Sunday, September 11, 2011

4% compulsory government procurement from dalit firms is dangerous politics…..

The govt has today proposed to make 4% of its procurements from firms that are owned by dalits. This proposal brings up the entire issue of Affirmative Action (AA) back into focus. Given the history of this country with AA policies, there is bound to be widespread disenchantment with many with this move of the government. No one grudges the underprivileged special privileges, but it’s the history of such privileges that makes most middle class people wary of the government’s objectives.

A look at the concept of AA is a good point to start this post with. The Wikipedia definition of AA is: “AA refers to policies that take factors including race, coor, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin into consideration in order to benefit an under-represented group, usually as a means to counter the effects of a history of discrimination. The focus of such policies ranges from employment and education to public contracting and health programs”. Further, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulates thatAA programs may be required in countries in order to rectify systematic discrimination. It states however that such programs “shall in no case lead to maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives have been achieved”. The UN Human Rights committee also states that “the principle of equality sometimes requires states to take AA in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination. In such cases, states should take specific action to correct these conditions. Again, the UN highlights that usually such actions are time bound when it expressly states that “such actions may involve granting for a time certain preferential treatment”.

Clearly then AA has international sanction, provided it is undertaken for a specific time only. AA in many countries assumes interesting forms. For eg., in Malaysia, AA is provided to the majority of the population (the Malays) since their incomes have traditionally been lower than that of the ethnic Chinese. The % of reservation in certain sectors – that includes the army, hospital nurses, police etc – is as high as 95% for Malays. In Finland, some Universities have quotas for people who reach a certain standard of skills in the Swedish language! In France, there is some indirect form of encouragement to schools which show “neighborhood” preference in enlisting students. In South Africa – where the Apartheid regime actively promoted white ownership of business and reservation of skilled jobs for whites – the wheel has come a full circle. Now there are strict AA policies that not only guarantee blacks equal opportunities in employment, but also in equity ownership of companies. When Airtel was attempting a buy-out of MTN, it faced several challenges because of this equity ownership restriction.

India has been practicising AA policies right from the start. The Constitution itself identified several SCs and STs and gave them 15% and 7.5% reservation in government and PSU jobs and in government aided education institutions. Since then, there has been continuous politicization of the AA issue. The Mandal Commission of 1980 – and the implementation of its recommendations by the VP Singh government in 1990 – increased the reservation benefits to OBCs taking the total quota of reservations up to 49.5% of all vacancies. In 1992, the SC upheld the Mandal Commission recommendations. While the Constitution was silent on many issues of AA, subsequent amendments have made political the entire subject of AA. For eg., in 1995, the 77th Amendment to the Constitution permitted reservations in promotions also. When in 2005, the SC delivered a 7-judge unanimous order that the State cannot impose its reservation policy on private colleges, Parliament enacted the 93rd amendment which specifically provided reservations in private educational institutes also. When in 2008, the SC stated that the “creamy layer” should be excluded from the quota, there were widespread protests amongst all political parties.

That’s why AA in India is a taboo subject for most middle class people. That’s why, though most forward caste people understand the need for reservations, they are wary of the government’s reservations agenda. The original Constitution provided for only 22.5% reservation. Today, though the SC has mandated a 50% cap on reseravations, states like TN have a 69% reservation policy. Though the original Constitution only allowed for a 5-year time bound reservations policy, the timeline has been routinely extended all the time by all the governments. AA policies have divided the society as children of creamy layers like doctors, engineers, CAs, actors, consultants, media professionals, writers, bureaucrats, defence officers above the rank of Colonel, HC and SC judges and Class A&B employees of the Central and State governments continue to enjoy benefits inspite of the SC’s specific instruction for them to be excluded.

Keeping this historical background in mind, I find that the 4% procurement reservation is a bad idea. It’s not a bad idea by itself. It’s a bad idea given India’s penchant for politicking in this area. Is this 4% reservation only for 10 years or so and will it then mandatorily keep declining (not merely be reviewed after 10 years – when it will most likely be automatically renewed)? How do we know that the 4% won’t be increased by subsequent governments to 20-30-50%? There is already some talk that AA policy of quotas for private sector jobs as well. That’s why no one trusts the politicians on matters related to AA.

By proposing this 4% procurement reservation, the Congress appears to be playing politics. It cannot be said in India that reservations of the last 65 years have helped the downtrodden. There is a suspicion that the benefits have been cornered off by the relatively better offs amongst the downtrodden. The same could equally happen with this procurement policy. The Congress is driven by considerations of self preservation. Clearly, this appears to be a way to garner support amongst the dalits after having lost the support of the middles classes in the corruption struggle. Clearly, this is a decision taken keeping the UP elections (and the 2014 elections general elections) in mind. This is an unfortunate decision and should be reviewed.

The real truth is that this 4% procurement reservation will start off a new spiral in this domain. Subsequent governments will treat this matter politically. I can already imagine a Mayawati now providing much higher state quotas for procurement from dalit firms. In fact, it may want to grow its influence outside UP by promising similar quotas in other states as well. What is to prevent the politicians next from enacting AA policies based on religion? Net Net, this is a very dangerous move and somehow (and I don’t know how) this must be blocked…..

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