Print edition : February 06, 2015

Lucknow, June 11, 1993: Prime Minister V.P. Singh with Ram Vilas Paswan before starting his "Samajik Nyay Rath Yatra" in Uttar Pradesh in support of the Mandal Commission recommendations. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

BETWEEN legislative approval and executive assent, the Mandal Commission recommendations lay in cold storage for exactly a decade. Ten years after both Houses of Parliament had approved it unanimously, the V.P. Singh government, in August 1990, decided to make job reservations for the “socially and educationally backward classes” (SEBCs) an integral element of official policy.

The turbulence that followed in the northern belt—as the student community struck an alliance of convenience with political malcontents of various descriptions—was one of the most traumatic phases of recent political history. The disturbances rekindled a movement of militant Hindu consolidation over a Muslim place of worship in Ayodhya. It was as if sections aspiring to the leadership of the Hindu community had decided to compose the fissures within their ranks by whipping up hysteria against a supposedly alien Islamic presence.

The anti-Mandal agitation brought up certain deep-seated pathologies of the Indian political psyche. The commentators who were the most vociferous in denouncing Mandal as a manifesto of national disintegration were precisely those who had turned their eyes away from the killings taking place in the name of Rama. The student protests themselves seemed to display demonstrative contempt towards the more menial of jobs, and the underprivileged sections that performed them. And when elements of the student community began a barbaric cycle of self-immolations, the media seemed to have little use for any of the canons of responsible reporting—loud and lurid photographs shocked public sensitivities; crudely insensitive reportage spread the hysteria. And one student after another was consumed in the gory ritual of human sacrifice.

No government in future could afford to ignore the issues raised by the Mandal Commission. And no government would ever be unaware of the nature of the opposition it would encounter in seeking to give effect to the recommendations.

Votaries of the anti-Mandal agitation argue that reservations will devalue the educational system and destroy whatever incentive there exists for scholastic excellence. This argument has acquired a great deal of credibility—if only through its repeated invocation by ideologues of the anti-reservation movement. It perhaps calls for some examination.

In 1972, India’s population stood at 563.9 million. With the birth rate standing around 36.4 per thousand of population, the number of children born that year should have been about 20.5 million. After adjusting for infant mortality at the rate of 132 and under-five mortality at 41.2 per thousand, the number of children surviving to schoolgoing age should have been about 17 million. With very marginal attrition in the ranks, these 17 million would have reached the age of 18 in the year 1990.

There will, naturally, be very great disparities between the educational attainments of these 17 million. Perhaps 85 per cent of them would have been to primary school, though only about 30 per cent of the total would have gone through to the secondary stage. As for those completing their higher education, the number would be considerably lower than 5 per cent of the total.

At a time when the competitive ethos of the market economy enjoys a certain vogue, it is easy to portray these disparities in educational attainment as a result of the working of the “merit” principle. But the more enlightened view, supported by most social scientists who have worked on the subject, is that these are the result of the specific ordering of educational priorities in India.

Discriminatory education system

As a child matures, the earnings forgone by the family —or perceived to be forgone—in putting him/her through school and college increases. The cost of education is to be assessed not merely in terms of the direct expenditures incurred, but also in terms of the earnings the child could potentially bring into the family, had he or she been a part of the labour force. There is, among the poorer sections, a strong disincentive on this account, to putting a child through the secondary stage of education.

To mitigate this problem, governments with a strong welfare orientation usually commit high volumes of subsidies to the secondary stage of education. This has been lacking in India, where government subsidies have been largely targeted towards higher education. As a result, the average child from the poorer sections is unable to cross that crucial hump at the secondary education stage.

Principles of natural justice and equality of opportunity would seem to demand that this discriminatory system of education should not be compounded by a discriminatory system of job selection. Reservations are a means of ensuring this objective. This does not imply the abandonment of educational standards, but only their selective relaxation in certain well-defined cases.

Falling number of jobs

However, even this justification of the policy will fail if it could be established that job reservations militate against the legitimate interests and aspirations of certain sections. In other words, will the effort to redress the skewed social balance run the risk of seriously damaging the employment opportunities of deserving sections?

Here again, a few indicative figures would serve to shed further light on the question. Since 1961, the highest number of fresh jobs created in the public sector in any one year has been about 850,000. And this was in an exceptional year. If the average were to be taken since 1961, the number of additional work places created in the public sector has been about 410,000 annually. The annual contribution of the organised private sector to employment creation has been about one-fifth of this figure. Within the organised sector, it is clear that the public sector—and this category includes all levels of government from the Centre to local bodies—has been by far the more significant contributor.

