All Things Wrong With The 2018 OBC Bill

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On 13th August 2018, in the monsoon session of the Parliament, both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passed the 123rd Constitutional Amendment Bill regarding reservations for OBCs (Other Backward Communities).

Here’s what you need to know about how OBC reservation in India works.

The government tried to pass this Bill last year too. On 31st July 2017, while the Bill was being debated in the Rajya Sabha, the opposition party (Congress) moved to amend clause 3 of the Bill, which sought for appointment of all five members of the Commission from the OBC category itself. BJP made the amendment.  But because there were not enough MPs in House at that time, the amendment couldn’t be passed, forcing the Bill back to the Lok Sabha, where the process had to start afresh.

Then, on 2nd August 2018, the Lok Sabha proposed a fresh version of the Bill which was passed by the House unanimously with all 164 votes. This became a landmark move as the Congress had been rallying to pass an OBC Amendment Bill for years but couldn’t get through.

With this Bill, the NCBC (National Commission for Backward Classes) that looks into complaints and distress of backward classes has now been added to the Constitution under Article 338B. As a result, this committee now has more rights to look into matters concerning OBCs – which wasn’t the case earlier. In 1993, when the NCBC was launched, it could only make suggestions to the Centre regarding reservation problems, while major OBC decisions were made by the SC and ST commissions. But now the NCBC can –

  1. Investigate and resolve disputes relating to reservations like income scams, ill-treatment based on OBC status, etc.
  2. Advise the Central government on which castes to include or exclude from the OBC category.
  3. It can also monitor the provisions of the reservation system like the number of seats in PSU jobs given to OBCs or admission cut-offs in colleges.
  4. It can submit annual reports to the Centre recommending protection, welfare and socio-economic measures that the government must implement.
  5. In fact, even State governments need to consult the NCBC on any policy matters related to OBCs.

There is no doubt that this is a historic Bill, the first real amendment to happen to the OBC category since the Mandal Commission 25 years ago.

The Bill certainly adds on to the socio-political influence and power of the NCBC. Still, it remains interesting to speculate if it will actually work, especially in states with high OBC population like UP. Here’s a list of all things wrong with the 2018 OBC Bill.

It doesn’t really benefit the OBCs

The Bill doesn’t really benefit the OBCs because the system itself is flawed. There are over 5000 castes in the OBC list, but not all citizens belonging to these castes are poor or backward. Those earning over Rs 8 lakh per annum are categorised as OBC – Creamy Layer and those earning less than that are the Non-Creamy Layer. The problem is that both categories receive the same benefits irrespective of income.

Plus the affluent castes like the Jats, Lingayats, and Yadavs have so much political power that they can weave even more reservation benefits for themselves. So hypothetically speaking, if 50% of the seats were going to the Creamy Layer, an additional 20% will also go to the affluent ones. As a result, lesser college and PSU seats are available for the real backward people – who don’t even earn enough – and they continue to live in deprivation.

This is why there has been quite some opposition to the Bill. There have been protests for years regarding the removal of Creamy Layer from OBC reservation or at least a better division wherein the Non-Creamy get more benefits. And people had hopes on this Bill for it, but it fails to do anything. There is no mention of a provision that excludes the Creamy Layer from the reservation list. Although, it does speak about the sub-categorization process within OBC. The problem of an unequal divide within the category hasn’t gone unnoticed and the Bill speaks of the need to categorize OBCs based on income and to provide benefits accordingly. But it doesn’t give the specific parameters of categorization.

But despite this discrepancy within the policy, OBCs as a whole aren’t fairing well professionally. In fact, researches have shown that only 12% of the total government jobs actually go to the OBC category. That’s a real dismal figure!

It’s a political bill

The creamy layer being so politically dominant rarely gets any cutbacks from the government. After all, why would any government want to take arms against a caste that can influence their votes? For example, in UP, the Yadav community (OBCs) along with the Samajwadi Party (Akhilesh Yadav) is so affluent that the Congress would never dare to cross them. In Karnataka, both BJP and Congress pledged their support to the Lingayats (OBC) during assembly elections, and in Punjab, the Jats (OBC) have strong connections with the Akali Dal ensuring that they are never excluded from the OBC Bill.

But apart from these castes, the OBC category, as a whole, makes up around 50% of India’s population today, thus being the largest vote bank in the country. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Bill be introduced months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Modi’s decision to grant constitutional status to the NCBC could very well turn out to be his attempt at catching votes in the elections next year.

