“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny” – a tryst for an India where the ultimate objective of the state was to secure social, economic and political justice for its citizens.
Political justice was made inherent to the structure of democratic India by our Constitution makers, assured through universal adult suffrage, free and fair elections, and several safeguards like Articles 14, 20, and 22.
Further, the plank of social justice has, since 1947, expanded to cater to a large number of communities and regions, thanks to the vibrant politics of India.
However, ever since the post-1991 economic reforms brought some fundamental changes to the Indian economy, the clamour to relook at the economic justice provisions has been growing.
The recent EWS 3:2 majority judgment by the Supreme Court puts to rest, at least for the time being, these demands. Or does it?
The early 1990s has been a landmark period in the history of independent India. Three events of that period continue to deeply impact our lives even today.
The OBC reservations, based on the Mandal Commission report, expanded the idea of social justice and opened up the reservation politics for the next three decades.
The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, meanwhile, set the stage for ‘unifying Hindus’ on an idea seen by many as devised by the forward caste Hindus to counter the backward castes’ consolidation.
However, the event that had the most secular impact on all Indians was the post-1991 liberalization of the Indian economy.
‘Wealth concentration’ and ‘rising inequality’ replaced the buzzwords of ‘GaribiHatao’ as India's tilts towards a capitalist setup propped up several homegrown billionaires.
“India has to come to terms with inequality”, declared Thomas Piketty as the rich-poor gap widened with the richest 1 per cent Indians holding 42.5 per cent of India’s wealth while the bottom 50 per cent holding a mere 2.8 per cent of the national wealth.
It is in this context that the 103rd Constitutional Amendment, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court, was enacted by the Narendra Modi government in 2019 to secure economic justice by providing reservations to the erstwhile ‘unreserved’ economically weaker sections.
Backwardness: Social or Economic?
The Indira Sawhney Judgment (1992) held that “a backward class cannot be determined only and exclusively with reference to economic criterion.” Much water has flown since then.
Firstly, the overlap between social and economic backwardness has reduced since the 1990s, thanks to the caste-based reservations which provided a gateway for the upward economic mobility of the socially backward class.
Secondly, the 1991 economic reforms gradually led to an increased role of the economy in one’s life. The pre-eminence of money meant the best possible education and healthcare services could be accessed even by an individual from the socially deprived castes, provided he/she had enough money to afford it. Since then, the economy has become the new social.
The monetary power now seems to overshadow all other forms of power, sometimes even subverting the state power. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that economic liberalization had as much role to play as the reservations in providing upward social mobility to backwards castes post-1991.
As per Oxfam International, 73 per cent of the wealth generated in India in 2017 went to the richest 1 per cent. This is in contrast to the bottom 50 per cent increasing their wealth by only one per cent. This indicates the existence of some structural hindrances which are making it difficult for the poor to come out of the vicious poverty trap.
The rising inequality in a liberalized economy has made it extremely difficult for a child born poor to come out of poverty, much like the rigid nature of caste identities in India.
It is this vicious poverty trap that has made the idea of reservations based on economic backwardness acceptable to the Supreme Court, despite its contrary stance in the earlier Indira Sawhney case.
Scope of EWS Reservation: Economic or Socio-economic?
However, it is this very idea of EWS reservations as a tool to uplift people from economic backwardness that has raised several concerns. The EWS reservations are exclusionary in nature and are based on socio-economic criteria rather than just economic criteria.
Articles 15(6) and 16(6) exclude the benefits of EWS reservations to those already receiving benefits under the OBC/SC/ST reservations. In essence, the EWS reservations cater only to the forward castes.
The economic reservations seem to address the economic inequality-induced injustices of only the ‘general’ category, even while the social reservations address only the historical injustices against the backward castes.
Justice Bhat, in his EWS dissenting judgement, pointed out this “prohibited form of discrimination” which the 103rd Constitutional Amendment inflicts by not extending the EWS reservation benefits to the poor from the ‘reserved’ category who have faced the brunt of centuries of social injustices.
The ideas of economic reservation and social reservation are not mutually exclusive. If the former addresses the issue of ‘poverty as a cause of discrimination’, the latter addresses the ‘poverty as a result of discrimination.’
The communities that lie at the intersection of these two problems are doubly deprived, and hence require ‘double benefits’ contrary to the red flag raised by the majority judgment.
A case in point is the phenomenon of dominant groups within the OBCs (like Yadavs, Vokkaligas), SCs (like Jatavs) and STs (like Meenas) capturing most of the benefits of caste-based reservations, as highlighted by the Rohini Commission for the OBC category. These observations show that OBCs, SCs and STs are not homogenous groups.
A 2015 study published in the Economic & Political Weekly shows that the Gini coefficient has risen for both SCs and STs in the post-economic reforms period. The intersectionality of social and economic deprivation of poor OBCs, SCs, and STs makes such socio-economic communities the most eligible for state support.
Nonetheless, the idea of providing any type of reservation, instead of enablers like scholarships and welfare schemes, at the cost of the 50 per cent open category seats discourages the much-needed merit to drive the growth engine of the 21st century India.
In addition, the idea of economic reservations has an inherent flaw–it disincentivizes growth by encouraging individuals to remain poor,something much similar to the phenomenon of ‘competitive backwardness’ observed in several dominant caste groups to get a share in reservations.
Further, since economic backwardness is more fluid than the rigid caste hierarchies, the scope of false beneficiaries and inefficient targeting is higher.
The same economic threshold of Rs 8 lakh for the EWS as well as the OBC (Non-Creamy Layer) beneficiaries is another cause of concern - it gives a false impression that both groups are at an equal social standing.
EWS Impact on Politics
It is ironic that the same judgment which observes that “reservations should not be allowed to become vested interests” may have once again revived the scope of reservation-centric politics in India by breaking open the 50 per cent ceiling.
Jharkhand has already passed a bill for 77 per cent reservation to SCs, STs, OBCs, EBCs and EWS. The demands for inclusion of backward castes into the EWS may become the future poll promises of ‘social justice parties’.
Fragmenting the erstwhile consolidated caste groups on economic lines may become an important tool to capture newer vote-banks.
The ‘labharthi’ politics of the BJP, its outreach to Pasmanda Muslims and efforts to sub-categorize OBCs by setting up the Rohini Commission already give us a sense of what lies ahead.
The legacy parties such as the SP, RJD, BSP, JD-S, etc, meanwhile, may find it challenging to keep their traditional caste-based vote-bank intact against the growing economic inequality within these caste communities. The future of Indian politics seems to be moving into the domain of ‘economic justice’.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)