The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Examination results of 2019, witnessed a particular ST community outside the North-Eastern region grabbing nearly 40% of the total seats reserved for STs. This is not the first instance and not the only type of examination dominated by this particular community; SSC, IBPS, and Railway exams- the largest recruiter for government and public sector enterprises, have seen similar outcomes. The founding fathers of our constitution having felt the genuine need for equality in terms of employment and opportunities apart from political representation, envisaged a provision in the constitution for the State to reserve seats for certain sections of the society who were underprivileged, backward and cut out from social, political and economic developments not just under the British Raj but for centuries prior to that as well. While many argued that the idea of positive discrimination is against equality, it is in practice an initiative to ensure equality on a larger scale.
One of the means of representation in legislation is a geographically earmarked constituency and as such this measure has met its intended purpose. However, in the case of job opportunities, there is a systematic flaw; it does not guarantee equitable opportunities to all and many ST communities are yet to taste the fruit of reservation.
Performance scene in 2019-2020
The number of successful ST candidates from North East India, who cleared the exam last year is a dismal figure of four. Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram, which have a predominantly tribal population secured a “nil” outcome. While Nagaland and Tripura are contented with one successful candidate each, Manipur -where 40 % of the state population belongs to the ST community, had a zero success rate with no ST candidate clearing the exam. The sum of all the tribal communities from North East India clearing the UPSC exam in 2019 was less than 20% of those qualified candidates from a single tribal community outside the North East-- The Meenas. Since long, the said community has occupied the majority share of tribal vacancies in various recruitment process. Nevertheless, it is not the aforementioned community’s fault; the system itself has inherent flaws.
Peculiar concerns of the tribal community in North East
The promise for equality enshrined in Article 15 and 16 of the Indian constitution, which ensures that the socially, historically and currently underprivileged groups are well represented in politics, jobs, and education cannot be said to be successful unless the North East tribals are represented adequately in the system. The argument is all the more valid when one considers the rising cases of new communities being added to the ST list while the piece of cake to be shared remains the same. This situation worsens when a more advantageous community is added to the ST list, making it tougher for the other backward communities alraedy present in the list, to avail equal opportunity, thereby defeating the whole purpose of reservation. And this is precisely the case today.
The people of North East India, especially the tribals have faced innumerable social stigmas and continue to do so even after 70 years of independence. Development is still a far cry in most areas where issues as basic as education, housing, electricity, and all-weather roads are yet to make their mark. While representation in legislation exists, the lack of North Eastern tribals in the top executive echelon, where policies are drafted could be one factor for the region continuing to find itself alienated from the boons of development.
Creamy-layer concept among tribals?
Some people have mooted the idea of introducing creamy layers among the STs in the same manner and fashion as was done among the Other Backward Class (OBCs). The move, while it may be feasible for mainland tribals, will not be feasible for the North East tribals. This is because most of the individuals who can be grouped under the creamy layer category in the North East tribal community, are first-generation achievers. For these individuals the responsibilities that are entrusted to them are magnanimous while their dependents are vast- sometimes an entire village. If their ward(s) are excluded from the opportunity of availing the ST reservation, the odds of that family returning to the same situation from where their parents emerged- all in a span of one generation, is very high. It is therefore not advisable to cream them out, at least for now.
Argument of efforts
Amid the trending discussion on the performance of the North East tribals in UPSC exams, some voices have opined that “ it is efforts that matter,” and that the lack of it displayed by the community is what has resulted in their dismal performance so far. The argument might partially hold for many non-serious contenders. However, that does not justify the underlying concerns as to why despite rendering in their 100 percent, many people from the underprivileged ST communities will never succeed when they are judged with the same yardstick as those in a better position since many generations. Arguments like this have failed to consider the conditions to which tribals were subjugated to for centuries; most importantly, it is an indirect justification to do away with reservation altogether, ignoring the fundamental cause and concerns which first necessitated an affirmative action of equality in the first place.
The percentage of opportunity
The manner in which, 7.5 % of vacancies are reserved for the scheduled tribes, at least 20% of the ST seats should be reserved for the North East STs. This will ensure at the least, that the benefits of reservation are not reaped by a single affluent community – just because they happen to fall under the ST umbrella. The intention here is not to be mistaken with advocating for a rigid solution but rather exploring possibilities to ensure that the whole purpose of reservation is not defeated as is possible in the present system.
Reservation within reservation seems to be the only feasible option to ensure that our goal of uplifting the tribal people is achieved in its intended manner. The present system only presents a picture of the mere fulfilment of a statute, i.e. the existence of a scheme for the upliftment of tribal people by way of providing special opportunity in jobs and recruitment. Serious concerns like the unmistakable disproportionate division of shares, where the majority of it is benefited by only a section or a particular community have been overlooked by our policy-makers as well as those implementing it. Reservation is a magnificent tool to draw the gap, which is only widening, between the tribal people and other general communities. If we truly believe in our commitment to uplift the tribal people, the reservation policy for STs with regards to the North East tribals has to be relooked.
(The writer is a freelance writer and author of the book Hilly Dreams.)