Reservations cannot be an entitlement in perpetuity

VP Singh, former prime minister and architect of the Mandal commission, once described reservation as a “transitory demand till we achieve the objective of education and employment for all”. But the violent agitations for reservation based on caste, which began with Mandal, have moved from being affirmative action to entitlement for many castes, including the Maratha protests which rocked the state but was, for the moment, called off on Wednesday afternoon. The community had earlier been promised 16% reservation in government jobs. This is pending in the high court.

What was once meant to give castes at the bottom of the heap a leg up has now been taken over by relatively affluent and dominant castes in several states, many of them seeking a slide down to carve out state benefits. The Marathas are by no means a poor or oppressed caste, but the agitation was clearly because they have not been able to come to grips with the fact that so-called lower castes have bypassed them in term of jobs and education at a time when landholdings are dwindling and an agrarian crisis is upon them. They are also resentful that the government had given them reservations, a move upturned by the Supreme Court. The genesis for most of these agitations is promises by political parties which have not thought through how these promises can be fulfilled. Such promises are mostly made at election time and left open ended. When the political party in question is not able to deliver or the courts reverse the decision, the agitations turn violent as they have in this case.

The State must address the reasons for the inability of many castes to transition from agriculture to the formal sector. Unless the root cause of feelings of alienation and deprivation in a growing skill-oriented economy are tackled, such agitations for reservation, which turn violent at considerable cost to the economy and damage to public property, will continue.

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