So much for additional job creation. There is then the category of replacement jobs. It may be assumed (very liberally) that of the total public sector employment of 18 million, around 5 per cent falls due for replacement every year, on account of superannuation and other such processes. Then the job absorption on this account will amount to 900,000. The total employment potential of the public sector in any given year would then total about 1.3 million. If a 27 per cent reservation were to be applied to all jobs in the public sector—and not just Central government jobs—then the number of workplaces affected would be about 350,000. If in addition, the 10 per cent reservation for economic backwardness were to be introduced, another 130,000 jobs will be affected. In comparison to the number of aspirants who enter the job market every year, these figures are mere flea-bites.

Assuming, very conservatively, that 50 per cent of those in the age groups between 18 and 25 would be seeking some form of productive employment, there would be an addition of about 8.5 million persons to the labour market every year.

In comparison, the total number of additional jobs created in the public sector—under the most liberal of assumptions—would be just 1.3 million, and that in the organised sector as a whole, about 2 million. Organised-sector employment fails most manifestly to meet the aspirations of the job-seeking youth. The divergence between the number of job-seekers and employment creation is of the order of four times. This is clearly a far more serious problem than the reservation of a mere 350,000 jobs for the SEBCs.


Obviously, what is at issue is not reservation, but the inability of economic policy to create employment opportunities commensurate with the number of aspirants who enter the labour market every year. This is a problem of a different dimension, and is deeply rooted in the structure of the Indian economy. Over the last 40 years, the industry and service sectors have expanded dramatically in terms of their share in the national income, while failing to contribute much by way of employment generation.

In the first quinquennium of the 1950s, that is, between 1950-51 and 1954-55, the primary sector, within which agriculture predominates, accounted for 56.4 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Manufacturing industry and services accounted for the rest. In the final quinquennium of the 1980s, that is, between 1985-86 and 1989-90, the primary sector accounted for a mere 34.6 per cent of GDP. Industry and services have evidently increased their share in the national income, as indeed they should in a context of development.

The specific feature of the Indian experience, however, is that the rising share of industry and services in national income has not been accompanied by a rising share in employment. In fact, the combined share of these two sectors in total employment has remained virtually stagnant around 30 per cent for all of 40 years. This could be firmly stated only when detailed results of the 1991 Census are published. But a pattern that was so apparent between the 1951 and 1981 Census enumerations is unlikely to have significantly altered over the last decade.

The implications are fairly clear—per capita income levels in the industry and service sectors have increased rapidly over the last four decades, while agriculture has lagged behind, serving as a reservoir for the large numbers of people who are unable to gain access to employment in other sectors. And within the growing sectors, it is again obvious that organised sections would have done much better than others.

Enclave of privileges

Government employment, in fact, has become an enclave of privilege in the midst of a generally depressed economic scenario. Between 1970-71 and 1989-90, average per capita earnings in Central government employment have increased by the order of about 780 per cent. In comparison, the average all-India consumer price index has increased by only 340 per cent. Central government employees, in other words, have been over-compensated for inflation almost twice over since 1970-71.

If all sections of the population were to be able to adjust their earnings similarly for inflation, prices would quickly go out of control on account of a wage-price spiral. The burden of adjustment would have to be borne by some sections. And in the current context it is apparent that this burden has been borne by the large mass of the working people in industry, agriculture and the unorganised service sector.

In objective terms, the arguments against reservation seem to have less to do with merit or with jobs than with safeguarding access to a high-wage island of employment in the country. This is not an argument that needs to be greatly entertained—whatever the scale of morality used. The growing sense of privileged exclusivity in government service is an aberration that calls out for correction—if necessary through breaking down the caste exclusivity of public employment. If job reservations go some way towards this end, then they should be welcomed on purely objective grounds.

A slogan composed by the pro-Mandal campaigners last year sums up the essence of the matter: Vote se liya CM, PM; Mandal se leinge SP, DM. (We have chosen our Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers through the ballot; we will seize the posts of Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate through Mandal.)The Mandal Commission encapsulates the aspirations of certain social groups that have, through their participation in the productive processes, now emerged as a significant political force. They have gained sizeable representation in the legislative institutions. But lacking access to executive power, they have been unable to alter significantly the political agenda in the manner of their choosing. If the Mandal Commission helps in making the executive arm of the government more reflective of the pluralities of Indian society—and at the same time narrows the yawning chasm between legislative decree and executive will—then it can only strengthen the processes of participative democracy. Specious arguments about merit and about the seamless whole of “Hindu” society should not distract attention from this fact.

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