In an important and welcome development, yesterday a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court upheld the 50% cap on reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. That this ceiling is sacrosanct unless an extraordinary case is made out, was also the essence of the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment by a nine-judge constitution bench, which was challenged but which prevailed. The cap reflects an attempt to balance the state’s prerogative to try to correct historical injustices suffered by some groups, with the right to equal opportunity for all citizens. And given the trend of multiplying demands for reservations, it has great value in returning the focus to actually growing jobs and educational opportunities. Byzantine recuts of a shrinking pie are just eyewash.
So beyond the constitutional dimension, Wednesday’s verdict has political and economic dimensions which actually are at the root of the Maratha reservation legislation that SC quashed for breaching the 50% cap. Following years of lobbying, the Maharashtra government in 2018 enacted a law to provide reservation for the Maratha community despite its social dominance. This law received support from all major political parties. Indeed, when it was introduced in November 2018, it was cleared by both houses of the state legislature on the same day.
Maharashtra is not alone. Similar processes are underway across the country with the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat, and so on. Communities that are considered socially dominant have begun to demand reservation in the backdrop of a weak economy that is not creating enough opportunities for upward mobility. Aspirational India and economic stagnation are incompatible, but populist rhetoric shifts attention from this. For example, states are reserving jobs for locals, which only worsens their growth prospects.
This challenge will be amplified by the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. The second wave of Covid-19 is worsening distress levels. The new round of lockdowns has triggered fresh job losses, even as last year’s reversals are still hurting. A traditional relief package such as RBI’s extra measures of monetary stimulus announced yesterday can at best limit the damage. But a durable solution lies in a coherent set of measures to create more economic opportunities. That’s the only way to arrest the widening of social fissures which accompany each new agitation for reservation. Breaching the 50% cap will impart neither economic dynamism nor social healing.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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