Bihar clears bill to raise caste quota from 50% to 65%
The proposal, however, may well end up before the courts since it breaches the 50% cap fixed by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Indra Sawhney case.
The Bihar assembly on Thursday cleared two bills that seek to increase the caste-based quota in education and government employment to 65%, setting the stage for a potential shake-up of heartland politics that could elevate caste as a key poll plank for next summer’s general elections.
The Bihar Reservation of Vacancies in Posts and Services Amendment Bill and the Bihar Reservation (Admission In Educational Institutions) Amendment Bill, 2023 came days after the government tabled the detailed analysis of the state’s landmark caste survey that showed that marginalised castes were significantly worse off economically and socially than general categories, who were found to be over-represented in government jobs and among the educated sections.
The two bills — which were passed unanimously in the assembly — will now be sent to governor Rajendra Arlekar for his assent. If they becomes law, Bihar will join only a handful of other states such as Tamil Nadu where the quantum of caste-based quota exceeds 50%.
To be sure, the total quantum of reservation in jobs and educational institutions will stand at 75%, after taking into account 10% quota for economically weaker sections (EWS).
“The caste survey has provided us with a comprehensive data. We will use it to introduce more measures for the uplift of socially, educationally and economically backward sections of society. I will be glad if the Centre, too, agrees to a caste census and raises reservations across the country,” said chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Both bills raised the quota for Scheduled Castes (SC) from 16% to 20%, scheduled tribes (STs) from 1% to 2%, extremely backward castes (EBCs) from 18% to 25% and other backward classes (OBCs) from 15% to 18% to elevate the total quantum of caste-based reservations to 65%.
“This is for the first time in the history of India that a total of 75% reservation is given... The two bills about reservation in recruitment and educational institutions have been passed today... We increased the reservation for Dalits, tribals, backward classes and extremely backward classes,” said deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav.
Both bills extensively referred to the caste survey – the first in independent India to successfully enumerate all castes – that had found that EBCs — which comprise 112 castes — constituted 36.01% of the population, and backward castes — formed by 30 communities — made up another 27.12%. Together, OBCs comprised 63.13% of the state. Scheduled Castes formed 19.65% and Scheduled Tribes 1.68%. “Upper” castes were found to be 15.52% of the population.
The data on other socioeconomic parameters collected — 17 criteria ranging from employment, education and marital status to land holding and property ownership were part of the survey’s questionnaire — was not released at the time, but was tabled in the assembly in the form of a 216-page booklet earlier this week.
It showed that SC communities have the largest segment of poor families, followed by STs. General categories were relatively better off. It showed that only 4.8% of the state held government jobs, but even this number was higher than the section employed in the formal private sector, a reflection of the nascent industries in the state. In government jobs, general category groups such as Brahmins, Bhumihars and Kayasths were over-represented, compared to backward and Dalit groups. Literacy was higher among general categories, and only 5.76% among SCs had completed schools.
Roughly 95.5% of the state owned no vehicles. SCs were the worst off in this category, followed by STs and EBCs. A similar situation was seen with laptop and internet use, which was seen among only 0.22% of the state’s population.
“Analysis of the data collected in the caste survey make it clear that in order to achieve equality of status and opportunity, a large chunk of the backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes need to be encouraged,” the bill said.
“Data shows that the proportional strength of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes in state government jobs is lower in comparison to their population strength,” the legislation added.
Speaking on the bills after parliamentary affairs minister Vijay Kumar Choudhary tabled them in the House, Kumar said the unanimous passage was made possible due to the support of all parties.
“We have planned a number of welfare initiatives and it would cost a poor state like Bihar ₹2.5 lakh crore. We will spread it over five years, spending ₹50,000 crore every year. It will be easier if the demand for special status to Bihar is fulfilled. All the parties should work together for Bihar’s growth,” he added.
The BJP, which had backed the expansion in caste quotas earlier this week.
The bid to hike reservations and the caste survey are part of the Opposition’s plan – Bihar is ruled by the Mandal-era regional giants Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United), with allies Congress and the Left – to eat into the BJP’s rainbow Hindu coalition, especially among upper castes.
The 28-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) has pushed for a nationwide caste census, hoping that just as the first Mandal movement countered the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and helped regional parties craft alliances to hold on to power for nearly two decades, a second similar churn could pose a challenge to the dominant BJP.
The Opposition hopes the exercise could trigger the beginning of a political churn that many experts call the second Mandal moment, a reference to the implementation of reservation for OBCs in 1990 that coalesced backwards into a potent electoral bloc and sparked the rise of a clutch of regional parties that changed the face of heartland politics.
But the ground realities have shifted since the 1990s, with the dominance of the BJP built on its successful strategy to mobilise less-dominant backward and Dalit groups into a broader Hindu umbrella. The BJP has also consciously injected marginalised caste leaders into its ranks, effectively countering an earlier perception that the party was primarily focused on its traditional vote base, upper castes.
The proposal to hike reservation benefits may well end up before the courts since it breaches the 50% ceiling fixed by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Indra Sawhney (famously known as Mandal Commission) case.
Tamil Nadu, at present, has a law providing for 69% reservation for identified classes. Although a challenge to this law remains pending before the top court, it has been saved so far on the ground that the law received a presidential assent in 1993 and was also put in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, which provides only limited scope of judicial review.
A November 2022 judgment by the Supreme Court, ratifying the 10% EWS quota, had also weighed in on the 50% ceiling on reservation. The majority verdict at that time held that the 50% ceiling on reservation is “not inviolable or inflexible”, marking a paradigm shift from the thumb rule that has governed reservations in India, preventing states from enforcing quotas that take the proportion above 50%. The 3-2 view noted that the 50% ceiling applied only to the provisions of the Constitution that existed at that time and cannot extend to the 2019 amendment to any subsequent law.
Get Updates on India News, Farmers Protest Live alongwith the Latest News and Top Headlines from India and around the the world.