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Published in the 16-31 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Reservation in private sector

By P. Radhakrishnan

The historically deprived sections of Indian society entered a new phase on January 26, 1950 when the Constitution of India came into force. The Constitution mandated the State to take special care of and special measures for the social advancement of these sections or in the Constitutional context the `socially and educationally backward classes' consisting of the oppressed and suppressed bottom groups of Indian society, namely the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes.

While the Constitution itself laid down the most important of the special measures, it also expected the State to devise other measures as a package for the overall advancement of these classes. 

That even half century after the enforcement of the Constitution the State has not honoured its mandate and ensured the advancement of the deprived, and what it has done is a clear reflection of its class character with dominance and state power still monopolised by the traditionally entrenched upper castes, is stating the obvious. 

About four decades after the Constitution came into force the historically deprived sections entered the second phase of their expected social advancement. That was in 1990 when Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, notified partial implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Mandal Commission on Backward Classes, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1992 with some modifications. 

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes together account for about one-fourth of India's population. The lower stratum of the category above the SCs, namely the Other Backward Classes, account for about another one-fourth. The heterogeneous ensemble of the highly politicised and much hackneyed remaining or residual category of the OBCs may account for about one-fifth. Thus, about 70 percent of India's population may come under the Constitution's special treatment provisions. 

Though the special treatment provisions for SCs and STs have been under implementation since 1950, its effect on them has been negligible. With the Government of India abdicating its responsibility towards the OBCs after its rejection of the first all-India Backward Classes Commission in the 1960s, leaving the States to implement the Constitutional provisions on their own, most States used the provisions for gaining political mileage and creating vote-banks and not for the advancement of the OBCs, though after the ruling in the Mandal case in 1992 the Centre and States began to implement the provisions for them perfunctorily.

All these clearly reflect the nation's dismal failure to honour its Constitutional mandate, and rejection of the rich legacy of Constitutional safeguards to the deprived sections, which Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the Constitution assiduously built up. 

It is in this context of the hiatus between mandate and manoeuvres, the resultant disillusionment and despondency of the deprived sections, and the increasing likelihood of their becoming the "disposables" of Indian society in the context of the fast unfolding globalisation and its concomitant the knowledge-market driven economy and society in which the Corporate sector should necessarily be socially accountable in the interest of equity, fairness and justice, that the importance of the Left parties' demand for reservation in private sector as included in the Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance now ruling at the Centre that the present clamour for reservation in private sector has to be understood. This however, does not mean that there were no such demands in the past. There were. But they began to gain momentum and visibility only as part of the CMP. 

While it is premature to come to any conclusion as to whether the demand will materialise, at least four issues, which the demand has thrown up for debate, deserve attention. 

One, the widely reported statement by the FICCI that while reservation in the private sector is ill-conceived, the private sector can work for affirmative action for the deprived, in particular the SCs and STs. This statement should not be construed as negative. For, affirmative action is a much broader measure than reservation, and when implemented effectively can be more beneficial than mere reservation to the deprived sections. The fact that FICCI has made the statement on affirmative action itself is salutary and augurs well for the deprived. 

Two, the divergent views on reservation, which are on the whole negative, from different industrial houses, apparently using the pretentious banality of the inadequacy, nay, incompetence of the deprived if appointed through reservation and not on merit. These views have emanated mainly from misconceptions about the very notion of reservation, which in the Constitutional context is part of a package of practices, though it is a shame on the State that it failed to see and use reservation this way. Once reservation is placed and explained in the larger context of affirmative action the industrial houses may have to eat the humble pie. One indication of this is the article on reservation in the private sector by Rahul Bajaj, Chairman, Bajaj Auto, in the Times of India of September 21, in which he claimed that his industry's recruitment form contains no provision for ascertaining caste, and [yet?] about one-third of the employees are from deprived sections. This should dispel the fear and/or prejudice of other industries that the deprived are dullards and dregs of Indian society. In any case, these issues need larger and more systematic debate. 

Third, without diluting or dampening the ardour of the demand for reservation in the private sector the Dalit activists and others interested in the well-being of the deprived sections should be upfront with the State, and get a White Paper on whatever the State has been doing to improve the lot of the deprived at least in the context of the Constitutional provisions, if not from the viewpoint of a welfare state which Indian democracy is expected to be. 

Four, the debate so far has not paid attention to the deprived sections among the religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. There are sections among them corresponding to the SCs who deserve equal measure of attention. The judiciary's opposition to reservation for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh has to be explained by the muddle-headedness of its Chief Minister. Instead of declaring reservation for Muslims as a whole, he could have substantiated their backwardness and offered reservation to only the really backward among them within the reservation package drawn up for the OBC. He failed to do so. 

The author is a social critic and Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He may be contacted at

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