Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“There is hardly any section in history that remained backwards for so long. But in India…”: Sukhadeo Thorat

Sukhadeo Thorat, a prominent economist and educationist is a former chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the University Grants Commission (UGC). Thorat’s research areas include agricultural development, rural poverty, institution, and economic growth, marginalized groups’ problems, caste system economics, caste discrimination, and poverty. He is also a professor emeritus at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The tall Dalit academic who was awarded the Padmashree, India’s fourth highest civilian award, talks to Afsal Rahman CA, a Kerala-based journalist about reservation, caste, and the recent Supreme Court of India’s verdict on the economic reservation. Afsal talked to Thorat while he was in Kerala’s Kozhikode for Fraternity Movement’s Reservation Summit.

Read edited excerpts of the interview:

Afsal Rahman CA: How do you look at the  Supreme Court verdict on the EWS reservation?

Sukhadeo Thorat: There is already an informal reservation for the poor in this country. There is already an informal reservation for women. If we say that reservation policy means that a certain proportion of posts in educational institutions and government institutions for certain groups like scheduled castes and scheduled tribes is based on their identity, not based on their economic condition, the ethnic identities of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In that case, there are hundreds of schemes by the government in which certain quotas are earmarked for the poor. You take any scheme; either there is a preference or earmarking for the poor. The same is the case with women. What the SC court verdict has done is legalize or constitutionalize the same. That is my understanding of the verdict.

I think it’s a good decision which helps the poor. One cannot certainly oppose the decision. But my only concern is that there is an attempt by the Supreme Court to draw parallels between the reservation for the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and OBC. My major concern is the Supreme Court has reflected that they are treating this Economically Weaker Section policy and the policy based on caste and identity similarly. Some of them went ahead and said the policy for the SC and ST should also be based on economic criteria.  This is not a proper view of reservation.

There is a difference between the EWS reservation and the reservation for SC, ST. In the case of SC and ST, reservation is given because they are discriminated against and not because they are poor. On the other hand, EWS reservation is given to people of lower income. Once the income of the individual increase you are out of it. That is not the case with SC and ST. It’s based on caste which is fixed. You cant change your caste. Discrimination is the only basis. So, to draw a parallel between the two is not correct. It’s because there is an indirect attempt to bring the economic criteria into the reservation for the SC and ST.

Be it employment or education or housing, those belonging to SC face discrimination even if they are in an economically sound condition. Discrimination is neutral to their economic standing. You cannot say that you will give protection only to those belonging to SC who have low income and not to those who are relatively better off. Both face discrimination. We have studies to back. We have found that even in the private sector, discrimination in high-income positions is higher than in low-income positions. What can be done is that economically better-scheduled caste people may not be given economic concessions like scholarships, fellowships, fee waivers, subsidies.. etc. This argument should not be extended to say they should not be given reservations. That is the main concern. Otherwise, we already have an affirmative action policy or reservation policy for the poor.

Afsal: Dr. BR. Ambedkar wrote of the Annihilation of Caste. But, when we look at India today, Brahmanism is increasing in its dominance in the power structure. How do you look at it?

Thorat: I see this increasing dominance of higher castes has roots in the caste system. In the caste system, the higher castes are given privileges that the lower castes are denied. This privilege is in sharing resources, employment, education, land, enterprises, etc. The Scheduled Castes are denied such privileges. They are treated as untouchables. Their settlements are segregated. Even in Kerala, you have separate Dalit colonies. They are socially and residentially segregated.

If we interrogate this, the high caste benefit at the loss of the scheduled castes. The denial of the right to land and entrepreneurship to the SC internally benefits the higher caste.  The monopolization of land, education, and enterprises come with the denial of the same to the Scheduled Caste. Reservation policies reduce those spaces. The higher caste sees this as an encroachment on their ‘reservation’. The higher castes have been using the undeclared reservation. The main intention of them getting hold of the governing spaces again is nothing but to regain those reservations. It’s purely material interest. These were with them. They are feeling that their space is getting reduced. So, there is an obvious attempt to take hold of positions.

Afsal: Its been years since the reservation policy as envisaged by our Constitution was implemented. How far have we improved as a society?

