The constitution (124th Amendment) Bill 2019 passed by the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre on January 9 to provide 10 percent reservation in all government education institutions and jobs for economically weaker sections (EWS) within the upper castes from the academic year 2019-20, has created a furore in Tamil Nadu (pop.72 million). Individuals not under existing quotas and with annual family incomes below Rs.800,000 or agricultural land below 5 acres are eligible for reservation. But if they have residential homes of 1,000 sq. ft and/or 100-yard plus land holding in a notified municipal area or a 200-yard plot in a non-notified municipal area, they are excluded.
When the Bill was introduced in Parliament, the E.K. Palaniswamy-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) which rules Tamil Nadu, opposed it and even the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) voted against it. Moreover, the DMK and its allies have challenged its constitutional validity in the Madras high court and Supreme Court of India.
The strong all-party opposition to the new Bill which mandates reservations for the poor within upper castes is rooted in Tamil Nadu’s long history of affirmative action quotas in higher education and reservation of jobs for historically oppressed and marginalised lower castes, irrespective of the criterion of economic backwardness. Reservations have been the bedrock of the Dravidian movement and politics since 1920, when a non-Brahmin movement under the Justice Party in Madras Presidency (as Tamil Nadu was known during British rule) won the provincial election. The movement launched by the backward castes/classes from 1930 to 1950 gave a distinctive character to Tamil Nadu politics and maintained continuous pressure for larger reserved quotas in higher education and government jobs.
In 1969, the then ruling DMK government appointed the first Tamil Nadu State Backward Classes Commission which recommended increasing the quota of backward castes from 25 percent to 31 percent and for Scheduled castes and tribes to 18 percent, aggregating 49 percent. In 1979, when the AIADMK government headed by former (late)chief minister M.G. Ramachandran issued a government order introducing reservations based on economic criteria, it was badly defeated by a DMK-Congress alliance in 1980. This jolted MGR into withdrawing the government order and increasing the quota of backward castes from 31 percent to 50 percent and the SC/ST reserved quota to 19 percent. Thus 69 percent reservation of seats in higher education institutions and government jobs became de rigeuer in Tamil Nadu since 1982.
In the early 1990s, the Supreme Court while upholding the validity of a Constitution Amendment Bill introduced in Parliament at the Centre reserving a 27 percent quota for other backward castes/classes (OBCs) on the basis of the Mandal Commission report (1979) which assessed that OBCs constitute over 50 percent of the nation’s population, also ruled that total reservations in Central and state government-owned education institutions and offices should not exceed 50 percent. However in 1993, former chief minister, the late J. Jayalalithaa, introduced a Bill in the state’s legislative assembly ensuring continuation of 69 percent reservation in Tamil Nadu. At her request, the then Narasimha Rao government at the Centre allowed the state legislation to be included in the IXth Schedule of the Constitution which is beyond judicial scrutiny. This ensured that the aggregate 69 percent reservation quota for OBCs, SC & STs was placed beyond the reach of the Supreme Court.
Given this hard won victory of Tamil Nadu’s anti-Brahmin backward caste political parties, educationists in Tamil Nadu are doubtful if the state will accept the 10 percent reservation for economically weaker upper castes. Moreover, they are highly critical of the liberal eligibility of the annual income threshold of Rs.800,000 per year mandated by the 124th Amendment Bill. “The liberal income ceiling for eligibility is way too high and will cover almost 98 percent of the general category (i.e, higher caste) households. The India Human Development Survey states that the annual income of 98 percent of households countrywide is below Rs.800,000. Tamil Nadu has the highest quantum of reservation for backward classes in the country. If the new reservation quota is implemented, it will cover almost everyone including backward and upper castes and the few open category candidates who are ineligible for reservation will have no seats in education institutions or government jobs. Merit will be totally bypassed,” says Dr. Krishanu Pradhan, assistant professor of economics, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.
With lack of clarity on ways and means to implement the new 124th Amendment Bill and the fact that it will by far exceed the 50 percent reservations ceiling mandated by the Supreme Court, the state government has decided to wait and watch. If the apex court revises its full bench judgement in the Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India (1993) case which imposed the 50 percent ceiling on reservation in government higher education institutions, 79 percent of students in government higher ed institutions in Tamil Nadu will be admitted on the basis of considerations other than merit. As these graduates enter industry, business and professions, productivity could hit new lows.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)