Book Review: Caste Based Reservation

14Aug07

CASTE-BASED RESERVATIONS AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT IN INDIA: K. S. Chalam; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/11, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road,

New Delhi-110044. Rs. 275.

The merits and the demerits of caste-based reservations have been debated for well over a century, but have failed to bring the proponents and opponents of the issue together. Primarily, this cleavage persists as opponents of reservations fail to see the huge volume of favourable empirical evidence generated and are trapped in their own version of supremacy of “merit”.

K. S. Chalam’s slim volume is an attempt to recollect the arguments for reservations, remove some of the misconceptions that gained currency since the V. P. Singh government’s move to introduce the Mandal Commission recommendations, and also to look at the notion of reservations in a post-liberalised, open economy. It is a fact that earlier affirmative policies were rooted within the welfare state mechanism and the role of market or capital was never a central issue in working them out. The role of the private sector in advancing the cause of social justice and the restricted space available for this attempt within liberal capitalism that has come to rule since 1991, have been a major cause of worry for both activists as well as administrators committed to creating an egalitarian Indian society.

Bold initiative

In this context, Chalam has embarked upon a bold initiative to yoke market and social justice. While he exhibits rigour in marshalling the facts and arguments for reservations as it unfolded till recently, his alternative “Representation is more respectable than reservations” remains an interesting idea; a seed yet to sprout into a political paradigm. And this is where both the success and the failure of this book lies.

To be fair to the author, let us look at his achievements in this book. He explains succinctly how the Mandal Commission did not use caste as a blind indicator to determine backwardness. He draws attention to the inclusive criteria adopted by the Commission to identify social and educational backwardness by looking at the following indicators — Social: castes/classes considered socially backward by other castes/classes; castes/classes which mainly depend on manual labour for their livelihood; castes/classes where at least 25 per cent of females and 10 per cent of males get married at an age below 17 years in rural areas and 10 per cent females and five per cent males do so in urban areas; castes/classes where the female participation in work is at least 25 per cent above the state average. Educational: castes/classes where the number of children in the age group of 5-15 years who have never attended school is at least 25 per cent above the state average; castes/classes where the rates of student dropouts in the age group of 5-15 years is at least 25 per cent above the state average; and castes/classes amongst whom the proportion of matriculates is at least 25 per cent below the state average. Economic: castes/classes where the average value of family assets is at least 25 per cent below the state average; castes/classes where the number of families living in Kuccha houses is at least 25 per cent above the state average; castes/classes where the source of drinking water is more than half a kilometre for more than 50 per cent of the households; castes/classes where the number of households have taken consumption loan is at least 25 per cent above the state average.

Reservations

Chalam also draws the reader’s attention to the myopic view of the judiciary when it comes to the issue of reservations. The Mandal Commission rejected the Supreme Court’s suggestion to keep the 50 per cent divergence threshold to determine backwardness as its simple arithmetic reasoning. For instance, in Bihar according to 1971 census, 80 per cent of the population was illiterate. To beat this percentage figure by a margin of 50 per cent would have meant that 120 per cent members of a caste/class had to be illiterate.

He effectively uses the figures of the UNDP’s 2005 Development Index to prove the benefits of the affirmative action of reservations. The Human Development Index value for India was 60.2 and was ranked 127 among the nations. However, the southern States, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, got a very high ranking with Karnataka close behind. The indices of these States were nearly equal to that of middle-income countries. Chalam attributes this to the long tradition of reservations in these States that began in the early part of the 20th century.

Exclusion principles

The crux of his analysis, however, should have been the market’s exclusion principles and how it perpetuates the meritocracy theory. But, there is no serious attempt to understand either the market economy or its limitations in creating an inclusive society. His assertion that “parliamentary democracy did not bring justice” lacks nuances about governance, its ability to deliver, and the speed of change. In a sense, what he tries to articulate as an alternative in the final chapter largely contradicts his painstaking suturing of facts in the earlier chapters about how the Human Development Index has shown a remarkable progress due to the affirmative action of caste-based reservations. No right thinking person will cross swords with him for saying that representation should be ensured within the framework of entitlements. But this does not mean that every individual, as he argues, represents only his or her caste.

He points out that during the post-liberalisation period (1991-2006) investments worth Rs. 1,912,478 crore was brought into the economy but the benefits were not extended to the socially disadvantaged. Yes, this is a major issue. But, Chalam’s book does not provide answers to resolve this. However, he has flagged a major issue that the radars of social justice debate in the country failed to detect.

Source: The Hindu



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