A decision wrongly arrived at need not always be a wrong decision. We need to remember this as we begin to understand the long-term consequences of the government's decision to implement 27 per cent reservations for the OBCs in higher educational institutions.
The way in which this decision was taken exemplifies what is wrong with the policy making process in our country. A major decision affecting the career prospects of lakhs of students every year was taken without careful deliberation and transparent procedures that could have inspired some confidence. Larger political considerations were outweighed by short-term political games that are routinely played in Delhi. Thus a major opportunity to fine-tune the policy instruments of social justice was lost by default as a nervous government fell back on a tested, tried and tired formula of reservation based on a simple caste-bloc approach. We may have to wait for another decade or so for another opportunity to present itself. This is clearly not how big decisions should be taken.
Yet it does not mean that the decision is a disaster for the country, as the critics of the policy would have us believe. Viewed in a long-term historical perspective, Mandal II is a logical corollary of Mandal I. It takes forward the process of transfer of social and political power to majority communities. The government's decision will help reduce the extreme inequalities in educational and job opportunities for different caste-communities in our country. The data of the 55 th round of the National Sample Survey shows that in urban India, out of 1000 upper caste Hindus, 253 were graduates. Among the Hindu OBCs, this figure was only 86 per 1000. We do not have reliable information on the caste-wise distribution of well-paid jobs in the organized sector. But it is quite obvious that the upper caste Hindus, who constitute anything between a quarter to one-third of our population, have cornered around twice as many jobs as their share in population might justify.
Notwithstanding all its problems, the government's decision is likely to reduce this kind of skewed distribution. It is likely to improve the access of the OBCs to higher education and to middle class jobs. It should also help expand the pool from within the OBCs that can take advantage of the existing scheme of reservation in government jobs. In that sense this decision is a step in the right direction. Even a crude caste-bloc based quota is better than no provision at all.
An appreciation of the positives of this decision should not lead us to close our eyes to some of the long-term costs. The government's decision to use a one-dimensional policy of caste-bloc based quota cannot but result in an inefficient targeting of this scheme. The relatively better off families, that too from 'upper' OBCs, will be able to corner most of the benefits. In regional terms, students from south India and other states with long history of affirmative action and backward caste movement are much better placed to take advantage of this scheme. Needless to say, most of these opportunities will be cornered by OBC men, for the gender gap in education is higher among the OBC communities as compared to the upper caste Hindus. The inability to target the scheme very efficiently is bound to give rise to deep resentment. Many non-OBC students and their families would feel, and rightly so, that they are more disadvantaged than those OBC students who are getting admissions based on the new reservations.
Can the government still do something to remedy the situation and reduce some of these costs? The government's policy declaration closes one of these possibilities, namely that of attending to the disadvantaged groups other than the OBCs. But it can still do something to ensure that the reservation for the OBCs is targeted more efficiently. One, it can declare that the 'creamy layer' within the OBCs will be excluded from the benefits of the new reservation. The exclusion of 'creamy layer' is already in operation for job reservations and the government has to simply apply it to education. Secondly, the 27 per cent quota should be sub-divided among 'upper' and 'lower' OBCs. Such sub-divisions already exist in many states and the government can request the National Commission for Backward Classes, a statutory body, to prepare the lists of upper and lower OBC for each state. Third, the government can make some provision to ensure that OBC women have a special opportunity to access this quota. Finally, for taking a final decision on all these and related matters to target the OBC quota more effectively, the government can constitute an independent expert committee to work out the modalities.
Besides these immediate and short term measures, the government must think of two long-term measures. First, it must get NSSO or some independent organization to carry out a comprehensive nation-wide survey of the social profile of the students of higher educational institutions and job holders in the organised sector, public as well as private. Lack of such data is the biggest hurdle blocking the transition to a more transparent, robust and fine-tuned policy making process in future. Second, it is time the government constituted a Diversity and Disadvantage Commission, a statutory body to regularly monitor the diversity profile of all public institutions and to advise the government on improving it.
Yogendra Yadav is Senior Fellow at CSDS, Satish Deshpande is Professor of Sociology at Delhi School of Economics. This article first appeared in the Times of India, and is carried here with the authors' consent.