The main author of the Constitution of India, Dr.BR Ambedkar, was of the view that legislation doesn't change people. That's why he stated and didn't believe that reservation of constituencies or jobs for Dalits would change the way Indian society looked at its lower castes. He reluctantly agreed to reservation in parliament and the legislatures in the belief that it would be discontinued 10 years after the adoption of the Constitution."
Dr. Ambedkar argued that theoretically it was good to have principle of equality of opportunity, but he said there must also be a provision for the entry of certain communities outside the administrative set up. He gave a hypothetical ratio of 70 percent reserved seats and 30 per cent for unreserved category. His argument then was, “Could anybody say that the reservation of 30 per cent as open to general competition would be satisfactory from the point of view of giving effect to the first principle, namely, that there shall be equality of opportunity?”
The Constitution of India states in article 16(4): “Nothing in article 16 or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” It is this provision, which enables our governments to keep extending and expanding reservations to pander to vote bank sentiments.
The sad fact of life is that having fobbed off demands for more opportunities and equality in benefits, the upper caste elites who actually run this country keep extending reservation without giving the vast multitudes anything worthwhile by way of benefits. It has made little difference to the vast multitudes of Dalits and Adivasis, except giving rise to a new hereditary elite. Putting a Narayanan or Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan fobs off demands for representation. Seventy years after independence the majority of Dalits and Adivasis remain below, even the ridiculously low poverty line.
Even worse is the corrosive effects of this manner of tokenism on standards, particularly in service. It is true it has made the public administration somewhat more representative, but what is the larger benefit if these decades all we have achieved is to create another self-perpetuating elite? Today as much as 49.5% of places in the central government and most states are reserved for SC's (15%), ST's (7.5%) and BC's (27%). There is now growing evidence that many if not most entrants from these categories are second or third generation beneficiaries.
Way back in June 1961 Jawaharlal Nehru was aware of the pitfalls of the reservations policy of his government and his party. He wrote to the chief ministers expressing his concerns over efficiency. He wrote: “I have referred above to efficiency and to our getting out of our traditional ruts. This necessitates getting out of the old habit of Reservations and particular privileges given to this caste or that group. It is true that we are tied up with certain rules and conventions about helping scheduled castes and tribes. They deserve help, but even so, I dislike any kind of Reservation, particularly in service. I react strongly against anything, which leads to second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second rate, we are lost.” While Ambedkar was concerned about the quality of the democracy that does not assure equality of opportunity, Nehru was concerned about the quality of administration. We have suffered on both counts.
It is time now to think of a sunset clause to the reservations policy. Dr. BR Ambedkar only wanted it for ten years. Lets have it for a hundred years or even better, seventy-five years after India came to ruled by the Constitution. If it has not changed India by then, then it is clearly a policy that doesn't work and has largely failed.
It is true that Hindu society oppressed Adivasis and Dalits. It excluded them and exploited them. Reparations for historical injustices are just, but they cannot be endless and limitless. Reparations can take other forms too. What about a guaranteed high quality education and financial support to all Adivasi and Dalit children? How about universalizing high standards for education, the kind of standards the urban elite expects and demand for their children?
I was recently at a school for Adivasi children in a Telangana district. The conditions were appalling. Our media which has poured days of focus on the Ryan International School murder and turned it into a discussion on inadequate provision of CCTV and separate toilets have never spent even a handful of bytes on the plight of millions of our other children. It is time we discuss a nationwide standard for school education. The difference in quality between urban and rural schools is obvious. Even among the urban schools we have separate systems for some. The Mean Achievement Scores in English, Mathematics, Science and Social Science indicate an across the board difference of about 10 points between urban and rural schools, while the difference between SC and ST students, and overall levels for rural schools is much narrower. This clearly suggests that rural education is qualitatively poorer. The gap between students attending private and government schools is at least 20 points for each of the four indicators.
With Dalit and Adivasi children doing particularly badly in comparison with all rural school goers, the urban-rural and private-public divides tell us where the problem really is. To compound matters in 2011 we still had 7.1 million Dalit and 4.6 million Adivasi children. Alarmingly more than 80% of these have never attended any educational institution.
Clearly we have to go beyond reservations. Benefitting a few is not reparations enough for the millions who have inherited backwardness due to prolonged discrimination. Reparations have to be more universal and all inclusive to the inheritors of deprivation and discrimination. How about financial assistance to the families? I would like to see a direct transfer of benefits (DBT) to all Adivasi and Dalit households, say for the next twenty-five years. We must seriously think in terms of first making them equal in terms of benefits to be able to benefit from equality of opportunity.
Now ponder over this. Aristotle said: "It is an injustice to treat unequal’s as equals just as it is an injustice to treat equals as unequal’s.