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Opinion The Modi government’s new affirmative action plan is absurd and unworkable

In just 10 years after the start of India’s life as an independent republic, its scheduled castes and tribes — historically persecuted communities — would no longer need the affirmative action policy of reserving seats for them in India’s parliament and legislative bodies.

Or so hoped Bhimrao Ambedkar, the country’s first law minister, whose unsparing indictment of entrenched social hierarchies and personal battle against caste-based untouchability made him a messiah for India’s Dalits.

Seventy years on, not just has political reservation of seats not been phased out — quotas have been reduced to the worst sort of competitive populism. The constant expansion of the affirmative action policy to a wider and wider base has diluted the historicity of the prejudice that Indian Dalits and Adivasis have faced. A new blow came this week from the Narendra Modi government, which announced a 10 percent quota in government jobs and educational institutions for those who are “economically weak” and not entitled to reservations. Nearly 50 percent of positions in government-run higher educational institutions, public sector companies and government services are “reserved” or kept aside for candidates from caste groups that are seen to be marginalized or disadvantaged.

This is in addition to a fixed number of parliamentary seats reserved for electoral contests between candidates who are Dalit or from a Scheduled Tribe. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants employment and education quotas to be extended to those who are not from any of these caste groups but are poor.

Technically, the quotas are applicable to all religions. In truth, the BJP passed the legislation — which amends the Indian Constitution — with both eyes on the next elections scheduled in May. It is seeking to appease its core voter base of “upper caste” Hindus who, even when poor, have not experienced systematic social prejudice or discrimination.

The original philosophy behind the reservation policy was social justice. Affirmative action is not meant to be a poverty-alleviation program. If the government had mooted a social security program or a universal basic income scheme, instead of quotas for the economically weak, that would have been absolutely understandable. But to conflate caste and class, as the new policy does, is to ignore the privilege that “upper caste” Hindus have enjoyed for centuries.

As a country and a society we needed to compensate for the horrors of caste stratification. We have denied Dalits basic dignity, entry to places of worship, even access to water in the village well. Just the accident of birth has imprisoned millions of Indians in preordained jobs — cobblers, tanners, sweepers, bathroom cleaners, rat-catchers, sewer cleaners — all critical roles but considered too dirty for other castes to do. Even in educated, urban homes, a separate water tumbler is often kept aside in the kitchen for the man or woman who sweeps the floors.

A Dalit woman whose job it is to clean human waste from dry toilets told me that her employers considered her too impure to even shake hands with. Her monthly fee was flung at her feet. Headlines constantly bring home the atrocities Dalits still have to face. Whether it’s the story of a Dalit bridegroom who was forced off a horse because upper-caste men in his town felt that this right is reserved only for them, or the chilling account of Dalit tanners who were beaten for skinning a dead cow — we are nowhere near the basic social equality our constitution promised.

“The 10 percent quota decision reverses the very logic of reservation,” the Dalit writer Chandra Bhan Prasad told me. “Reservation was never meant to tackle questions of class. Reservation is aimed at social desegregation. Do they want to replace the caste-based reservation with class-based reservation and halt the march of the Dalit middle class? After all, Dalits on a donkey’s back are cheered. Dalits on horseback are feared.”

Apart from its shaky philosophical edifice, the new legislation is cynical because even the government knows it is entirely unworkable. The newly minted model will be most likely struck down by Indian courts. India’s judiciary has ruled that no more than half the seats in a government job or institute can be reserved. The additional 10 percent quotas being pushed by the Modi government will take this up to almost 60 percent.

Yes, it is probably smart short-term politics — the move caught Modi’s political opponents unaware and the debate in Parliament showed up their cowardice. Myopic electoral calculations forced many of them to support the legislation. But it is still completely untenable.

The policy sets the threshold for “economically weak” at a household income of below 8 lakh or 800,000 rupees, or roughly $11,300, per year. Studies show that an estimated 90 to 95 percent of households earn less than that. It is absurd to have a policy that entitles the vast majority of Indians to economic affirmative action. Besides, where are these government jobs?

India lost an estimated 11 million jobs in 2018, many of them among the most vulnerable groups in rural areas: women, small traders, farmworkers and daily wage laborers. Unemployment rates are at a 27-month high.

The jobs crisis — which is where the government’s attention should be — has led traditionally dominant caste groups to agitate for reservation. Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Rajasthan or Patels in Gujarat have all taken to the street in recent years, with local politicians backing their demands. The Pandora’s box was first opened in 1990 when Prime Minister V.P. Singh ordered the implementation of what is known as the Mandal commission report, which extended the benefits of affirmative action to include Other Backward Classes (OBCs), lower and intermediate castes.

And now in 2019, the Modi government has come up with a ludicrous and impractical policy announcement that makes a mockery of the first principle of affirmative action.

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