April 3, 2011
By Yogendra Yadav
Earlier it was the Gujjars, now it is the Jats. Before that it was the Mala-Madiga dispute in Andhra Pradesh. And one often hears about reservation for all Marathas in Maharashtra. The names keep changing, the pattern does not. Neither does our response.
The script is familiar. Caste groups like Jats and Marathas, land-owning communities with some numeric strength and political clout, lay claim to backwardness. Those below them in the social order, like the Gujjars in Rajasthan, resent this intrusion and want special protection to safeguard their benefits. Or those communities among the SC or OBC who have not benefited much from reservations want a sub-quota . Agitators take to the streets, often blocking roads and railways. Governments do not want to take a decision and resort to soft-pedaling , delay tactics and collusion, hoping that that the judiciary will step in to relieve them of the burden of decision-making .
The national media responds with impatience , as if it is being dragged into an alien land and a bygone era. Caste groups in question are discussed as if these are unknown tribes from Africa. Editorials deplore political motives behind such protests and call for strict action to ensure smooth traffic. There is a clamour for judicial intervention. Once some committee is formed, everyone forgets it like a bad dream, till the next crisis erupts.
We do not stop to ask the hard questions. Why does this crisis erupt so regularly? Why do these demands always turn into a street battle? Why is every solution so transient? What is the way forward?
These questions force us to face an unpleasant truth: the policies of social justice have reached a dead-end . For a country that has such a vast and influential programme of affirmative action, we are remarkably deficient in imaging mechanisms and designs of social justice schemes. We have a maze of institutions to handle it but simply do not have a system of processing competing claims to affirmative action. This is a country famous for its statistical system but has virtually no evidence for settling these claims. We do not know, for example, if the proportion of graduates and professional degree holders among Jats are more or less than other OBC communities in Haryana and UP.
There is no need to start from scratch in the search for a way forward. As often happens in India, the solution lies in the cupboards of a ministry. The report of an expert committee headed by professor N R Madhav Menon, “Equal Opportunity Commission: What, Why and How?” has been in the public domain for two years. (Accessible at http:// minorityaffairs.gov.in/newsite/reports/ eoc_wwh/eoc_wwh.pdf). The report suggests the formation of an equal opportunity commission (EOC) as a long-term mechanism for dealing with disputes concerning social justice. The proposed EOC would be a path-finding institution that would help evolve and evaluate mechanisms for affirmative action, using an evidence-based approach . It would gather data on the socio-economic and educational status of various social groups and communities. It would also monitor the social profile of higher educational institutions and select sectors of employment. The EOC would be open to any social group that perceives a denial of equal opportunities. It would cover public and private sectors. Unlike the existing commissions , the EOC will focus on advisory, advocacy and auditing rather than individual grievance redressal.
An EOC was on the Congress manifesto in 2009. It was mentioned in the president’s address to Parliament. Yet the proposal is still doing the rounds of the corridors of power, caught up in the turf-wars that ministries and commissions play in New Delhi. If we had such an institution by now, the Gujjar dispute, the Jat agitation, the Mala-Madiga dispute and several others could have been resolved. Protests may still occur but there would be a clear mechanism and some solid evidence to resolve disputes.
The forthcoming caste census could help with some of the evidence needed for a clear affirmative action policy. But it can do so, only if the findings of the main census are linked to the caste census and we get demographic , educational and economic data for each caste. The preliminary figures of Census 2011 are out and we still do not know the exact nature of the caste census that is to take place later this year.
Perhaps we are waiting for another crisis . To borrow a Hindi proverb, we believe in digging a well after we notice a fire.