Job reservation row

Sons of the soil?

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah launching a Kannada Android app in Bangalore on September 19. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

A job mela in Bangalore. While most of the State public sector undertakings have already implemented the employee percentages specified in the Sarojini Mahishi report, the same cannot be said of the IT sector and the Central PSUs. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The Siddaramaiah government’s move to reserve for Kannadigas most of the jobs in industry stirs up a controversy.

IN the face of criticism that he is heading “an underperforming government” and under pressure from party legislators clamouring for Cabinet or other plum posts, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has come up with what critics say is a diversionary tactic: a promise to implement the largely unviable and arguably unimplementable task of reserving a minimum 80 per cent of all jobs for local people (read Kannadigas) in every new private and public sector industrial venture which wants to avail itself of government incentives and concessions. At the September 11 meeting of his Cabinet, Siddaramaiah, after deliberations on the final draft of Karnataka’s much-awaited New Industrial Policy (2014 - 2019), directed his Minister of State for Labour P.T. Parameshwara Naik to “gather all information pertaining to employee recruitment patterns in companies that employ 50 or more people in the organised sector, both private and public”.

According to the final draft of the New Industrial Policy (of which Frontline has a copy), all new industries desiring to avail themselves of government incentives and concessions, be it by way of land, power, water or tax, “will have to provide a minimum 80 per cent of employment to local people on an overall basis and 100 per cent employment to local people in the case of Group C and D categories (attenders, drivers, logistics, travel desk, security and housekeeping staff, etc.)”. The draft further states that “employment (opportunities) to local people will be monitored by the Department of Industries and Commerce for a period of 5 years” and “failure of the industry to provide employment to local people as stipulated will be reported to the concerned authorities, which will recommend for recovery of incentives and concessions sanctioned to the unit”. The policy also stipulates that all new industrial units desiring to avail themselves of government incentives and concessions will have to furnish an undertaking to this effect. Ironically, the government is yet to specify who is a Kannadiga/local.

Definitive questions

Are those who have lived in the State for at least 15 years eligible to call themselves locals/Kannadigas or will the State go by one of its own government orders (GOs) on the subject (GO-DPAR 37 SLC dated 2-2-1985), which defined Kannadiga as “a person who can read, write and talk in Kannada and has a working knowledge of Kannada”? The Commissioner of Labour, D.S. Vishwanath, told this correspondent that “a profile of every employee, starting initially with those employed in the manufacturing sector by companies that had availed themselves of governmental concessions/incentives, and then later with all companies including those in the service sector, based on criteria such as number of years domiciled in Karnataka, knowledge of Kannada, etc., as spelt out in various GOs or government notifications, was being worked out”. This profiling will determine whether the employee can be categorised as a Kannadiga/local or not. The Labour Department has asked the Department of Industries and Commerce to collect relevant information from various industries and pass it on to them.

Though Parameshwara Naik emphasised that it was not a survey but “only an exercise to gather details of employment in the private and public sectors across all industries”, the idea behind Siddaramaiah’s move is to try and hammer home the three-decade-old Sarojini Mahishi Committee report which recommended providing jobs to Kannadigas in both private and public sector industries. Over the years, the report has been a reference point for every government, but none implemented it given its far-reaching ramifications.

While most of the State public sector undertakings (PSUs) have already implemented—or come close to implementing—the employee percentages specified in the report, the same cannot be said of the State’s highly successful information technology (IT) sector and also the Central PSUs. The Labour Commissioner said that while requests had been sent to the Central PSUs asking for employee profiles, it was “not sure how they would respond”. He also said that information from IT and biotechnology (BT) sectors was not available even with the Department of Industries and Commerce since they came under the IT/BT Ministry. Said Vishwanath: “Once the information is collated, the government will take a policy decision on what to do. The information will be useful and a continuous upgradation is also possible. The information could also put at rest apprehensions on who has taken what classes of jobs.”

Explained Parameshwara Naik: “Industries want concessions from the government by way of land, power, water, etc., but they are not prepared to give Kannadigas jobs as per the recommendations of the Sarojini Mahishi report. There may be a satisfactory percentage of Kannadigas in group C and D categories, but industries are not appointing Kannadigas in higher, officer-category posts. This is why the Chief Minister has directed me to get the details.”

According to Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister T.B. Jayachandra, the government “will strictly monitor implementation of jobs to locals as per the Sarojini Mahishi report” and put in place a monitoring system. Ministers also explained that the New Industrial Policy would ensure that if someone lost land, one member from his/her family was given a job.

Scepticism and unease

While Ministers appear to be excited about Siddaramaiah’s move, some of them privately expressed scepticism and unease. A Minister, on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that “merit, not place of birth, should be the criterion if Karnataka is to regain its place as the leading industrialised State at least in the neighbourhood”. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Maharashtra had stolen a march over Karnataka in recent years, he pointed out. He also expressed doubts whether there would be a sufficient number of skilled or qualified Kannadigas to fill 80 per cent of all jobs and whether the policy was enforceable.

