Nitish backs 75% total quota as survey outlines inequality
The Bihar CM announced plans to increase reservation to 75% after a landmark caste survey revealed the economic disparities among different communities.
Bihar will bring a bill to hike the quantum of reservation to 75% in the state, chief minister Nitish Kumar announced in the assembly on Tuesday, minutes after tabling the socioeconomic details of a landmark caste survey that can potentially shake up heartland politics and snowball into a significant issue in next summer’s general elections.
Also Read: Can reservations pull Bihar out of poverty?
The survey – whose preliminary findings were released last month and showed that backward communities make up nearly two-thirds of the state – showed that scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were significantly worse off economically than their upper-caste counterparts.
It also showed that backward communities were yet to catch up to general category groups when it came to formal sector jobs, and lagged behind in property and vehicle ownership. Around 34% of the households in the state earn ₹6,000 a month or lower, the data added.
“The quota for SCs and STs together stands at 17%. It should be raised to 22%. Likewise, the reservation for OBCs should also be hiked from the current 50% to 65%, So, when the EWS quota is added, it will stand at 75%,” Kumar said.
“The increase in the quota will allow OBCs and EBCs to have a larger share (of benefits), in tune with their population,” he added.
Late in the evening, the Bihar cabinet held a special meeting and approved the proposal to increase reservation from existing the 60% (50% for SC, ST and other backward classes, and 10% for economically backward classes) to 75%. The government will table a bill in the ongoing winter session that ends on Friday, said officials with knowledge of development.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) backed the proposal. “The BJP gave its full support to increase the reservation limits in Bihar... The 16% reservation to SC should be increased to 20%. We requested that 1% reservation for ST should be increased to 2%. BJP has always extended support to any party when it is for reservation,” said state unit chief Samrat Chaudhary.
The survey – the first in independent India to successfully enumerate all castes – found that extremely backward communities, 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 form 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.
It threw up a mix of predictable and unexpected findings. 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. General categories were relatively better off. A similar situation was seen with laptop and internet use, which extended to a mere 0.22% of the state’s population.
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.
Kumar alluded to this demand in his speech. “I will urge the Centre to see how we have done the survey, and do a caste census across the country. It will benefit the poor in the real sense. We will share all our data with the Centre and apprise it of the steps we would take to tackle poverty,” he said.
He underlined that the survey found 9.4 million families lived in poverty across the state, and proposed a plan where the state government would give each family ₹2 lakh as one-time assistance. In addition, the 63,850 homeless families would be given ₹1 lakh. This, he said, would cost the exchequer ₹2.5 lakh crore across five years, or ₹50,000 crore every year.
“If the Centre gives special status to Bihar, the time period may come down to two to three years,” he said, reiterating a long-term demand -- for extraordinary assistance from the Centre.
Kumar also reminded the House that the demand for caste census was very old and made continuously since the 1990s. “But I always say that the Centre should do caste census. Now census is overdue and with the next census they could do it. It will have only benefits,” he added.
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 or any subsequent law.
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