplift but also to increase the social status of a caste. But a better solution is to eliminate the caste system.

Don’t use it in government. Let society look down on people who enquire about someone else’s caste. If we can make it illegal to make disparaging comments about people from the northeast or backward castes, why not make it illegal to talk about caste?

Most of the world operates very well without caste. Surnames just need to be names, they don’t have to place you in society. What use is the caste system today anyway?

Enough has changed and the time has come to recast reservations. Modern technology allows us to do so. If we don’t do it, the youth from who we steal opportunities in the name of fairness won’t like it. You don’t create fairness by doing something unfair.

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