The SC has done the right thing by asking the Government of India to scrap the Haj subsidy over the next ten years. There are many things right in this order. First, unlike in some of the other orders the SC has given in the recent past (the cancellation of the 122 2G licenses for one), this one is balanced. It gives the government ten years to make the change. The second is that it shows a modernizing of thoughts of the SC – a more practical viewpoint as it were. The SC had earlier ruled in favor of the Haj subsidy. It has now changed its stance. And third, the fact that the order was passed by a judge of the minority community itself making it free of any possible accusations of bias of the majority community.
It’s clear the Haj subsidy – and any other similar subsidies provided directly or indirectly to people of any religion – is nothing but vote bank politics. It’s the kind of thing that is easy to start, but extremely difficult to shut off. It may benefit no one really (a story suggested that Air India first inflates the air bill and then the government passes on a discount), but its removal would still be a highly emotional and political matter. It’s good to hear that Justice Aftab Alam himself narrated portions of the Holy Koran to bring out the fact that the Haj should be paid for by the person taking the Haj himself. Only the SC could have scrapped this subsidy. No government could ever have done it – not a Congress government for sure but not even a BJP government (in fact, it didn’t in its six years of rule).
The wider implication of this order should be of more interest to us. The basic principle used by the SC here is that benefits should be phased out over a period of time. The SC had earlier upheld the Constitutional validity of the Haj subsidy, so one has to believe that there was nothing wrong in the subsidy per se. But the court found it wrong to have continued it for this long. The same principle must apply to the policy of Reservations for the underprivileged castes in education and government jobs.
I have been a staunch supporter of Reservations. I see it as a type of Affirmative Action that the Government was required to take keeping in mind the pathetic conditions of the underprivileged. The reason I was in favor of caste based reservations was that the denial of education and jobs to these people in the past had also been on grounds of caste. It wasn’t like “you are not competent; hence you cannot be admitted to this college” or “you are from a poor family; hence you cannot get this job”. The grounds for denial were clearly “you belong to a low caste; hence you cannot get the admission or the job”. Clearly, the damage had to be undone in the same manner.
The problem however with any such benefit scheme is what I mentioned earlier. It’s extremely easy (populist) to launch, but extremely difficult to shut off. In an era of competitive politics (and populism), no government has the guts to turn the tap off. Several governments have in fact tried to keep increasing the % of reservation. It was the SC itself that had to lay down the rule that Reservations couldn’t exceed 50% of all available seats.
It’s my fervent request to the SC that it should pass another similar order which reduces the % of reservations over a period of time (no matter how long that period is). The time period may be 50 years; I wouldn’t mind it if it were even longer. I would be perfectly ok if the time period was not specified in years, but in terms of important milestones being met. But whatever the parameter to do so, it is important that the crutch provided to the underprivileged be slowly but surely removed, as they become stronger as a group.
In fact, it is my belief, that if it was well known to policy makers and politicians that the benefits were going to reduce with time, it would force them to act more strongly on making them more effective. At present, no one cares. I am told that of the 22.5% reservation for SCs, the actual % of SCs employed in government jobs is only 7% or so. This is evidence that no one cares. But if it were known that the % would come down every year, the politicians would wake up and try to take the max advantage of the policy.
There is a strong reason to curtail reservations once the goals start to get achieved. As time passes, and as the underprivileged are given an opportunity to catch up, it is important for the country to recognize and reward nothing but true merit. Only the best should become engineers, doctors and architects. Only the best should join government service. This will have a dramatic impact on the quality of governance also. After all, if the best – no matter which caste they came from – are employed, it would be a fair assumption to make that the quality of governance would improve. I doubt if corruption will come down – that is dependent on several other factors – but at least governance will surely improve.
The real truth is that benefits are often required in an unequal society. But the benefits need to have a shelf life. It may be a benefit for those who are wealthy and fit or a benefit for the poor or the underprivileged. For example, the subsidized diesel that most of the wealthy pour into their SUVs and big cars is an inadvertent benefit they get as spillover (the policy is meant to subsidize the transport sector and the farmers). But government policy must evolve and such benefits must be denied over time. The benefits should be seen as a temporary crutch, not as a permanent entitlement….