Said another Minister: “Karnataka is a front-line industrialised State. Take a sector like IT. Karnataka continues to lead the country in this sector, contributing to over a third of all exports. During the 2013-14 financial year, IT exports were estimated to be at Rs.1.65 lakh crore, a growth rate of around 16 to 17 per cent and which is more than the State’s annual budget. This sector has provided between 40,000 and 45,000 new jobs during the year. Overall, the direct employment provided by the IT sector is over 10 lakh, with indirect employment contributing to a further 30 lakh jobs. This figure is expected to double by 2020. It is no small achievement that Bangalore has emerged as the second largest technology hub on the planet after Silicon Valley. The question is, are there sufficiently skilled Kannadigas to fill up 80 per cent of all vacancies?”

The lack of skilled personnel from among the local/Kannadiga population certainly worries industry. “There is a scarcity of skilled locals on the shop floor—welders, fitters, technicians, etc.,” said B.N. Sampathkumaran, president of the Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “Local people are also not prepared to do certain kinds of jobs, which are immediately picked up by immigrants from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Nepal and the north-eastern region. Yes, we have to welcome the encouragement given to local people and they have to get the benefits of the State’s economic growth, but you can’t compel and make industrialists scout around for them. This will scare away potential industrialists, most of whom, when they recruit, don’t go beyond asking a candidate for his qualifications and experience. How does it matter to an industrialist where the candidate hails from as long as he fits the requirements of the position he has applied for?”

Most industrialists are of the view that implementation of the Sarojini Mahishi report will be difficult and that the government should not pander to the demands of chauvinistic groups. According to Ramesh Swamy, who runs Unnati Centre, a “vocational and social transformation NGO” in Bangalore, not enough local youth are even registering for training in areas such as construction, guest care, retail sales, beauty care, security services, data entry, paramedical sciences, hardware and networking. “I offer free training, free accommodation and food, and guarantee a job once the training is over,” he said. “But getting local youth to join, train and then work is impossible. If an industry gets local talent why will they hire immigrants? Eligible local candidates must be given preference by industries, but they are not available. Reserving jobs can be on a government wish list but it’s bad for the economy. And the economy works on people working, not on reservation or when people are on the dole.”

Bouquets and brickbats

Siddaramaiah’s thinking though finds a resonance among a number of people. “The Karnataka government is offering incentives and concessions to companies. But the jobs in these companies are going to people from other States, including neighbouring Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha and Bihar. There are companies in Bangalore where the percentage of Kannadigas is just 5 to 10 per cent, whereas in places like Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata local people hold more than 90 per cent of the jobs. I am not saying we should be against outsiders, but companies should employ more locals and there are enough qualified people,” said Mahendra Gowda, a young unemployed graduate.

But Siddaramaiah’s move also has an equal, if not larger, number of critics. While it is true that local people/Kannadigas have been left out of the employment pie, implementation of reservation may not be pragmatic; it may also not pass legal muster since the citizen’s Right to Equality prevents discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Over the decades, the Sarojini Mahishi report has become a handle for local organisations that are self-appointed guardians of Kannadiga interests to insist that all jobs in Karnataka should go to local people. The government of Karnataka, in fact, had established a separate department, the Kannada Development Authority (KDA) or Kannada Abhivridhi Pradhikara, to oversee the effective implementation of the accepted recommendations of the Sarojini Mahishi report.

Said Sanjeev Tagadur, president of the KDA: “A few years ago, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi insisted on similar reservation of jobs for local people in his State. But it didn’t succeed. In Karnataka, too, this sort of government direction earmarking jobs for Kannadigas will be impractical. The implementation of the Sarojini Mahishi report is very difficult and that is why governments haven’t pushed it. Recently, when I visited an IT company in Mumbai, I found that 30 to 40 per cent of the workforce was Kannada-speaking. So if people have the talent and the qualifications, they will get jobs.”

Chequered past

Karnataka, which shares its borders with Maharashtra in the north-west, Kerala in the south, Tamil Nadu in the east and the south, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the north and the east, has always been touchy about its culture and language being overrun by people from neighbouring States. Worse, Bangalore, which since Independence has been the financial and industrial engine that drives Karnataka’s economy, has had a chequered past, with Marathas, Telugus and Tamils ruling the city in centuries gone by. Also, during British rule, the city was clearly divided into two culturally and linguistically different parts: The Civil and Military Station (CMS), or Bangalore Cantonment, which was part of Madras Presidency and was directly under the administration of the British, and Bangalore City, governed by the Durbar of the Kingdom of Mysore.

The CMS therefore had a large Tamil and Anglo-Indian population and Kannada or Canarese, as Kannada was known, was hardly spoken there. The CMS also had a fair sprinkling of Malayalis and Telugus, with Kannadigas in the minority. Though the demography has changed since Independence, Bangalore is, much to the chagrin of chauvinistic groups, still home to a huge number of non-Kannadigas. But is it for the government of the day to impose job quotas is a moot question.

In May, the Karnataka government’s language policy of making the mother tongue the compulsory medium of instruction in primary education was struck down. So too (on September 11) was the State’s review plea. Many legal experts feel Siddaramaiah’s decision on 80 per cent of all jobs for Kannadigas will also be challenged legally.

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