The patel agitation has reignited the anti-reservationists. The anti-reservationists thrive on popular, superfluous, ahistorical arguments about merit, justice and the state. The demand by well-off communities like Patels, Jats and others has created a sort of desert storm - that everyone deserves reservation. I will take up the following principal ahistorical arguments against SC/ST reservation and counter them. The main focus is reservation in government employment here.
1. General category students feel discriminated when SC/ST with lower marks get the seat.
2. Merit is inherently good and should be the governing principle.
3. Economic criteria is better than caste criteria.
1. When do you feel discriminated. People do not feel discriminated in a lottery when a single person gets lots of money to the exclusion of all others because everybody has a equal chance to that jackpot. That's why recruitment without reservation is considered discriminatory because everybody does not have an equal chance.
A popular argument is that an upper caste student does not get a seat in spite of securing more marks than an SC/ST student. This may be valid, but only partially even if we assume that the background of both is the same. Let's assume a hypothetical situation where all candidates have same background. The upper caste student who has not got the seat because an SC/ST with lower marks has got the seat has 3 more avenues to blame. He could have secured more marks and got the seat like the other upper caste students, with same background. Statistically speaking, he has at least 3 times chance as general quota is 50 and SC is 15. If the reserved seats were potentially his, the general seats also were. Second, he also could have got the seat if the total number of seats was more. So s/he can blame the government for this. Lastly, he can also blame his Karma and reconcile; after all, who can the SC/ST students, who do not get seats, blame!
When you succeed, you take the credit; when you fail, you can blame everything in this world. This happens practically too. It is possible that in the first attempt an upper caste fails in the civil service examination and blames reservation. In the 2nd attempt, he gets a lower rank but now blames only himself, but in the third attempt he gets into IAS. Now no more need to blame anyone, only to take the credit for himself or for others like his parents. Somewhere else a coaching institute takes credit for the success. This also shows that merit, even though not present in the present, can appear in the future.
Apart from this, does an exam test merit for a job? If the exam was testing the merit for a job then why is there training before the job? This means that the examination was more of a fair allocation mechanism than about merit for the job.
2A - Is merit inherently good? Some say, there can not be anything like good terrorism. Similarly, there can not be anything like bad merit. However, popular discourse is full of merit gone wrong. The lawyer who can make false as true and true as false before the court, the computer hacker, the CA who can make black money as white and makes the least tax liability, the marketing man who can sell fridge to the Eskimo, the HR who can break the union- all these are cases of merit gone wrong or bad merit. In fact, the whole gamut of 'white collar crime' is basically merit gone wrong. Normally merit is defined as ability plus effort. But a third criteria is implicit- intention. The only problem is that there is no examination to figure out intention. It can be known only post facto. Only after that a corrupt official is removed.
Second, pure merit without fair allocative mechanism will lead to a heredity system rather than an egalitarian one. Who else can be more meritorious for an IAS job than the son of an IAS who has some insights into the job from the inside. The father may also coach him. This must be happening to some extent but under respective categories of SC/ST, OBC and general quota. We can see what will happen if we remove reservation. Wherever pure merit without a fair allocative mechanism prevails heredity rules; for example film industry, politics, business. Therefore merit worshipers are worshiping a false god.
2B - Group merit and representation ceiling.The merit discourse follows a Rambo approach to merit- a deus ex machina that saves the day. Barbara Kellerman's book, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business Press, 2008) tries to correct the one sided view that, leader is everything and followers are nothing. What is required in a group is a team player rather than who believes in going alone. When we talk about bureaucracy, it is about group merit rather than individual merit.
In a limited pie scenario underrepresentation of some is integrally related to overrepresentation of some. This is the logic of land ceiling. Watch is kept over 'dominance abuse' in the market. It is the government which checks the dominance abuse in the market; but who will check the dominance abuse within the government? Some say that reservation has not brought desired results. The explanation by the SC/ST is that they are not its principal implementers. If an upper caste secretary of social justice will be holding grudge against reservation, how will he implement it wholeheartedly! Sufficient representation, which can be more than pro rata, is alright. But when sufficiency transforms to dominance it has to be checked.
The first merit of a group has to be representativeness. Somebody has said 'good government is no substitute for self government'. How can people say 'our government' when only a few sections are dominant! The dominance of few in a group distorts its actions. The Punjabi dominance in Pakistan, the Jew dominance in USA – all these distorted their actions. The first contributed partially to its own break-up. The second continues to be partially responsible for the misery of Palestine. In India, under representation of certain communities in the police make it behave in a certain way.
3A- Is economic criteria better? Some argue that since everybody is asking reservation in the name of caste let's have reservation on economic basis. But poverty in India is not a variable but constant. Except few, everybody is poor. Therefore even under economic criteria everybody will demand reservation.
But the ulterior motive of proposing economic criteria could be its susceptibility to fraud and manipulation. Even caste certificate is frauded. But it has an inbuilt disincentive. An upper caste has to pay the social ignominy to pass off as a SC/ST. When we propose certain criteria we have to see the probability to fraud. India's high rank in Global Corruption Index show the probability of corruption. Vyapam shows the sophistication. Economic criterion will be easily frauded. This is evident by the fact that only 4% pay income tax in India compared to 30-40% in developed countries. Income Tax department periodically issues warnings. The size of black economy which is considered equal to the formal economy is a proof of this. Periodic amnesty schemes for black money is the admission of the difficulty to control the economic criteria. Income changes from moment to moment. Even if someone has 50 acres of land, can keep it fallow for one year, show the minimal income for that year, thus will be eligible for reservation. How can reservation, which is relatively stable, be based on something fluctuating like economic criteria!
