Insights into Editorial: Behind the Ire of the Marathas
The issue of reservation has once again come to the fore. Marathas in Maharashtra have come out on the streets in unprecedented numbers and with unusual calm to present their grievances.
What’s the issue?
Marathas have reiterated their demand for reservations, similar to communities in other states, notably the Gujjars in Rajasthan, Jats in Uttar Pradesh, and Patels in Gujarat. On the other hand, they have also demanded for the repeal of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA).
The Marathas who are almost one-third of Maharashtra’s population are not a homogeneous community. Historically, they evolved from the farming caste of Kunbis who took to military service in medieval times and started assuming a separate identity for themselves. Even then they claimed hierarchy of 96 clans.
But the real differentiation has come through the post-independence development process, creating classes within the caste:
- A tiny but powerful section of elites that came to have control over cooperatives of sugar, banks, educational institutions, factories and politics, called gadhivarcha (topmost strata) Maratha.
- The next section comprising owners of land, distribution agencies, transporters, contracting firms, and those controlling secondary cooperative societies, is the wadyavarcha (well-off strata) Maratha.
- The rest of the population of Marathas comprising small farmers is the wadivarcha (lower strata) Maratha.
Demand for Reservation:
The demand for reservation for the Marathas has been around since 1997. Various committees were appointed to look into the matter.
- The government-appointed committee under a retired judge R M Bapat, had rejected granting them inclusion in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in its July 2008 report.
- The government instead of rejecting or accepting the report appointed a new committee under the retired judge B P Saraf.
- Before the Saraf committee submitted its report, the government set up another special committee headed by Narayan Rane. Rane recommended 16% reservation.
- The eager government got it accepted by the cabinet and hurriedly issued an ordinance. To its misfortune, the Bombay High Court stayed it in a matter of a public interest litigation (PIL) objecting to the OBC status for the Marathas. This was simply because total reservations in the state would go up to 73%, exceeding the limit set by the Supreme Court.
Why there is a need to reexamine our reservation policy?
Changed external conditions: Since independence, the external conditions which initially led to reservations have changed tremendously. Economic growth has resulted in a decline in poverty numbers from 37% of the population to 22%. Such development should have brought down the number of people seeking reservations, in contrast, rewards to government jobs have grown sharply.
Increased popularity: Wage increases associated with the Sixth Pay Commission and the expected implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission have made government jobs highly attractive. Hence, many groups historically tied to the land are now seeking favourable treatment while seeking entry into non-farm work.
Increased competition: In the last decade, access to government jobs has been declining for all groups. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) by University of Maryland and National Council of Applied Economic Research shows that although in 2004-05 15.3% of men aged 22-39 with education level of class 12 or more had a regular salaried job in the government or public sector, this proportion fell to 11.7% by 2011-12. This is because government jobs have stagnated while educational attainment has increased rapidly. Thus, it is not surprising that more claimants for these scarce jobs are aggressively staking their claims.
Ambiguity in the reservation process: Since the First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar submitted its report in 1955, several attempts have been made to identify backward castes, resulting in frequent discordance between these lists. Lack of consistency and clarity has led to ambiguity in the entire process of reservation, leaving communities like Jats, Marathas and Patels dissatisfied.
Lack of Data: The problem is exacerbated by the lack of credible recent data. Since the 1931 Census, the only effort at collecting data on different castes and their socio-economic circumstances was undertaken by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011. The National Commission for Backward Classes claimed, in a report dated February 2015, that these data are neither available nor usable for the purpose of establishing the economic condition of various castes.
How can we address these problems?
Regular Surveys: Conduct regular surveys to identify the beneficiaries who can claim the benefits under the reservation policy. This can be achieved by including data on caste in census surveys. The present phase in the planning cycle of the 2021 Census is the ideal time for ensuring that comprehensive data about caste and religion for all the groups, including forward castes, backward castes, and SCs and STs, are included in this Census.
Reevaluation: These data should also be used to re-evaluate the eligibility of groups for inclusion in reserved categories every 10 or at least every 20 years. Much of the social stratification in India is linked to the occupational status of the various castes. With the changes in the economy, we can expect both the link between caste and occupation to weaken and the economic fortunes of various occupations to change considerably. The opportunity for re-examination of the caste-wise economic status would facilitate the setting up of a structure for the redressal of grievances.
Ensure wider reach: We must also find a way of ensuring a churn in the number of individuals eligible for benefits to ensure that these benefits reach the widest segment of society. Though the creamy layer criteria exist, it has not been very effective. With the advent of the Aadhar card, one way of ensuring that the same families do not capture all the benefits is to ensure that each time someone uses their reserved category certificate, their Aadhar number is noted down and linked with the certificate.
Limiting the use: It may be stipulated that the reserved category certificate can be used only once in 20 years, thus allowing for the benefits to reach even the sections that have hitherto been excluded from their ambit. This would ensure that the same individual is not permitted to obtain both college education as well as a government job by using the same eligibility criterion, nor can one obtain an initial posting as well as promotion using the same criterion.
The main argument of the Marathas is that a majority of them are backward. This argument is axiomatic, applicable to any caste or community including Brahmins, and pricks the logic of backwardness as the basis for reservations. It is true that the majority of the Marathas are small landholders, and they took pride in their sociopolitical dominance, neglected education as well as the changing environment. Over the years, with mounting agrarian crisis, mainly due to neo-liberal policies of the government, accentuated by the crop failures in Maharashtra in the previous three seasons, they experienced severe erosion of their status.
However, as a community, they still own most land (32% of Marathas own in excess of 75% of land) and dominate all spheres of public life. Even then if they are included, the other OBCs will be up in arms against them; some already are.
The key to dealing with the quota quagmire lies in shuffling people in and out of the eligibility criteria and ensuring that the benefits are not concentrated among certain groups and/or individuals. All these principles are consistent with the democratic ideals and vision of social justice envisaged in India’s Constitution. It may be possible to achieve a consensus across the political spectrum for adopting a non-political and pragmatic approach to reservations. It is time we address the challenge of reservations honestly, fairly and innovatively by creating opportunities for all disadvantaged children. Along with improving school education outcomes, a more rational model of reservation based on equity and common sense must be envisaged.