As the current academic year of Delhi University draws to a close, on the agenda are the issues of implementing the 27% reservation for OBCs in admissions as well as in teaching posts. While the policy of 27% quota for OBCs in admissions to Central Government funded institutions is recent, the reservation for OBCs in teaching posts originates from the policy that came into force in 1993 after the Supreme Court with some qualifications upheld its constitutional validity. As had happened with the policy for SC/ST reservation, which was finally implemented in Delhi University only in 1996, there has also been a delay in implementing OBC reservation in teaching posts with the UGC decision for this having been taken only in December 2006.

There have been serious differences of opinion within the teaching community with regard to the desirability of reservation. As a result, the teachers’ movement has so far not been able to forge a unified approach to this extremely important question. But the fact that this has been the case in the past need not mean that it should always be so and therefore dialogue and discussion within the community must continue. It is with that objective that the DTF offers its perspective on the issue and why it is imperative that the system of reservations be supported.

The Background to Reservation

Reservations, whether for SC/STs or for OBCs, follow from the objectives and provisions of the Indian Constitution, which direct the State to secure and protect “a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life”. The framers of the Constitution were conscious that a just social order did not exist but was something that had to be attained. As Ambedkar noted on the eve of the adoption of the Constitution:

“On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

[Dr. B.R. Ambedkar]

Over the last six decades since Independence, India’s rulers have failed to seriously address the root causes of the extreme social and economic iniquities that plague our society and hold back its progress – the iniquities in the control over productive assets; oppression associated with the age-old hierarchical caste system; and the limited opportunities for education and gainful employment. Rather, India’s post-independence development itself has had a highly iniquitous character, and its iniquities have been layered over the existing iniquities inherited from the past – both reinforcing them as well as working through them.

While the caste-system may not exist in the same form as in the past, the unequal economic structure of contemporary India has provided a thriving ground for the perpetuation of caste consciousness and caste prejudice. These not only reflect themselves in daily incidents of caste atrocities but also permeate the institutions and structures of even the modern Indian State, influencing their working. The iniquities of the system also narrow the social base from which are drawn the people who man these institutions and structures, thereby also perpetuating caste prejudice. That the victims of oppression feel a deep sense of anger, frustration and resentment is therefore entirely understandable.

Ours is not a society where merit counts above anything else in deciding the winners and the losers because most are excluded from the opportunity to develop their innate merit by the circumstances of their birth. The few, who manage to partially overcome these barriers, still have to face walls of prejudice at every stage. In effect therefore, the limited available opportunities are reserved for the relatively privileged minority that goes by the euphemism of the ‘general category’ and is drawn from a narrow spectrum of Indian society.

It is in such a background that one has to assess the issue of reservations and define one’s position towards it.

Reservation is only a Minimalist Measure

Reservations do not fundamentally address the problem of India’s underprivileged because only a few can benefit from it. But even without succumbing to any such illusion, one cannot deny the stark fact that reservations however are virtually the only concession the rulers of this country have made to the yearning for equality and social justice of the majority of the Indian people. That, and that alone, is sufficient reason for supporting the system of reservations. Opposing even this minimalist measure makes any claim of commitment to the constitutional objective of securing economic and social justice for all sound extremely hollow. That is why all political parties, including those like the BJP which are steeped in casteist ideology, are constrained to support the policy of reservations.

A question is often asked – how long will reservations continue? The more appropriate question is how long will state policies to address social injustice remain limited to minimalist measures like reservations? Reservation will not go until the need for it disappears, and that requires more fundamental changes in the social and economic structure. The real fight has to be for these changes, and not against reservations.

Liberalization and the Issue of Reservations

Of late, the issue of reservations in the private sector has also arisen. The main reason for this is that under liberalisation, the development trajectory has revealed itself as one that offers great scope for upward mobility to a small minority of the population while completely shutting out others. Most of the few substantive employment opportunities have emerged mainly in the private sector while employment in the public sector has stagnated or declined. The limited effects of reservation in the public sector have thus been further curtailed.

The very same context also lies behind the extension of reservations for OBCs in admissions to Central Government funded educational institutions because entry into these institutions is often the basis for access to many of the new kinds of jobs. Seen in the context of the country as a whole, this opening is in fact relatively small. Reservations for SCs and STs in admissions have existed for a long time in these institutions and also for OBCs in most states. The current extension therefore only removes an anomaly: there was reservation for OBCs in Central Government employment but not in admissions.

