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The Hindu Editorial

13-October-2023

1. Should the 50 % legal ceiling on reservation be reconsidered?

Topic: GS2 – Indian polity

Introduction

 Bihar’s recent release of caste survey data has rekindled the debate over the 50% legal ceiling for caste-based reservations set by the Supreme Court in 1992. The data underscores that Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute about 84% of the population, prompting questions about the need to reconsider the reservation cap.

The Arbitrary Nature of the 50% Ceiling

Many experts view the 50% ceiling as arbitrary, as it lacks robust numerical reasoning. They point to Tamil Nadu, which provides 69% reservation through a 1994 law, protected from judicial review by placing it under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. Additionally, the introduction of 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) by the Central government in 2019 has effectively breached the 50% limit.

Historical Origins of the Reservation Debate

The 50% ceiling’s origins trace back to past judicial decisions, like the 1962 M.R. Balaji case, which suggested the need for some limit on reservations. The 1976 N.M. Thomas case saw the judiciary having second thoughts, questioning the unreasoned nature of the 50% limit.

Beyond Percentages: The Bigger Issues

The reservation discourse revolves around numerical quotas, but there are more pressing issues to consider. Privatization, contractualization of government jobs, and a scarcity of available positions render percentage discussions less pertinent.

Socio-Economic Data and Caste Categories

The release of socio-economic data from Bihar’s survey might lead to demands for reconfiguring caste categories. The administrative OBC classification encompasses diverse castes, raising the risk of dominant communities benefiting disproportionately. Sub-categorization of underrepresented groups may be necessary for equitable representation and addressing backwardness.

The Potential for Fragmented Identity

A caste census could trigger individual caste groups demanding separate reservations, potentially affecting politics. Sub-categorization within castes, as seen in Karnataka, has led to divisive political reactions.

Recognizing Existing Realities

Caste identities are an integral part of India’s social fabric. A caste census acknowledges these realities, facilitating data-driven policy responses.

The Need for Unifying Factors

Caste census initiatives should be accompanied by campaigns counteracting excessive caste mobilization. Unifying factors, such as Hindutva, Bahujan identity, anti-caste sentiments, or class-based mobilization, can bridge communities for meaningful representation.

Conclusion

The ongoing debate over the 50% ceiling for caste-based reservations highlights complex issues of representation and fairness. Bihar’s data release has intensified this discussion, emphasizing the need for careful consideration of changes within the reservation system and the larger concerns surrounding reservation policies in India.

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