An alternative to reservation

By Rajiv Shah
Last evening, I was a little put off for a while. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, and new Gujarat BJP chief Vijay Rupani (whom I had known as a relatively more suave politician among many of his ilk) told media that the Gujarat government would provide 10 percent reservation to dominant castes having income less than Rs 6 lakh.
It wasn’t reservation, already a contentious issue, which seemed to bother me immediately, as much as the figure, Rs 6 lakh. I wondered: Does it mean that a tax payer should be allowed reservation?
As expected, in his one-upmanship, Congress’ opposition leader Shankarsinh Vaghela, an ex-BJP man, came up with the demand to raise the reservation limit to 20 per cent, and the income limit to Rs 12 lakh! What he was demanding was simply amazing. Many class one officers of the Gujarat government, except a few in the IAS, would be “allowed” reservation.
I desperately searched for reaction. A scribe, who passionately covered the reservation roller coaster as a spot story, told me straight, “The BJP is rattled by what Vaghela’s statement” I was even more puzzled, but was left wondering…
What has gone wrong? While one can understand politics “determining” policy, is there no value of the need to study, or at least understand, as to who among the dominant castes should, if at all, get reservation? After all, who doesn’t know, even if driven by the then political considerations, there was a Mandal Commission, which studied what are called socially and economically backward classes (SEBCs) before providing OBC reservation.
And here we have a Patidar agitation, forcing a quick announcement – with an eye on the still far off Gujarat state assembly polls (December 2017) – about providing reservation to the so-called upper castes. It doesn’t need any great analytical insight to conclude that, while the BJP fears it would lose Patel support, Congress wants to cash on it.
This wasn’t for the first time that I came across a lurking gap between research and policy. The gap, if anything, has widened, to the point where our policy makers don’t think they need scholars to make them understand, on the basis of deep research, what should be done, and where, particularly when the issue at stake is reservation.
There is, of course, the view taken by many Gujarat-based academics, such as Prof Vidyut Joshi, a sociologist who headed the once-prestigious Institute of Social Studies, Surat, about what they call “collapse of academics”, more so in Gujarat than other places.
But here we have a situation where, even for the heck of it, the academics are not even consulted – forget studying the issue in depth – on what should be done for providing, if at all, reservation to the “upper” castes.
Not that they were consulted earlier. As Prof Samit Barua, ex-director, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad and a top financial expert, told me once – the state government “never” consulted him on state finances. Things became worse as things passed. A Rs 6,000 plus crore project, Sujalam Sufalam, of having a recharge canal across North Gujarat’s non-Narmada command area, was implemented without any pre-feasibility or feasibility study.
Coming back to reservation, not that there is any dearth of ideas among researchers and activists with an academic bent of mind. As and when one talks of reservation in Gujarat, I am reminded of a closed door meeting in September 2014 in which a small group of academics and activists participated, in which perhaps I was the only “misfit”.
The discussion was “annihilation of caste”, taking the phrase from Dr BR Ambedkar. Scanning through the minutes of the two-day meeting, I found that the participants – who included Human Rights Watch’s Meenakshi Ganguly and top Gujarat-based social scientist Prof Ghanshyam Shah – agreed, among other things, about the need to have a “relook” at the reservation policy.
To quote from the minutes of the meeting, in which Dalit scholar Meera Velayudhan and Gujarat Dalit rights activist Manjula Pradeep were also present, there is a need to “address the issue of reservation” and work out an “alternative strategy based on vulnerability index, in which manual scavengers, especially women, are the chief focus of attention.”
“As of today, reservation, for all practical purposes, exists for those who have got assets”, the meeting seemed to agree, adding, “Government or semi-government reservation jobs are available for those Dalits who can ensure that their children study up to 10th or 12th standard. However, 90 percent Dalits do not have assets, are simply left out of the reservation policy.”
The minutes further said, the Dalits are “forced to migrate in search of jobs, they work in the informal sector, have no holidays, no health facilities, their children are forced to drop out of schools, and they are uncertain about their future.” The same is true of tribals, who have “lost all their natural resources”, thanks to the “capitalist” onslaught, it added.
Insisting on the need to go “beyond reservation”, it agreed that “it may be important to relook at reservation from the vulnerability framework, which will automatically include the schedule caste but will be more inclusive to others, thereby setting the stage for ‘annihilation of caste’.”
The meeting underscored, “there is a need to advocate for a vulnerability index in order to identify which sections or individuals require the fruits of reservation more than others…this vulnerability index.”
“Among manual scavengers”, the minutes said, “Women are more vulnerable, and their requirement for reservation would be even higher. Correspondingly, Dalit IAS or IPS officers’ share in reservation would not be as high as others.”
Further, “the vulnerability index would also bring out the plight of the nomadic tribes, adivasis, poor Muslims, migrants, victims of forced displacement because of internal violence. It would help bridge the gap that exists in the provision of entitlements between different sections.”
In a nutshell, the minutes said, “There is a need to have a vulnerability index to identify families/ groups/ communities for strategic intervention to change their socio-economic condition.” This vulnerability index would take care of those so-called upper caste persons who should be entitled to reservation, it suggested.
Of course, there exists what is called “a macroeconomic vulnerability index”, in order to gauge economic vulnerability of different countries. There is also a climate change vulnerability index, in order to identify “risks” to exposure to climate-related natural disasters, stress on natural resources, agricultural dependency, and adaptive capacity of a country’s to combat all of it.
Why can’t this be done for society and individuals? After all, none would have any objection to it. Of course, a deep research would need to be carried out. But if below poverty line (BPL) index can be worked out by indexing individuals’ capacity to spend, why can’t one take a step forward, having a social vulnerability index?

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