For India’s sake enforce the 50% cap on quotas, don’t dilute it

Supreme Court’s move to examine whether to review the 1992 Indra Sawhney verdict capping reservations at 50% calls for caution. Far from correcting historical injustices, reservations have become a competitive subdivision of shrinking opportunities. While merit doesn’t factor in socio-economic inequalities that prevent many people from attaining their potential, no society can progress if merit gets the short shrift. In that respect, Indra Sawhney attempted to balance the right to equality and state’s prerogative for socio-economic justice with the 50% cap.

Already, Centre and many state governments have breached this cap and aren’t being held to account. The SC proceedings are also witnessing a challenge on grounds of federalism against Article 342A introduced by the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act (2018), which requires presidential (Centre’s) assent for states notifying changes to OBC categories. But the legal hair splitting must also take note of new realities. Slowing economic growth and success of various groups in enlisting under OBC/ SC/ ST categories and easing creamy layer ceilings have created social divides that can’t be solved – but may be worsened – by more reservations.

The yardsticks shifting to absolute, rather than relative, measures of backwardness is allowing dominant communities like Marathas to join the quota mela. In an underdeveloped country like India, pretty much every community can be shown to be backward in some absolute sense. However, quota gains for it can only be at the expense of some other community, perhaps even more backward. This fundamental reality is papered over when Centre and states pander to quota demands. From inclusionary ideals, reserving the majority of opportunities for special groups has morphed into a means of exclusion. 75% reservation of entry level private sector jobs for locals by Haryana government threatens to shrink the job pie and hurt local aspirants by making it difficult to do business in Haryana.

Proponents of nativism and caste identities would do better for their people by working to improve education outcomes in local schools, a major determinant of a person’s worldly prospects. While reforms like GST visualise India as a unified market, burgeoning reservations proceed in the opposite direction by fragmenting the labour market – even as constitutional rights such as right to equality and right to migrate to other states in search of livelihood are denied. The Indra Sawhney judgment cap of 50% on reservations is already very high. It behoves SC to crack the whip in this regard, and bring errant governments in line.


This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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