The “Creamy Layer” Issue

Within the larger debate on reservation, the question of the “creamy layer” has been controversial. The Supreme Court, in its Mandal Judgement, had ruled that the OBC reservation should exclude the creamy layer following which criteria were worked out for determining the exclusions. More recently, the Supreme Court has opined that such exclusion be also applied to SC/ST reservation. Opposition to reservations has also been based on the ground that only an undeserving creamy layer benefits from it. At the same time, those on the other side have argued that the creamy layer concept is a convenient method of sabotaging reservations.

The creamy layer concept can be said to have validity only when two conditions are satisfied. The first is that within the castes/communities which are granted reservation, there is an upper stratum that do not need the benefit of reservation and will be the ones to monopolise all its benefits unless specifically excluded. That in turn requires the second condition that economic status provides a reasonable antidote to social discrimination.

Neither of these conditions can be said to be applicable to the case of reservation for SCs/STs, who have historically been subject to the most extreme forms of social oppression, discrimination, and exclusion, and by virtually every other segment of society. Any system of exclusion on the basis of economic status therefore cannot be applied to SC/ST reservation.

There is a case, however, for such exclusion in the case of the OBC reservation provided however that the creamy layer is not interpreted so broadly as to include all or most of those who could fulfil the requirements for availing reservation. The desirability for such exclusion, whose objective is the wider distribution of the benefits of reservation, is enhanced by an additional reason: the proportion of reservation for OBCs is lower than their share in population.

It is also true that economic deprivation per se, irrespective of caste or community background, also limits access to education and jobs. This concern too can be addressed in the system of reservations by an additional reservation for the economically deprived.

The Dubious Role of the University Administration

The track record of the present University Administration gives rise to genuine apprehension that it may find excuses to delay the lawful implementation of the reservation provisions. It has yet not placed the UGC Guidelines for Strict Implementation for SC/ST Reservation for deliberation and decision in the AC & the EC. In fact, the Administration has been running the University without any AC meeting since May 2006. The erratic behaviour of the University Administration in first mindlessly following the UGC directive and then equally mindlessly doing an about turn has created a situation where colleges are under pressure from the UGC.

The DTF has been demanding that the matter be brought to the AC & EC and the principle of distributing reserved positions across subjects /departments proportionately be upheld while the college/university can be the unit for the purpose of calculating the number of reserved vacancies. The delay in sorting out the matter can lead to imposition of an arbitrary system. It should be also made clear to the University administration that the roster system for the OBC has to be the same as that for the SC/ST since the directive from the UGC in this regard is accompanied by a copy of the roster that was applicable in 1993. The University should not create a further mess by having two kinds of rosters.

Implement Reservation and Absorb those who have been Teaching for Long

The DTF demands that the reservation scheme be immediately adopted. Such implementation however can have an immediate adverse effect on those who have chosen teaching as a profession but have not yet been absorbed into permanent positions. Along with the implementation of reservation in teaching, the University must also protect the interests of such teachers with years of teaching experience by taking appropriate measures for their absorption.

It is important to note that implementation of OBC reservation in admissions will require a significant increase in teaching posts in order to maintain the quality of instruction. This provides a genuine basis for simultaneously implementing OBC reservation in teaching posts and absorbing those with long years of teaching experience in permanent positions.

OBC Reservation in Admission and the Expansion

The relevant legislative provision for 27% quota in admissions to Central Government funded institutions, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006 was passed by Parliament only recently and received the Presidential assent on 3.1.2007. As per the Act, this reservation is supposed to come into effect in all Central Government institutions from the admissions of 2007 onwards along with a mandatory provision for expansion so that the number of general category seats does not decline.

Both the implementation of the 27% reservation, as well as the expansion, are welcome. But their positive effects will be completely undermined if the quality of instruction offered to the new generation of students is not maintained. That necessarily requires a proportionate increase in physical infrastructure, non-teaching staff and teachers. That the Government will honour its promises to provide the resources for this is not automatic but contingent on the ability of the University community to bring its collective pressure to bear on the Government. That makes it doubly important that the teachers’ movement not repeat past mistakes to which it had been pushed by certain teachers’ groups that had opportunistically opposed in the University the introduction of SC/ST reservation in teaching, even while their parent parties, the Congress and the BJP, supported reservations. Instead of pitting the collective association of teachers against the democratic aspirations of those who have been at the receiving end of an unjust and unequal society, a more healthy and positive step would be to wholeheartedly support the (delayed) implementation of reservation and also to demand that special provision should be and must be made to absorb those who have been teaching for long.

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