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Saturday, May 6, 2006

A belated but welcome move

K. Veeramani (President of the Dravidar Kazhagam.)


UNION HUMAN Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh's circular to the Cabinet Secretariat regarding reservation in Central educational institutions has not brought anything new to the domain of public knowledge. It is a follow-up measure to the 93rd Constitutional Amendment that has added clause 5 to Article 15. Accordingly, the state can make any special provision by law for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward class or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes "insofar as such special provisions relate to their admission to educational institutions including private institutions whether aided or unaided — other than minority institutions." Article 15(5) of the Constitution came into force on January 20 this year when it received Presidential assent.

In its communication to the Cabinet Secretary on April 8, the Election Commission said Mr. Singh's announcement prima facie amounted to a breach of the model code as it gave new concessions to certain sections of the electorate in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. In his reply, Mr. Singh told the Commission that he had refrained from making a comment to the media on the reservation issue precisely on the ground that the election process was under way in some States. After a National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) function on April 5, he made a reference to the Constitution Amendment and said that necessary follow-up action was under way and a decision would follow after the Assembly elections.

The Centre's move to provide reservation for the Other Backward Classes in Central institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, is a belated but commendable one. Among the various measures recommended by the All India Second Backward Classes Commission headed by Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, the V.P. Singh Government sought to implement only 27 per cent reservation in jobs in 1990. It did not attempt to carry out other recommendations, including reservation for OBCs in Central educational institutions.

Reservation in jobs under Article 16(4) will be meaningful and effective only when opportunities to get educated are given to the socially disadvantaged people. It is in view of this fact that the First Constitutional Amendment was made in 1951, after Periyar E.V. Ramasamy launched an agitation against the higher judiciary's ruling that the then composite Madras Government's Order on Communal Representation was unconstitutional. This Amendment has safeguarded the job and education reservation in the State.

Just demands

This should have prompted the Union Government also to meet the demands of social justice to uplift the underprivileged sections of people. It is regrettable that the labours of the First All India Backward Classes Commission (1953-55) under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar, proved to be a futile exercise. Even nearly 60 years after India attained Independence, the Central Government is reluctant to take effective measures to promote the legitimate demands of the OBCs. The demand for reservation for the historically disadvantaged is constitutional, not unconstitutional or extra-constitutional.

When they promote social justice in countries such as the United States under the name of affirmative action or positive discrimination, the upper caste authorities in India put obstacles to similar measures.

Lessons from history

The oft-repeated argument that merit and efficiency will suffer under the quota system does not stand the scrutiny of past history and current experience. In Tamil Nadu, the practice of providing communal representation has been in existence for quite a long time, from the 1920s when it was a part of the composite Madras Province. And yet Tamil Nadu is among the best-administered States in the country and its academic standards remain very high. Due to reservation enjoyed for a long period, the socially and educationally backward classes have so improved their cultural and intellectual atmosphere that they score high marks in public examinations and common entrance tests. What is demanded is not dispensing with competitiveness with regard to less privileged classes, but avoiding competition among unequals.

Let there be competition among equals. It is neither just nor fair to ask the sons and daughters of those who have been traditionally doing only manual jobs to compete with those who have a centuries-old background of academic and literary skills.

Central Government educational institutions have already adopted the quota system in the form of reserving a certain percentage of seats for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, managements quotas, NRIs, the physically handicapped, etc. Again, in this background, allotting 27 per cent of seats to the OBCs, who are socially handicapped and who constitute about 54 per cent of our country's population, should be treated as one among the foremost duties of our Government.

When the disadvantaged communities are sure of getting a certain number of seats, the boys and girls among them gain confidence and begin to cultivate the competitive spirit. They get the opportunity of sharing the experience of excellence and grow up optimistic.

People of a country become strong and progressive when they have social cohesiveness, which depends on providing equal opportunities for different communities and classes. This becomes possible only when the systems and institutions are made inclusive of various sections and not kept exclusive preserves of the privileged.

What is guaranteed by the Constitution should have been implemented from 1951. But reservation in Central educational institutions was not provided even in 1992 when the Union Government provided for job reservation after the Supreme Court judgment in the Mandal Commission Cases (Indra Sawhney versus Union of India). Now the United Progressive Alliance Government has come forward to translate the constitutional promise into a reality. Though belated, it is a welcome proposal.

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