Print edition : August 27, 2004

The conflicting and often aggressive positions taken by various community organisations over a commission report on job quotas pose a threat to the A.K. Antony government.

in Thiruvananthapuram

A Secretariat march organised in Thiruvananthapuram on August 2 by the Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council demanding the implementation of the Narendran Commission report.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

THE communal cauldron in Kerala is once again being stirred and set to boil, this time over the report of a commission which studied "the adequacy or otherwise of representation of the Backward Classes" in public services in the State.

The three-member Justice K.K. Narendran Commission, appointed in February 2000 by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, submitted its report to the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) government in November 2001 with significant, though controversial, inferences from a wealth of data on the representation of the various communities in the four categories of public services - State government departments, the judiciary, public sector enterprises, and universities and other autonomous institutions under the government. Its contents remained a mystery to the general public until recently and were hence open to motivated interpretations by opposing community, caste, religious and political interests. Shrill demands for the implementation of the "recommendations of the commission" - a euphemism for `exclusive community interests' - are already threatening the future of the Congress-led UDF.

The commission found that almost all the Backward Class communities in Kerala improved or were improving their presence in the public services through the system of reservation, and some have even managed to get jobs in excess of their reservation quota. It observed that, however, they still were not yet in a position to reach "adequacy of representation" without the continuance of reservation.

It found that the representation of forward castes in public services "is of much less proportion", ranging between 36 per cent and 51 per cent of the total employees in the four categories of public services. The Backward Classes, on the other hand, collectively obtained a bigger share of the posts, their representation ranging from 41 per cent to 48 per cent. Hence in all the four categories, the Backward Classes as a whole secured employment in excess of their combined reservation quota of 40 per cent.

However, the commission says that taken individually there are instances where Backward Class communities hold posts substantially fewer in number than their individual reservation quota, or where they have obtained posts in excess of the reservation quota only marginally, or where they have got jobs substantially in excess of their quota (though this is not the general pattern). Thus, according to the commission, "there is clear inadequacy of backward communities in public services, though the extent of inadequacy varies from community to community". If some Backward Class communities have been able to get jobs in excess of their reservation quota, "it only meant that the policy of reservation is helping them to move towards adequacy of representation in public services".

Among the Backward Classes, the commission found that Ezhavas, the most socially and educationally advanced among them, have universally secured better representation, by securing posts in the merit quota over and above the reservation quota. But in comparison Muslims, another major Backward Class community, "have not fared well". (The data in the report show that Muslim representation in the various categories is in almost all cases below their reservation quota, the difference being between 0.3 per cent and about 6 per cent in the four categories.) The commission, however, says that the main reason for this "is nothing but educational backwardness" and pointed out that Muslims as well as other Backward Class communities can emulate the example of Ezhavas "if they pay more attention to the education of their children".

Quoting the Supreme Court judgment in the Mandal case that "adequate representation cannot be read as proportionate representation", the commission disagrees with the argument of some Backward Class organisations that they should be provided jobs in proportion to the percentage of population of each community to the total population. It says that following an approach of reservation that ensures a "minimum level" of representation for Backward Classes - "a level certainly not too low compared to their population" - in public services and at the same time encouraging them to increase their share in open merit competition "is giving encouraging results" in the State. However, it says, there are instances where the representation of the most backward among the Backward Classes continues to be "unsatisfactory" and that this calls for "intelligent and imaginative corrective action" on the part of the government.

Pointing out that the practical method to determine the adequacy or otherwise of Backward Class representation is to "study how the representation of each group compares with its reservation quota", the commission says that "in the interest of fairness to all" the corrective action "should not trample on the legitimate and reasonable prospects for promotion and career advancement" of those outside the reservation umbrella and those who, eligible for reservation, are recruited earlier on merit or in the reservation quota. The commission also says that corrective action should be taken in such a way as to avoid any "unintended benefit" accruing to certain communities coming under the Backward Classes category.

The report also provides a clear idea of the backlog in the representation of the major Backward Class communities in the public services as on August 1, 2000 when seen against their respective reservation quota. Thus, the "deficiency in the number of posts actually held (in reservation and open merit competition together) compared to the entitlement in reservation quota" for the various communities was as follows: Muslims (reservation quota: 12 per cent) 7,383 posts; Latin Catholics (4 per cent) 4,370 posts; Nadars (2 per cent) 2,614 posts; Scheduled Castes converted to Christianity (1 per cent) 2,290 posts; Dheevara (1 per cent) 256 posts; Other Backward Communities (3 per cent) 460 posts; and Vishwakarmas (3 per cent) 147 posts. Significantly, with regard to the Ezhava community, eligible for the highest reservation quota of 14 per cent, the backlog was only five posts.

The concluding observation of the report is a deft balancing act, perhaps aimed at communities that have benefited from the reservation system to the detriment of others. It says that "as things stand now, without the benefit of reservation, no community among the Backward Classes can have adequate representation in public services" and that "even with reservation most communities are not getting adequate representation in all the categories of posts". But the report ends thus: "Reservation for Backward Classes is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. It cannot be a permanent feature."

ALREADY, the findings of the commission have dampened the initial enthusiasm of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, the social arm of the Ezhava community, over further action on the report. But a grand unity of Backward Classes is taking shape with the most contentious of the demands being raised by (among some other Backward Class organisations) the prominent ruling front partner, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which has called on the government to launch a "special recruitment" drive for those communities (prominently Muslims) to clear the backlog. When the Nair Service Society (NSS) and other organisations representing forward caste interests challenged this demand as it went against their long-held position against continuing reservation benefits for communities which, according to them, had crossed the pale of backwardness, IUML leaders also began to claim that "special recruitment to clear the backlog in government recruitments" was a solemn promise the ruling UDF had made to the Backward Classes in its election manifesto. In turn, an argument has been raised that no such decision should be made without taking into account the economically advanced status of Backward Class communities such as Muslims, who are also the prime beneficiaries of the lucrative job market in the Gulf countries. The demand for economic reservation for the poor among the forward castes too is in the air.

