SC verdict in Maratha quota case is a timely wake-up call

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By: K Raveendran

The Supreme Court verdict in the keenly-awaited Maratha reservation case is a setback to the unscrupulous plans of political parties to use reservation as a tool for vote bank politics rather than as an instrument to help disadvantaged sections of the society catch up with social and economic progress.

A constitutional bench of the apex court has struck down the Maharashtra government’s controversial Maratha quota in excess of the long-established 50 percent ceiling as unconstitutional as it found no exceptional circumstances to breach the ceiling. The court also rejected the amendment brought about by the state government to declare Marathas as a socially and economically backward class on the ground that it violates the principles of equality. The bench held that there was no need to revisit the 50 percent ceiling limit on reservation laid down by the 9-judge bench decision in the Indira Sawhney case. Both the Maharashtra government and the Centre had pressed for a reconsideration of the verdict in that landmark case.

The Supreme Court decision is not all that surprising as the court had indicated during the various stages of hearing that it may be time for all reservations to go, except those on the basis of economic backwardness. Quota is one of the most abused instruments of public policy as political parties seek to pander to the vote banks by providing reservations in education and employment, with the result that this seriously affects the opportunities available to the general public, irrespective of the economic status of candidates belonging to the non-reserved categories. Not just that, every new addition in the reservation eligibility is a threat to the existing beneficiaries and this has led to serious conflicts among the affected parties.

There is no denying the fact that SC-STs and other backward classes have been wronged against for centuries and they deserve all help to come up in life. But after a reasonably long time, which we are well past, a re-look at the quota system is perfectly in order to see if the handholding is actually serving its original purpose of empowering these sections to stand up to competition, or is it stunting their potential for growth and development.

It is high time we realized that reservation is a means of limited potential to neutralise the disadvantages of the socially and economically backward sections. Quotas can give them a head start, but to depend only on quota for progress in life forever will in the long run affect the protected classes themselves. Quotas cannot be allowed to substitute initiative and quality. Unfortunately, quotas have increasingly been considered as a privilege and entitlement that can be inherited. This negates the very purpose of providing reservations. If the arrangement does not lift the beneficiaries to a level they can match the rest in terms of competence and calibre, there is no case for continuing such benefit. It would be a travesty of justice if the grandchildren of an IAS officer, who got into service on the basis of reservation, should also get the same preferential treatment when they compete with the rest.

Reservation has been demanded not just for initial access to opportunities, but as a guarantee of preferred treatment for life. Having enjoyed the benefits of coveted jobs or positions, there have been numerous cases where the beneficiaries demand the same protection in the matter of promotions as well. There have been several judgments to the effect that employees belonging to the reservation categories cannot demand promotion as a matter of right and that it is left to the discretion of the government.

Unfortunately, reservation is not an issue that concerns only SC-STs. Since the total availability of jobs or educational seats is not infinite, reservation in favour of one particular section has an effect on the rest of the population. There are also other deserving people who suffer equal level of economic and opportunity deprivation but do not get any consideration simply because they belong to a community outside the reservation universe. Any policy that treats subjects unfairly is a bad policy and needs to be changed.

We have had any number of cases where members of the backward classes have occupied the highest offices of the nation. And each one of them attained the eminence on the basis of their own merit and not because those seats were reserved for them. Quotas are a means of empowerment in a limited sense. It can work at certain levels and for certain roles, but cannot be the consideration when the highest level of efficiency and skill is required to perform the tasks associated with other roles. (IPA Service)



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