Thorat: There are two aspects to this. Reservation has helped those who belong to SC, ST, and OBC. They have got jobs in government institutions. They got admitted to higher education institutions. Educational facilities, scholarships, and fellowships also helped promote their education. Once they get an education through the reservation channel, they get into employment. This has helped a section of the SC and ST communities which in turn caused the emergence of the lower middle class or middle class. It is not correct to use the term creamy layer. Similarly through the political reservation, by sending representatives of the SC and ST to the central assemblies, they have gotten involved in the policy-making and law-making processes. They are more visible now.

And yet you find the SC and ST lag behind the upper caste. Why is there a gap? Even if you take poverty the poverty of the higher caste is much lower than that of, the lower caste. You take the enrolment ratio in the higher education sector. The enrollment ratio of SC is 28%, and that of ST is 16% whereas that of higher caste is 41% (almost double). Take whichever indicator, be it malnutrition, anemia, life expectancy, or child mortality rate, the SC and ST communities lag behind the upper caste. So here you find equality between the upper and lower castes.

Why is there such a gap? One of the reasons is that the entire private sector is excluded from the reservation policy. Take the case of education, reservation is applicable only for state-run institutions. Currently, almost 41% of the universities are private. 65 percent of the colleges are private. Since the fees of these institutions are very high, the accessibility is very low. This was not the case early. Take the case of the employment sector. Eighty percent of the employment is in the private sector, and there is no reservation there. Reservation is applied to only a very small section. So the exclusion of the private sector from the reservation is one of the reasons. There are many spheres that are not covered under reservation.

The second important aspect is that there is a policy of the government to give land and enterprises. The result of the land and entrepreneurship policy has been very poor. There has not been much improvement in the ownership of land by Scheduled Caste ( Scheduled Tribes do have land ).  The same is the case with enterprises and businesses. The reason lies in the mistakes of the policy.

In other countries, in a situation where a particular community is excluded from the right to land, enterprises, and education for a long period,  the impact is very devastating. Untouchability is supposed to have started in 600 BC. From 1800 to 2000 years, one community has been denied access to education, property, and land. In such a situation the policy used in many countries is compensation.  If one class benefitted from the loss to the other, you have to compensate. White benefitted from the loss to the black. They paid very low wages to the black slaves. The same was the situation here. For example in Kerala, the untouchables were the slave caste. The same can be seen in all other states. You denied the right to education and land, and you benefitted from it. When the gain of somebody is the loss of others, you have to compensate for the loss viz, the land entrepreneurship and education.  A land compensation policy should be followed, not a land redistribution policy. At one time they should have taken a decision and forgotten about it. In the USA, they did it. After slavery, the blacks were given forty acres of land and mule. It was declared by Abraham Lincoln. But after the death of Abraham Lincoln, other presidents withdrew it. Ambedkar also asked for the land distribution or nationalization of land as a one-time measure. A member of the Constituent Assembly Sardar Nagappa mentioned giving us ten acres of irrigation land, fifty-acre of dry land, free education up to universities, and some position in the administration, military, and others. “We don’t want reservation” – he said. They were talking of a one-time solution. Once the scheduled caste has access to guaranteed education, land, and enterprises, they might not need a reservation. Although in my opinion, you might still need a reservation because even if you are economically better, you face discrimination. But at least the problem would have been solved. We have not done that. We have followed the land reform policy. Land reform policies have not helped at all the Scheduled Castes. 

Similar is the case of entrepreneurship. You take Malaysia, to promote entrepreneurship in Malaya which is a dominant community, numerically strong but discriminated against by the Chinese, they decided that a thirty percent share of the foreign companies will be given to Malaya. The government will give them the funding. Through this, you get a capital income and capital gain at the end of the year. The same thing happens in land and education also. South Africa has done that. We have not done that. There is a perfect case for compensation, for the untouchable at least.  There is a written record in manusmriti that they are denied this right to land, entrepreneurship, and civil rights. Beginning in 600 BC, it continued up to 1950. Britishers in 1772, passed the first Anglo-Indian Act. They accepted the caste system as it is. Even education rights were denied. Till 1855, the government took some initiative to start education to deprived classes. By independence, the education level was very very low. 

Those are the reservation policy mistakes and why those belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes continue to lag.  There is hardly any section in history that remained backward for so a long time.

Afsal: One of the main arguments by those who oppose reservation is that it kills merit and quality. How do you look at it?

Thorat: It is not a correct argument. In the Constitution itself and practice also, people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are appointed subject to the minimum qualification and not the maximum qualification. If those from Scheduled Caste have the minimum qualification which is required for the position, efficiency is not affected. Even in the appointment of a general candidate, there is also a lot of variation among them. That is one point.

