On 8 January 2019, the Modi government tabled the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill on the last day of the winter parliamentary session. The bill, aiming to grant a 10% quota to the economically weaker sections of the society in government jobs and educational institutions, was introduced by Dr. Thawarchand Gehlot, Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, amid protests by the Samajwadi Party and criticism on the timings of the introduction of the bill by all the other parties. The quota is subject to a maximum of 10% seats for general category, in addition to the existing reservation, thus breaching the 50% cap which has been set by the Supreme Court of India. Citing the Statement of Objects and Reasons for the bill, people from the economically weaker sections of the society have remained excluded from attending the higher educational institutions and public employment as compared to the economically privileged people.
The bill chronicles the eligibility criteria of being counted as “economically backward class” as families having an annual income less than or equal to Rs 8 lakh, households owning an agricultural land of 5 acres or less, people having a residential house of area 1000 square feet or less and lastly, those owning a residential plot of 100 yards or less in a notified municipality or 200 yards or less in a non-notified municipality. Those falling in any of the above categories are eligible for availing the 10% reservation.The move is expected to aid the economically backward section of the society. Those who stand to benefit from it mainly constitute the upper caste Hindus such as Brahmins, Rajputs, Jats, Marathas, Bhumihars, Vaishyas etc., along with minority religions such as Muslims and Christians.
The proposal of such an important Bill on the very last day of the session just prior to the elections has landed it in quite a bit of criticism. The very idea of passing the Bill without much time for dialogue and discussion among the opposition parties seems unconstitutional and deplorable. Although the thought and theory behind the economic reservation is not new and has already been explored by several other governments in due course of history, the implementation has never been successful as both, the Supreme Court and the High Court have time and again rejected economic based reservations in all cases. Therefore, in a manner, this bill challenges the constitutional validity of the idea behind the reservations, in the same way that the 10% quota for the economically backward sections recommended by the Mandal Commission was declared unconstitutional by a nine judge bench.
Next, in 2008, Kerala government decided to reserve 10% seats in graduation and post-graduation courses in government colleges and 7.5% seats in universities for economically poorer sections among the forwards. Similarly, in 2008 and 2015, Rajasthan assembly passed bills to provide a 14% quota to EBCs. Both of these cases are still pending in the Supreme Court. In 2011, Mayawati, the then CM of U.P wrote to the central government, asking for the very same demand. Therefore, in spite of the government facing questions on the hasty nature in which the bill was passed, and criticisms on the fact that it took the government four years before coming up with the bill, thereby declaring it a political gimmick, none of the parties opposed the bill and hence, it passed the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha by a huge majority.
Those building up on the rationale that seats in colleges to courses such as engineering or medical or any other course, should be allotted on the basis of competitive exams or merit, witnessed not one member in the parliament standing up to their idea. Now since the bill proposes to amend certain articles of the constitution, the underline question is, how beneficial will the bill be actually to the poor section of the society? Is the intention behind the bill social inclusion or just another populist measure ahead of the election year?Unfortunately, upon diving deep into the minute details of the bill, it gets quite transparent that the reservation delivers very little concrete benefit. A huge flaw exists in the categorisation of the definition of “economic backwardness”. The annual income cap of 8 lakhs is too high a bar for a developing economy like India.
Had this limit been a lakh or two, then it would have truly accommodated the poorer sections of the society. An annual income of 8 lakhs is officially declared by an individual having a monthly income of nearly 1 lakh which can be considered economically weak in no sense. The numbers of such individuals among tax givers is 30% and the tax giving population of India is about 3%. So, only 1% of the earning population is excluded or not covered under the umbrella of reservation. Having a reservation for 99% of the population eliminates the very need of reservation. Data reveals that only 14% of the population has land measuring 5 acres or more. Consequently, following the definition of “economic backwardness” renders 90% of the population as poor and hence, capable of applying under the quota, as a result of which, they will have 10% of the seats reserved for them in a scenario where they are already getting 25-30% seats without reservation.
This makes the concept of the bill ambiguous and patently absurd. On the above mentioned accounts, it becomes apparent that with four months to go for the general elections, and the government facing defeats in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, such a tactic to appease the vote bank is very likely considering that sections of upper caste have drifted away from the ruling party of late following its urge to gain the votes of backward classes. The opposition also did not oppose the move because of risking the loss of support of a large and influential section of the society. The electoral rationale has pushed the parties to welcome the Bill, despite knowing that the Bill would be challenged in the Supreme Court, and even though the ruling party is opting the path of constitutional amendment to avoid judicial scrutiny, the SC still has the power to avert the amendment and thus, decide the fate of the Bill in the country.
Picture Courtesy- EPW