BJP President Amit Shah said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given justice to the backward community, which was deprived of developments for decades since independence. And the move to set up a commission looking into the sub-categorisation of OBC to ensure more equitable distribution of benefits will bring it more support from the OBC in general.”

In fact, this Bill is so precious to the BJP that it blamed the Congress for supporting the OBC and posing unnecessary opposition to the Bill. It claimed that even the previous commission – Mandal commission’s – provisions were stalled for 10 years by the Congress, due to the emergency period and Khalistan movement. Only when a non-Congress (Janata Party) government came to power in 1989, were the provisions accepted. By placing direct blame of previous OBC Bills of the Congress, BJP ensured the smooth passing of this Bill, because the Congress was afraid of being termed anti-minority.

But despite such claims, political activists have clearly called it a political stunt to woe vote banks and gain a strong foothold on the 2019 elections. It will be no surprise if this Bill becomes BJP’s main argument during the election rallies.

Even if we assume that the 2018 Bill is not political, there is no way of saying that with certainty.

You see, in order to include castes in the OBC list, they have to fulfill certain socio-economic and educational criteria laid down by the government. And based on results of decadal caste census, certain castes that meet the criteria are placed in the list. The only problem is that the government conducted its first caste census in 80 years in 2011, the results of which haven’t been released yet. These results would help in justifying the OBC policy and in escalation, the Bill.

The previous commission took 10 years to implement 

The Mandal Commission was established in India in 1979 with a mandate to identify the socially or educationally backward classes. The OBC provisions we follow today are a result of the Mandal report submitted back then. And even though the report was passed in the Parliament by 1983, it took a whole 10 years to implement its provisions.

Why? Since the report found that OBCs made up 52% of the population back then, it recommended 27% quota for them in colleges and PSUs. These recommendations did not go down well with the general category students. Even though Janata Party in 1989 had ticked “yes” to all the provisions, things came to a grinding halt in 1990 when several protests erupted across the nation. Students self-immolated and damaged property worth Rs 35,000 crore. Most of the school and colleges saw groups being formed between General/ SC/ST/ OBC’s causing more division than unity and integration. Then came the Indra Sawhney PIL against the policy in 1992, which led to the Supreme Court capping the total reservation limit (SC+ST+OBC) at 50%.

And finally, after a long ruckus, the report was implemented in 1993 with the decision to revise the report every 10 years. But if each report itself takes a decade to come into being, is it really feasible to conduct a decadal revision? As a result, India hasn’t seen an OBC policy revision in the past 25 years.

That’s why the current Bill is an important one. During the monsoon session debate, all the parties were reminded about the promises made by various governments to give full benefits of the reservation to all the OBCs, but failed to deliver. The government took 71 years, since independence, to give OBCs the rights they were promised. But now that it has, how much time will this one really take to implement?

It demands an increase in seats in colleges 

As more and more castes are added to the OBC list, the gap between eligible candidates and benefits available is stretching out. More OBC students are now applying to colleges and government posts but the number of seats available remains the same.

This is why, through the current Bill, the government has decided to add more seats in colleges. In fact, the seven major IITs alone have been pegged to double their capacity – from the current 3,873 seats, by adding an estimated 2,000 more. This is equivalent to adding four new IITs in just one year. But it’s not just about the seats, the educational provisions also need to increase. This means more faculty, science lab inventory, teaching material and bigger classrooms. Experts suggest that the cost for all this would be close to Rs 20 lakh for every new seat in the top institutes in India. In IIMs the total cost of seat increase could exceed Rs 20,000 crore or half a percentage point of India’s GDP. That’s three times the total amount allocated to education in the Tenth Five-Year Plan. Can the government really shed out this much money?

If it does, then that will also earn the BJP general category votes. As of now, most governments have learned only one side. They could either please the minority or the general category, but not both since the former is pro-reservation and the latter anti. And acquiring only 50% voter support is a risky game to play. General category candidates have time and again expressed their displeasure with the reservation system. They think that fewer seats are available for meritorious candidates as more seats are given out under quota to low-caliber. But by increasing more seats, the government will be able to give the OBCs what they want without compromising the rights of the generals. This will please both sides and bring BJP more support in the next elections.

But all this is only if the BJP can afford the seat increment. Well, since OBC students have subsidised education, the government is “supposed” to pay for it, but the former’s expense far exceeds the latter’s budget. We’ve seen this in India’s RTE schools most of which are going into losses. The only other option is to hike the fees of general category students, which is a bigger slap in their face when they’re already agitated with “reservation”.

The impacts of this Bill, may not be as effective as planned, but we’d be lucky if they get anywhere close to solving our reservation issue.

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