Theoretically caste is considered 'particularistic' and economic criteria like income are considered 'universalistic' because it can cut across gender, caste, religion etc. it is considered ethically superior because of this feature. However, it is this very feature that can become its nemesis. Any measurement method is meaningless if it is prone to error beyond certain level. While the error on caste criteria can be of undeserving groups muscling in, that on economic criteria will be of undeserving individuals. The error in income criteria will always be more than caste because individuals are always more than groups. The error on economic criteria can be theoretically 100%, as even a millionaire can give away all his money and become a pauper deserving reservation.
The litmus test for the economic criteria will be a hypothetical comparison between a Brahmin and SC/ST daily wage laborer. Assuming there is one job (assuming scarcity), who should the job go to? Assuming that the external social world is discrimination free, the difference remains of their inner 'contentment'. The brahmin at least has the self satisfaction of being born into the highest caste while the SC/ST will be cursing himself of being born into the lowest caste. He is doubly cursed - economically, socially.
How can exclusive economic criteria take care of caste discrimination? When a father can kill his own daughter in the name of caste honor, how can we assume that there can't be any caste discrimination even if the income remains the same for upper and lower caste candidates. There is a chance that the upper caste selector may favor an upper caste compared to a lower caste having same economic background in an interview. The macro effect of exclusive economic criterion would be that upper castes, albeit poor, will capture the present reserved seats in a manipulated game of merit.
Exclusive economic criteria portrays as if government jobs are only about livelihood, not power. A government job has 3 aspects- livelihood to the holder, service to people and governing people which involves power. An IAS job is not merely one individual's livelihood. It is a job affecting others' livelihood. A police inspector's job is not only about his/her livelihood but about justice for others as well. Those who portray economics as everything forget that Muslims and SC/ST may not get houses in certain areas even if they have the money.
SC/ST reservation is not only about material compensation or representation but also an apology from upper castes that assuages the humiliation of SC/ST for the historic oppression. When reservation is abrogated, not only the extremely modest reparation vanishes but also it makes seem as if nothing happened in the last 2000 years. This aspect is not substitutable by caste neutral economic criteria.
Even if reservation is completely abolished there would still be poor brahmins unemployed. What then? Liberal frameworks do not guarantee 'right to work'. That is done by socialist framework. Those who are shouting for economic criteria, are they ready for this?
3B- Industry, trade, big agriculture- the real damads – SC/ST are lampooned as damads of government. But there are other damads of Government. The first and foremost is the industrialist who gets land, power, mineral resource, finance at cheap rates. Import of capital equipment is duty free. There might be a tax holiday on the income. After many years the loan may become NPA because the meritorious Chartered Accountant might have proved that the company was making loss for past 10 years. The second damad is the big agriculturist having hundreds of acres of land; may be half of it benami. The landed agriculturist gets water, electricity for free or at very cheap rate. He also gets fertilizer subsidy. The MSP is there to take care of the produce defying the market. To top it all, even if the income can be substantial, there is no income tax on agricultural income. There is a chance of loan waiver after some time. This could be the reason why the Patels have become so strong. SC/ST have very little presence in industry, trade, big agriculture and many other spheres like cooperatives. Reservation will eclipse compared to what concession/subsidy government gives to these damads. But the SC/ST are lampooned to have the habit of eating free.
It is some of these powerful groups, who having benefited immensely from the post independence subsidy economy, are now saying - reservation is our right, we are going to snatch it. When dalit adivasi say that jal, jangal, zamin is our right, we are going to take it, then they are told to adopt constitutional democratic means. Some have to abide by the constitution and some are above the constitution.
3C- Caste ++ criteria - A variant of economic argument is what can be called caste ++ argument - caste along with economic and other criteria to better target the most marginalised among the dalit. The repercussion will be prevention of elite formation within the SC/ST. But the larger repercussion of such exclusive measure only with respect to SC/ST category to the exclusion of general category will be - (1) power imbalance in the society (2) injustice to non-elite upper caste. The elite-targeting assumes that the role of elite can only be bad, not good. Ambedkar became an elite (in terms of knowledge, not money or power) through the help of another elite the - Gaikwad of Baroda. But certainly he did immeasurable good to the lower castes. Usually it is the elite upper caste who oppress the non-elite SC/ST and it is the elite SC/ST who come to the aid. Without the SC/ST elite, reservation will be in danger as reservation sustains not only through arguments but through balance of power.
Conclusion- SC/ST category is the pivot of the constitution- In India, reservations alone do not define the SC/ST category. There is a whole constitutional and government architecture built on the category of SC/ST - political reservation, untouchability (Art 17), 5th schedule, 6th schedule, commission for SC and ST, education and employment reservation, Special Component Plan, Atrocities Act etc. The judiciary has to decide whether these are part of basic structure or not before proceeding to change it. All these are linked together by one rationale that there are some sections of society requiring special measure for some very concrete reasons. When protection to the weak is abolished then the eminent domain becomes the eminent demon. The social contract becomes null and void. Abolition of the category will create a chain reaction, the end result of which will simply be catastrophic. After the big architecture of reservation is gone, it will be a minor matter to finish off article 29 for minorities, the personal laws, any special provision for Jammu Kashmir etc. Two countries will be happy about the chaos- Pakistan, China.
Dr Sthabir Khora is Associate Professor in the School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His book "Education and Teacher Professionalism" (2011, Jaipur: Rawat Publications) is recommended reading in the M.Ed Syllabus of Punjabi University, Patiala.