Are there any studies to prove they are less efficient? There are none. But there is one study by Ashwini Deshpande and an American scholar. They studied the Indian Railway. Indian Railways is the largest employer of the Scheduled Castes. Their study is based on certain indicators of efficiency. They found out that there is a lack of efficiency among the Scheduled Caste employees compared to the upper caste employee. On the contrary, their study found out the Scheduled Caste officers were more efficient than the others simply because they fear they will be condemned and humiliated for being less efficient after being recruited under reservation. So I don’t think the merit and efficiency argument is correct. It is only a myth created by academics.

Afsal:  Another argument is that, with reservation in place, you can’t get rid of the menace of the caste system. Your thoughts?

Thorat: That is also a created myth. Before reservation, in 1950 was there not any caste?  Caste has nothing to do with reservation. Caste is a reality of the Hindu social organization. Whether you get a reservation or not caste system remains. It depends on the customs and norms developed by Hindu society. They say you are identified as a Scheduled Caste because you get a reservation. Hindus do not need any reservations or any other thing to identify. Every relation is decided based on caste. Whether you know your caste or not, every Hindu is divided between castes, and they know each others’ caste, with or without reservation.  Your social interaction, marriage, and everything are decided by caste. So, that is also wrong propaganda. On the contrary, I would say when there is a reservation, there is mobility among the scheduled castes. The economically educated class comes. The gap gets reduced. And then the relationship becomes harmonious, in a way. The Scheduled Caste deal with the high caste on an equal footing. Interactions will take place. Interactions are much more in urban areas than in rural areas. Disparities get excluded. Bridging the gap helps and brings integration. This is also a wrong argument that reservation maintains a caste system.

Afsal: If you look at the recent judgments by the Indian courts concerning marginalized groups, justice is denied in most cases. How do you look at it?

Thorat: The other day, the government said in court that they do not favor the reservation for Dalits and religious minorities.  I think the general policy of the reservation policy is this: the reservation policy is used for the group which is discriminated against based on identity caste ethnicity religion and gender. Muslims and Christians are discriminated against in various spheres of life. Then they need support. They need a law to protect them. The Scheduled Caste has a law.  If there is discrimination based on religion, obviously you need a law against discrimination. Be it in employment or education or any other sector, they require a policy to ensure an equal share or due share.

Afsal: Does it have anything to do with the under-representation of people from this community in the judiciary?

Thorat: Yeah, the point is that for example the share of Muslims in the regular salaried job is low and therefore they chose self-employment, the business. So there are no studies, but there are one or two pieces of evidence to show that Muslims face discrimination in employment. They face discrimination in getting houses for rent. But I think, what you require is a more comprehensive study on discrimination of Muslims and Christians in employment, land, capital, education etc. There need to study on par with the Scheduled Castes. There is a large number of studies relating to Scheduled Castes. I think you require more studies to establish the discrimination faced by Muslims and Christians. That can build up a proper case for reservation.

Afsal: My point is the last resort for any Indians in this country for any ill-treatment they face is the judicial institutions or the courts. When they go there, they find their identity underrepresented. There is no one for them to relate to.

Thorat: Yeah I think we cannot blame or pass any judgment on the judges. There is a general point that Ambedkar made. Ambedkar’s remedy against discrimination for any group that mattered was four-fold.

One was log-in discrimination. The second was a reservation policy to give fair participation and share in employment, in education. The third one was that minority communities should have participated in the executive. By executive, he meant the ministers and bureaucracy including the judiciary and military. In a society that is very diversified and there are different groups that discriminate against each other he suggested a balance between the majority and the minority. That includes the judiciary, military, and bureaucracy. So you are right; to have a more sensitive consideration of these cases people from their background alone can understand it properly.

Afsal: How do you see the future of pro-reservation movements?

Thorat: I think despite the anti-attitude toward the particular reservation of Scheduled Castes (not Scheduled Tribes and OBCs), I have a feeling now that the opposition will be less, at least for those who got a reservation. Because what has happened now? Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe is covered (then extended to OBC).  Then to a certain extent, there is an informal reservation for the woman. Now we have economically weaker sections. We have more than fifty percent of the population covered under reservation. I have my doubt whether there will be any opposition to the reservation. Because if you oppose one, you will have to oppose the other.  So I think that there is a check and balance whereby the reservation policy will continue. That is how the political reservation which was supposed to last for ten years has continued for the last seventy years.

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