Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jan 14, 2019
The bill has to be a constitutional amendment as it overshoots the Supreme Court's 50% cap on quotas and takes the total to 60%.
Who will gain from 10% reservation for EWS? On 9 January, the Parliament, in a record time, approved the 124th constitutional amendment bill to provide reservation in jobs and education for the economically weaker sections, including upper castes. Majority of the political parties extended their support to the government move. The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha by a majority of 323 votes with only three votes against it. Similarly, the Rajya Sabha too adopted it with a 165-7 count. Majority of the parties supported the bill, though they raised accusing fingers at the government on its timing and intention. On 7 January, when the two Houses of Parliament sat for the day’s business, there was a buzz in the central hall. Social media had broken the news that the BJP led NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was going to introduce a constitutional amendment bill the next day in the Lok Sabha to provide 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions for the economically weaker sections of the society. The immediate reaction of majority of those present around noontime in the central hall, including that of some of the MPs of the ruling party, was that the move was good but its timing was wrong. The move has been popularly perceived as a “desperate” attempt to woo non-Dalit and non-OBC voters for the coming Lok Sabha elections. The Modi government, after the defeat of the BJP in the recently held assembly elections in five States, particularly in the Hindi-speaking States of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, decided to offer a sop of 10 per cent quota for upper castes that had voted against the party.

The move has been popularly perceived as a “desperate” attempt to woo non-Dalit and non-OBC voters for the coming Lok Sabha elections.

In the early 1990s, an effort by the Narasimha Rao government to provide 10 per cent reservation to poor or economically backward among other sections to offset the political backlash against the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations was nullified by the Supreme Court. The bill has to be a constitutional amendment as it overshoots the Supreme Court's 50 per cent cap on quotas and takes the total to 60 per cent. Any increase from that limit will be subject to judicial scrutiny. Though law experts and legal luminaries of the ruling party, like Union Ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, have asserted that the 124th constitutional amendment bill will pass the legal test, other non-partisan experts are of the view that it may face several legal hurdles and may not pass the apex court green signal. A nine-judge Supreme Court bench in the ‘Indira Sawhney’ case had pronounced that reservation is a remedy for the historical discrimination and its continuing ill effects. The court had also observed that reservation is not targeted at economic uplift or poverty alleviation. Further, it is doubtful whether the government has verifiable and quantifiable data to show that people from lower income groups are under-represented in its services. The government move comes in the backdrop of an upper caste backlash against the Modi government’s decision against the Supreme Court’s attempt at ring-fencing apprehensions of misuse of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Supreme Court move had sparked nation-wide protests from Dalit groups across the country after which the government brought a legislation in the last monsoon session to nullify the SC order.

The government move comes in the backdrop of an upper caste backlash against the Modi government’s decision against the Supreme Court’s attempt at ring-fencing apprehensions of misuse of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

The government, however, wants to make a distinction between economic and social reservation. The Supreme Court's limit is for social reservation. It may be legally complicated but the move serves the purpose of telegraphing the government's commitment to the general population that does not have reservations. However, people at large appear to be suspicious about the government’s intent behind the move. Eligibility criteria laid down in the bill to qualify for the promised reservation are meant not for those who are indeed economically weak. The laid down criteria defines that those having an annual household income of less than eight lakh Rupees or those having agricultural land of less than 5 acres or having a house smaller than 1,000 square feet or have a residential plot smaller than 100 yards in a municipality or a residential plot of less 200 yards in a non-notified municipality are going to be eligible. But such people either belong to lower middle classes or mid-middle classes. Majority of jobs would go to these sections as they have a definite advantage — of having better school education and higher studies.

People at large appear to be suspicious about the government’s intent behind the move. Eligibility criteria laid down in the bill to qualify for the promised reservation are meant not for those who are indeed economically weak.


These sections pay income tax. Economically weak are those who do not pay income tax or are earning not more than two lakhs or in the range of it. In fact, eligibility criteria for ‘economic weakness’ has been devised in such a way that it appears to cover almost all Indians barring the top upper crust of may be three per cent. “It is Modi’s Mandal moment,” a veteran BJP MP from the biggest State of Uttar Pradesh, who has held top posts both in the government as well as in the party, commented. He meant that it is going to result in wiping out of the Prime Minister politically as it had happened with former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh who had accepted the Mandal Commission recommendation that provided 27 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Castes in 1991. This comment may be too harsh but there is a grain of truth in it. Former union minister Yashwant Sinha, who recently quit the BJP, called the move a jumla and tweeted: The decision to bring reservation for economically weak in the general category sounds like an eyewash just before the elections as the government could not create enough jobs for the youth. The latest data released by a Mumbai-based think tank — CMIE — shows that unemployment in December reached at a two-year high level of 7.4 per cent and nearly 11 million people have lost jobs in the last one year — ninety per cent in the rural areas and about 10 per cent in urban areas. The ruling BJP, therefore, is not going to have any political advantage. Upper castes, for whose votes the bill has been brought, are unlikely to be pleased by the empty promises while Dalits and OBC are going to perceive the government move as against them. They may perceive the bill as a government move against them. Hence, according to political analysts, the BJP is neither going to get votes of the upper castes nor that of the Dalits and OBCs. In short, the government move seems to be neither a sound policy nor a smart political move.
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