The Supreme Court has hit the nail on the head over the curiously generous reservation policy adopted by some states on March 19 when it sought to know for how many generations the reservations would continue.  Questioning the rationale behind a petition for removal of the overall 50 per cent limit during hearing into the Maratha quota case, the apex court raised concerns over “resultant inequality”.

Coming from the highest court of the land, the question – “for how many generations the reservations would continue” – is enough to raise many an eye-brow. The court has never raised such apprehensions about the future of the reservation policy in the past. If it is raising concerns over the issue now, it needs to be taken seriously.

Reservations, over the years, have become a critical issue. In the past, it weathered many a socio-political storm. The fierce anti-reservation protests that saw students resorting to self immolation in a desperate bid to stall the reservation policy of then VP Singh government are still fresh in the memory.

Of late, there have been controversies over the reservations, notably RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for review of reservation policy and subsequent Bharat Bandh called by Bhim Army in protest against a Supreme Court’s February 9 ruling that states are not bound to provide reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Class in appointments and promotions.

Appearing for Maharashtra, senior advocate, Mukul Rohatgi, impressed upon the court on the need to review the Mandal judgment on capping of the quota, in both jobs and education, under the changed circumstances. Pointing out that the Mandal judgment was based on the premise of census of 1931 he said the courts should leave it to states to fix reservation quotas in view of the changed circumstances.

In a counter to the counsel’s argument that the Maharashtra law granting quota to Marathas exceeding the 50 per cent cap, the court observed, “If there is no 50 per cent or no limit, as you are suggesting, what is the concept of equality then. We will ultimately have to deal with it. What is your reflection on that… What about the resultant inequality. How many generations will you continue.”

There is no denying the fact that reservations have played a vital role in ensuring emancipation of weaker sections of the society and will certainly go a long way in the realisation of the objective of equality among all the citizens. This is precisely why the reservation policy is enshrined in the Constitution.

However, the court is well within its right to see to it that the quota based reservations don’t cross a limit whereby the very policy becomes a pawn in the hands of political parties and thereby defeats the very purpose of the statutory provision, hence the refusal to oblige to the Maharashtra government’s plea to do away with the 50 per cent ceiling on the reservations.

Going by the trend of demanding reservations, there seems to be no-holds-barred race for quotas among different groups aided and abetted by political entities. Even those groups which have registered a level of upward mobility on all parameters, in the post-Independent India, including economical, social and political, stake their claim to reservation as if the reservation is a privilege, not an incentive.

What is all the more intriguing is that there are states which are more than willing to oblige to unjustified demands motivated by political considerations rather than genuine requirement for the uplift of a group. If this was not the case, a number of states won’t have reservations exceeding 50 per cent. The court rightly questioned the validity of such reservations. Going further, the judiciary should take suo moto notice of the incongruity in the reservation policy and should even advise the government to take necessary steps to remove the anomaly as a course correction.

The Supreme Court has rightly pointed out that the purpose of reviewing the Mandal judgment was to eliminate those who have come out from backwardness. Questioning the beneficial schemes being carried on by the states, the Supreme Court asked, “Can we accept that no development has taken place, that no backward caste has moved forward” in the last 70 years of independence.

While concurring with the court’s contention that the backwards have indeed moved forward, Rohatgi still defended his demand saying that in the past 30 years the population has grown, backward persons may also have increased.

What is intriguing in the whole debate is that the reservation policy is being based on the premise of economic backwardness while the Constitution envisages the concept of reservation on the basis of social backwardness among various groups.

While Rohatgi tried to justify the demand for raising the quota limit on the economic basis saying we still have starvation deaths in this country, the Supreme Court declined to oblige to the demand saying it will give rise to inequality. Whether the court was referring to economic or social inequality, it didn’t specify. But if the reservations were to be justified on economic grounds, it is bound to open floodgates of quota demands that a country with India’s resources will ill afford.

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The opinion expressed in the article is of the writer. Writer is a freelance journalist/journalist based in Delhi

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