The three-member commission was appointed by the LDF government as part of a multi-pronged strategy to satisfy such conflicting demands of political and community organisations following the introduction of the creamy layer norm in the State (nearly eight years after the Supreme Court began insisting on it). Significantly, the trouble that erupted throughout the country in 1990 following the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations by the V.P. Singh Government did not affect the communal equations in Kerala much because the reservation system already in existence in the State then for over five decades had redressed a lot of the injustices the Mandal report sought to remedy. But later, while many other States found it easy to obey the Supreme Court's subsequent order in 1992 regarding the exclusion of the creamy layer of the Backward Classes from reservation benefits, Kerala was caught between the conflicting demands of two politically powerful forces - one insisting that the existing system had proved baneful to the interests of the forward castes, especially the poor among them, and hence needed to be changed; and the other claiming that it had not yet achieved the desired results for the improvement of the lot of the Backward Classes, and hence needed to be continued without change and certainly without implementing the creamy layer norm. And, in a State where political parties supported by religious and caste groups have been integral parts of ruling coalitions, an objective assessment of the real nature of backwardness in Kerala society had remained beyond the courage of successive State governments.

Even the three-member Narendran Commission was asked only to "study and report" whether the representation of the Backward Classes in public services was "adequate" or not. It was not asked to recommend "remedial measures", though the strident demand of several Backward Class organisations ever since the report was submitted was the "implementation of the commission's recommendations". Nor, for that matter, had the UDF election manifesto promised special recruitment for any category of Backward Classes based on the commission's report. In fact, the commission submitted its report only months after the UDF came to power. The UDF manifesto had said that "it would take steps to fill the backlog in reservation posts in government services on the basis of the recommendations of an Assembly Committee".

Similarly, the claim of organisations such as the NSS that the very constitution of the "Narendran Commission" was illegal and hence unacceptable and that they had challenged it and the validity of its recommendations before the Supreme Court too was deliberately off the mark, as the petition still pending before the court is with regard to an earlier one-man commission, headed by the same retired judge of the Kerala High Court, K.K. Narendran, and appointed by the LDF government to identify the creamy layer among the Backward Classes in the State and to recommend norms for its exclusion from reservation benefits. Surely, facts were being fudged by both sides in the months when the report remained a secret.

The controversial one-man commission earned the wrath of the forward castes when it recommended a hike in the annual income limit to identify the creamy layer from Rs.1.5 lakhs (set by the K.J. Joseph Commission) to Rs.3.5 lakhs. (The Joseph Commission was appointed by the Kerala High Court at the behest of the Supreme Court when the ruling and Opposition parties, except the Communist Party of India (Marxist), unanimously decided to sweep the court's creamy layer verdict aside and instead pass a law "declaring" that there was no creamy layer among the Backward Classes in the State.) In sharp contrast to the Joseph Commission, it had also said that salary and income from agriculture should not be considered while deciding the ceiling limit of Rs.3.5 lakhs, a ceiling that allowed a vast section of the Backward Classes to continue to enjoy the benefits of reservation.

The NSS immediately filed a petition challenging the one-man commission's appointment and later its recommendations, claiming that its constitution was against the court's order directing the government to set up a permanent commission to "regularly" monitor the income status of Backward Class communities and continue to exclude those falling within the creamy layer category on a regular basis. The Supreme Court completed the hearing on the case in February and a final decision is awaited.

Significantly, it was as part of the same political strategy to deal with the conflicts that arose following the implementation of the new creamy layer norm that the LDF government appointed the three-member commission too, with Justice Narendran as its chairman and former Chief Secretary K.V. Rabindran Nair and former chairman of the State Public Service Commission T.M. Savankutty as the other members.

The three-member Narendran Commission considered data from 11 years (but only up to August 2000, and not since the implementation of the creamy layer norm) of nearly five lakh government employees belonging to the 78 Backward Class communities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and forward castes in the State. The three members of the commission, selected from three different communities, themselves foresaw a controversy over their report; they say that "adequacy" in the context of representation of Backward Classes in public services is essentially "a matter of opinion" and that their main task was only to collect appropriate data and make them available so that "different individuals and organisations, may, according to their varied perceptions, come to different conclusions from the same data". They say that their observations regarding the adequacy of representation too "should not be taken as the only authentic conclusion that can be arrived at from the data"; perhaps they want interpreters to seek the truth of what they really wanted to convey between the lines of the report.

Strangely, it is the IUML, which was quietly sharing power with the Congress for over three years, that is now at the forefront of the budding agitation of Backward Class organisations demanding "special recruitment" to fill the backlog of posts due to them, though the UDF government, financially on the brink, is trying to cut costs and posts. The alienation of the IUML from its once-favourite Chief Minister A.K. Antony has been obvious ever since the latter's controversial statement about the "pressure tactics employed by the organised minorities in the State" and the government's controversial handling of the Marad communal crisis. The IUML came under tremendous pressure from its rivals on both these issues and for the first time, mainly because of them, lost its citadel constituency of Manjeri in the Lok Sabha elections. The "special recruitment" demand is therefore a political necessity for the IUML when the State is about to have elections to the local bodies and the term of the Antony government is drawing to a close.

While the IUML is at it, the four-year-old commission report is getting outdated, making the issue more complex, and rival communal formations are contemplating a grand battle. It is the same old story on which the coming elections are likely to be fought. Eventually, perhaps, a new commission will be set up.

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