The Supreme Courts order finds acceptance among sections that are for and against reservation.
TWO years ago, the protests that greeted Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singhs announcement of the governments proposal to introduce 27 per cent reservation in higher educational institutions for students belonging to the Other Backward Classes were as stormy as the anti-Mandal agitations in 1989-90. Medical and engineering students came out on the streets, and some of them enacted a mock sweeping of the streets to indicate that the proposed move would take away their opportunities in life. Some of the agitating students were booked under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The students of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) were at the centre of the agitation. Medical students who spearheaded the agitation floated a broad front called the Youth For Equality (YFE). A countrywide strike was organised from May 16, 2006, to June 3, 2006.
Two years later, the protests have been rather muted after the Supreme Court lifted the stay on the implementation of the governments decision. The anti-reservation groups appear content with the exclusion of the creamy layer while pro-reservation groups, though not very happy about the exclusion, have welcomed the almost unanimous order.
Members of the YFE are now a subdued lot. They accept the Supreme Courts order but claim that they will keep a vigil over the implementation of the verdict. If the government goes strictly by the court order, then its okay. Otherwise we will file a review petition, said Dr Abhishek Bansal, a founder member of the YFE and a doctor at the Maulana Azad Medical College (MAMC). He claims that the YFE has actually won because the apex court has excluded the creamy layer from the ambit of reservation. This is welcome, he says, for it will ensure that only those who really need reservation will benefit and a periodic review will be undertaken. The court has specified that the difference between the cut-off mark for OBC candidates and that for general category students cannot be more than 10 percentage points. Thus quality will not be compromised too much, he said.
But the YFE is exercised over the stretching of the available infrastructure to accommodate more students. Bansal said: More students will mean a need to increase facilities. Medical education is not just about classrooms, it involves equipment, operating theatres, labs, hostels, and a lot of other infrastructure facilities. But we have not seen any capacity addition in the last one year. How are they going to ensure quality with the increased intake? In the MAMC, for instance, the present intake of 180 students will go up to 270. Yet, the infrastructure is not adequate even to cater to the needs of 180 students.
Another area of concern for the doctors and medical students who were at the forefront of the agitation in 2006 is reservation for postgraduate courses. According to them, the criterion of educational backwardness does not apply to graduates. If the government goes ahead with reservation at the postgraduate level, they might move the court. Any graduate from the OBC category cannot avail himself/herself of the benefit of reservation for higher courses. But if the government applies reservation to postgraduate courses, too, then we will approach the Supreme Court again, said Kausahl Kant Mishra, a doctor at AIIMS and a founder member of the YFE.
Not all doctors, however, think on the lines of the YFE members. The Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum (PMSF), an AIIMS-based organisation of doctors, has welcomed the judgment but expressed mild reservations about the exclusion of the creamy layer. The PMSF has also objected to the criterion of minimum cut-off mark for excluding the creamy layer, saying it would be a better idea to first recruit students from the non-creamy section in the reserved category, and then open up the unfilled seats in the category to students from the so-called creamy layer.
The judgment stated: The Central government shall examine as to the desirability of fixing a cut-off mark in respect of the candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes. By way of illustration, it can be indicated that five grace marks can be extended to such candidates below the minimum eligibility marks fixed for general categories of students. This would ensure quality and merit would not suffer. If any seats remain vacant after adopting such norms, they shall be filled up by candidates from general categories.
The PMSF is also concerned that the implementation of the quota in institutes of higher learning would be as shoddy as it has been in the case of government jobs. Sukhbir Badal, general secretary, PMSF, and a senior resident doctor at AIIMS, said that instead of 27 per cent, only 6 to 7 per cent of the available jobs were held by OBC candidates in the A, B, C and D categories of employment. Eligible candidates, he said, were deliberately kept out. He said that the government could start off by excluding the creamy layer. But if it could not identify candidates from the non-creamy layer categories, then priority should be given to candidates from the creamy layer of the OBC.
Badal added that the overall mood at AIIMS was positive and that the anti-reservationists, too, had accepted the apex courts order. He said that the agitation at AIIMS two years ago would not have been so volatile had it not been for the support of the then Director.
Udit Raj, national president of the Indian Justice Party as well as president of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe Organisations, told Frontline that he welcomed the judgment though he believed that the creamy layer should not have been kept out.
The exclusion, he said, would ensure that suitable candidates would not be found to fill the reserved seats. Besides, candidates from the so-called creamy layer could find ways of fudging income proofs to avail themselves of the OBC quota. It is like the NREGS [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] or the targeted system of public distribution. Most of the NREGS beneficiaries and the BPL [below poverty line] card holders are not those who are poor. Others have benefited at their cost, he said.
But he also felt that the judgment had widespread acceptability since lower caste groups were not objecting to it. The order would not, he said. affect the seats of general candidates or the integrity of the country as claimed by some sections. He pointed out that the government had to increase the number of seats to ensure that the number of general seats remained unchanged. Professor P.V. Indiresan, former director of Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who was also a petitioner in the case, was disappointed at the court order, which he saw as the beginning of the collapse of intellectual backbone. Referring to the IITs announcement that the quota would be implemented from this academic year, including at the postgraduate level, he said the IIT Directors had destroyed the basic concepts of academic freedom, such as whom to teach. He is contemplating a review petition but will take a decision only after carefully studying the judgment and after watching the governments next move. If the government comes out with orders that are at variance with the judgment, then I will certainly haul them up for contempt of court.
He, too, is concerned about reservation at the postgraduate level and fears that overstretching of infrastructure will push down quality. Reservation in higher education, he says, is a political fraud in the context of the governments failure to provide primary and secondary education to the socially and educationally backward.
Anti-reservation feelings, clearly, have not lost their depth though the protests have petered out. During the stormy days anti-quota agitation in 2006, much of the mainstream media contributed to building up an atmosphere that was distinctly against reservation. A senior journalist with a Hindi television channel, who happened to belong to the OBC category, told Frontline that the atmosphere had become so vitiated that people hesitated to discuss the reservation issue for fear of being branded as casteist.
The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is a mere 5 per cent and the government has plans to increase it to 11 per cent at the end of the Eleventh Five Year Plan. In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Human Resource Development said that apart from a substantial increase in Plan allocation to set up Central universities, IITs, IIMs, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and Indian Institutes of Information Technology, the Ministry intends to expand the capacity of the existing institutions.
If the GER goes up, the number of students coming into higher education from S.C., S.T. and OBC backgrounds is also likely to go up. However, this is contingent on keeping the overall costs of higher education low. When the government was asked whether the number of OBC, S.C. and S.T. students entering the IITs, IIMs and Indian Schools of Mines had gone up in the last two years, the reply was that information was being collected. The seven IITs, National Institutes of Technology, Banaras Hindu University and the Indian School of Mines have now announced a phased introduction of the OBC quota beginning with 9 per cent this year and increasing it to 27 per cent by 2010.
The process has begun, and the government should now turn its attention to getting private institutions, aided and unaided, to follow suit. Only then will there be some kind of a meaning to this exercise of distributive and social justice.