September 24, 2017   
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OBC Categorisation

ANOTHER PANDORA’S BOX

By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

 The Union Government has decided to set up a Commission to undertake sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBC). The announcement has come as a rather late response to several demands from various castes from time to time for inclusion in the list of OBC and pressures to trim the list for better distribution of the benefits.

The terms of reference to the Commission include examination of the degree of “inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation” among the OBC; devising a mechanism, criteria, and parameters   for sub-categorisation of OBC; and revision of the Central list of OBC. On the face of it, it is a tricky job by anybody’s assessment.  The exercise is likely to open another Pandora’s Box releasing more and more answerless questions, clueless complications, and fresh demands.

Three categories of OBC have been suggested by the National Commission for Backward Classes –– Other Backward Class, Most Backward Class, and Extremely Backward Class.  It  confirms that in official thinking,  no  exit door is contemplated  for  any  caste as a group  in the  OBC list, but only   special doors to be  opened  for  sections within a BC  like VIP entrances in temples.   Degrees of backwardness will be the criterion for sub-categorization.

BJP President says that, “The sub-categorisation will ensure that priority can be given to communities among the OBC which because of their economic backwardness are in greater need of reservation and other benefits”.  The observation admits the impact of economic   standard   in determining backwardness – a factor ignored all along by associating backwardness exclusively with over-all social and educational status of a caste which has directly strengthened caste bonds of the forward within backward.

No doubt, special concessions and preferential treatment in any matter cannot reach everybody in the targeted category in equal measure. On the contrary, they produce  further divisions and  introduce new  inequalities.  A  community  once   homogeneous   by social and educational status,  may  also develop  vertical  layers as a consequence of uneven utilisation of the benefits of  government policy due to  personal and circumstantial causes.  This necessitates removal of the “creamy layer” within the OBC.  Our problem today is to reach all and uplift the entire society.  Any special assistance is intended to help the weaker sections in competitive situations.

The label “Backward Classes” originated in the last decade of the 19th century.   The Madras Government in 1895 offered small stipends to pupils coming from ‘illiterate” and “indigent castes” and labeled them the “backward classes”.  At one stage, in the old Mysore Princely State a committee declared that all castes other than the Brahmin were   “backward” deserving special concessions.

Look back.  The OBC itself was born as a sub-category of the preponderant numerical majority of the political category “Non-Brahmin” in the old Madras Presidency in the 1930s and formed the Backward Classes League in 1933. Pleading that only forward Non-Brahmin castes were benefiting under the category “Non-Brahmin” recognised in the Communal G.O. of 1922 governing appointments in State services, it demanded separate turns for the backward.  As a result of persistent efforts, it succeeded in getting official recognition for job reservation in 1947 as a gift of Independence.

A list of Backward Classes, then equated with castes, was also drawn up and published in the gazette. Another list of Most Backward Classes among the BC was approved by the Government of Madras in 1957 for the purpose of granting educational concessions.

In 1989, the Government of Tamil Nadu, forced by violent protests,  recognised Most Backward  Classes for separate reservation in State services  and prepared  a   list  of MBC.   Exclusive 20 per cent reservation was provided for them.  There are presently about 40 castes listed as MBC in Tamil Nadu.

The question of reservation – particularly the task of listing of castes which needs definite   criteria and identification – has always been a contentious issue.  For, the number of castes run into several hundreds and of sub-castes into thousands known by different names in different places.  The task of fresh listing is bound to raise more questions than answers and preparation of a satisfactory all-India list is almost impossible.

The undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have gone much ahead of other States in this exercise having examined them in depth through special commissions. Both academics and administrators have been involved in this exercise. Central Government’s proposal for sub-categorisation may raise discontent if its details are not in conformity with prevailing State orders and rules.

Two-way reservation is in force in a number of States — Social Reservation which is vertical and Special Reservation which is horizontal.  Reservation for physically handicapped, ex-servicemen, dependents of freedom fighters, and women are horizontal reservation and it may cut across vertical reservation.

The practice of sub-categorisation of OBC has been in vogue in many States in different forms. Such classification made in Karnataka in 1955 was upheld by the Supreme Court also. Presently, in   West Bengal, there are two categories – Backward and More Backward.  Haryana recognizes three categories as Backward, Backward Classes A, and Backward Classes B besides Scheduled Castes.  Haryana government even tried to carve out a new category labeled BC (C) made up of five communities including Jats by a legislation unanimously passed by the Assembly in 2016.  It was stayed by the High Court.

The Government of Maharashtra recognizes two categories — OBC and Special OBC comprising   346 and 7 castes respectively.  They are granted 19 per cent and 2 per cent job reservation in government service. Andhra Pradesh has five grades of OBC – A, B, C, D, and E and has set up a Corporation for MBC a year ago.  Bihar has two categories  – I and II. Tamil Nadu government introduced “compartmental reservation” within Scheduled Castes also in 2009 for Arunthathiyars for job reservation. Thus, the trend has been to split categories by degree of backwardness and increase their number. It has been done by devising a yardstick for measurement technically called indicators.

It is true that reservation in jobs and educational institutions has not brought intended benefits to all eligible communities, but has produced inequalities among the backward classes. Reservation Policy has allowed cornering of chances by the forward among the backward which has brought about this dire need for sub-categorisation.

Politically, the move will have the effect of ending or weakening domination of top layers of the OBC to the exclusion of those down below – an effect that will produce immense political  impact in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  The present tendency to cling to the idea that “once backward is always backward” will get a break. However, the concept of sub-categorisation, logically cannot be restricted to the OBC, nor the application of economic standard stop with the “creamy layer” of the OBC.

Under the Reservation Policy, only SC, ST, and categories of OBC are listed and not others.  They are supposed to be “forward” or in official parlance “non- backward”.  Considered realistically, this group is also not homogeneous in social, educational, or economic standard.

When drastic sub-categorisation is in process, the backward among the technically non-backward may also legitimately expect some relief.   There is no end to compartmental thinking.   It is time to make a wholesale change and give up divisive policies. Our mindset has to change.—INFA

(Copyright, India New & Feature Alliance)