India’s Great (10%) Leap Forward

As we commemorate India’s 70th Republic Day, I can’t help but think how our politicians have distorted and misconstrued our nation’s great Constitution. And when Election season comes around, we are always prone to resort to populist measures and gestures of grandeur.

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The illuminated Rashtrapati Bhavan on the occasion of 60th Republic Day celebrations in 2009; image Wikimedia Commons, Ministry of Defence (GODL-India); http://pib.nic.in/newsite/photo.aspx?photoid=21761

This year, it happens to be the new 10% reservation quota for the “forward” castes. Having been pushed into a corner by the Jats, Patidars, Marathas, and several other special interest groups, the ruling party has decided to grant all of them their wishes ahead of general elections on the grounds that this reservation quota was for the economically weaker sections of society across all religions. Is it any surprise then, that no party opposed it and the Bill sailed through both houses of Parliament?

Even more laughable are the criteria for deciding who qualifies as “poor” to avail of this 10% reservation quota in educational institutions and in jobs. Forget about our poverty lines and the UN mandated US $ 2 a day definition of poverty, or even their multi-dimensional poverty concept. Our government has decided on a new multi-dimensional definition of poverty that is based on an annual income, land/property ownership and other criteria that would put almost all of India’s middle class into the poverty zone. Just like that.

So, are we as a nation finally willing to concede that we are not a superpower (much as we might have nurtured those ambitions) but a poor and developing country, after all? And that we are “leaders” in the poor neighbourhood of South Asia where, in fact, some of our neighbours are actually doing better than us on certain human development indicators? And that income and wealth inequality have reached such dangerous levels that they have suddenly rendered the entire middle-class poor? The politicians who helped pass this legislation ought to answer these questions.

selective focus photo of group of people on festival
India’s unimaginable multitudes and castes make for real challenges; image pexels.com

I find it disconcerting that we are having the same discussions that our nation’s leaders were preoccupied with, over 70 years ago. That the national discourse should still be about caste and religion and of course, about poverty. I mean the real kind of poverty, not the newly minted definition of it.

Even if our nation’s founding fathers were having these discussions 70 years ago, we know the conversations were of a quality and rigour hard to find these days. Mahatma Gandhi was firmly of the view that the poor ought to be protected and sheltered from the harsh vagaries of economic cycles of boom and bust. He believed in the idea of state trusteeship, where the poor would be looked after by the rich, including, of course, the state. So, in a sense, he believed in a certain democratic idea of a welfare state.

When asked by a reader of the publication, Harijan, “You say that a raja, a zamindar (landlord) or a capitalist should be a trustee for the poor. Do you think that any such exists today? Or do you expect them to be so transformed?”, Gandhi replied:

“I think that some very few exist today, even though not in the full sense of the term. They are certainly moving in that direction. It can, however, be asked whether the present rajas and others can be expected to become trustees of the poor. I think it is worthwhile entertaining such a hope. If they do not become trustees of their own accord, force of circumstance will compel the reform unless they court utter destruction. When Panchayat Raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do. The present power of the zamindars, the capitalists and the rajas can hold sway only so long as the common people do not realise their strength. If the people non-cooperate, what can a raja, a zamindar or a capitalist do? In a Panchayat Raj, only the Panchayat will be obeyed and a Panchayat can work only through the law of its making. If the Panchayat follows non-violence in conducting its business, all three would become trustees by law and if it resorts to violence it would mean the end of their power.”

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Gandhi and Nehru, architects of independent India; image Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru, much vilified these days by the ruling dispensation, too believed in a socialist concept of a welfare state. Dr Ambedkar, author of India’s Constitution, fought for the rights of the Dalits and untouchables arguing that they, along with particular tribes, needed special privileges until they achieved the same status as other castes. And while he agreed to reservation for the lower castes, Gandhi thought it should be on economic grounds and not based on caste. For Ambedkar, the prism through which the issue of caste and untouchability ought to be seen, could not be economic alone but one that included the social angle. As he says in his speech and book, Annihilation of Caste,

“…What I would like to ask the socialists is this: Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?”

The debate between them was fierce as it raged, yet even Gandhi would not have accepted today’s politically expedient definition of “poverty”.

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Dr BR Ambedkar, author of India’s Constitution; Image Wikimedia Commons

The fact is that even as our Constitution guarantees certain rights and privileges to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, most notably in the state legislative assemblies and in parliament, Ambedkar himself did not see the need for these after 50 years of the constitution being in place. The Backward Classes Commission is where our politicians have had a field day. That is where, from the days of the Mandal Commission till date, several special interest groups and classes have sought to demand reservation in educational institutions and in employment.

What’s more, even after the Supreme Court has mandated a maximum of 50% reservation for the backward classes and castes, almost all states in India have exceeded the Court-imposed limit. Why? Because it has suited our politicians to play vote-bank politics with caste and class through all the years of independent India. Votes are still cast in this country on the basis of caste and religion.

Even if we agree after over 70 years of independence, that reservation should be on social and economic grounds, the question to ask is, was this the best way to introduce a new piece of legislation and does it indeed do justice to the task at hand?

Does this new definition of the “poor” conform to the reality on the ground? According to the article on the latest India Spend Report in the Business Standard, 10% of India’s upper castes own 60% of the wealth. And it tallies somewhat with the income equality for India in the World Inequality Database (WID) website, where the top 10% own over 55% of total income.

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Top 10% share of income in India soaring, while the bottom 50% suffer

I think it is time to seriously examine who is exactly poor in our country and make sure that welfare benefits are directly transferred to them. That would be a worthwhile discussion to have. It is time to overhaul our education and healthcare systems if we truly wish to help the economically weaker sections of society, irrespective of caste or religion.

We take great pride in comparing ourselves to China on GDP. How about comparing ourselves with them on the numbers they have lifted out of poverty and the excellent quality of their education system.

As Swaminathan Aiyar and Gurcharan Das have both written recently, we are doing everything we can to strengthen and further legitimize the caste system in India and to undermine human resource development, or human capital, in the real sense of the term. This is a neo-conservative idea of development, one which engenders a culture of “entitlement and privileges”, not one of progress by having to work for it.

On the other hand, we have rising levels of inequality, as I have written in a previous blog as well. The 10% we should be concerned about is not reservation for the “forward” castes, but the top 10% of our population who account for over 55% of total income and who are leaving the bottom 50% of our population way behind.

What a travesty of our country’s Constitution which was meant to bring greater equality to all. Start-up India, Digital India, and several other slogans are now passé. This election season, it appears that it’s time for Quota India.

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