Why 10% quota for ‘economically weak’ in India has caused uproar

Controversial 10 percent quota in jobs and education for so-called ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ category of people angers politicians and caste activists.

India Supreme Court
Indian politicians and activists have raised concerns over the Supreme Court upholding the controversial government decision [File: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty Images]

Politicians and activists in India have raised concerns over the country’s Supreme Court upholding a controversial government decision to implement a 10 percent quota in jobs and education for the so-called Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of society.

A 2019 constitutional amendment to reserve 10 percent of seats for the EWS category in education and public employment was upheld by three of five Supreme Court judges on Monday – the first time India has moved away from affirmative action based on caste or tribe.

Activists say the new quota will only serve the interests of historically privileged castes, calling it a “violation” of the constitution’s fundamental safeguards provided to its most marginalised people.

In a ruling released upholding the decision, the three Supreme Court judges said there was reasonable justification for treating economically weaker sections of society as a separate class.

But one of the two dissenting judges, Justice S Ravindra Bhat, said the top court has “sanctioned an exclusionary and discriminatory principle” by upholding the decision.

“Our constitution does not speak the language of exclusion. In my considered opinion, the amendment is the language of exclusion and violates the principle of justice, and thereby the basic structure,” he said.

What is the EWS quota?

India’s economically weaker sections (EWS) are defined as households from privileged caste groups with an annual family income of less than $10,000 (800,000 rupees) a year, or who own less than two hectares (five acres) of agricultural land.

In 2019, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government introduced the 103rd amendment to the constitution to facilitate educational and employment quotas for people in the EWS category.

The government justified the move by arguing that the move would benefit people who cannot benefit from reservations already granted to the country’s Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and what it calls “Other Backward Classes (OBC)”.

The Supreme Court’s upholding of the amendment also increased a 50 percent cap on quotas imposed by the same court in 1992, to 60 percent.

“The constitution says you cannot go beyond 50 percent reservation. The EWS people have not suffered structural inequality which is based on caste. Reservation was basically for those who have suffered historic social discrimination because of their identity,” Manjula Pradeep, a member of the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network, told Al Jazeera.

Communities across South Asia are traditionally grouped among various castes which are determined by birth. The less-privileged caste groups have long been the victims of social and economic discrimination. Dalits, who fall at the bottom of the caste system, have faced “untouchability” despite the practice being banned by India’s parliament in 1950.

Pradeep said India’s dominant caste groups have long been opposed to reservations in education and jobs granted to Dalits, the people formerly known as “untouchables”, and other marginalised groups.

“It is the OBC who have suffered the most because they are 52 percent in population and their reservation is 27 percent. But now there is a 10 percent reservation for the upper castes who are 25 percent of the population. You have given 10 percent reservation to 25 percent of people, which is a big percentage. I think they have disrespected the constitution,” she said.

“If you earn below 800,000 rupees ($10,000), you get reservation. How can you be poor in India if you earn that much? The poverty line for the lower and the upper castes is different. This is discrimination in practice.”

‘Social injustice’

The ruling BJP hailed the Supreme Court verdict, calling it “a big boost in the direction of social justice” and a victory for the country’s poor.

“All the poor people have the same caste, they are poor. This reservation will bring unity in the country. My appeal is that all the needy people in the world unite and fight their battle for a better life,” BJP Vice President Uma Bharti tweeted on Monday.

Several opposition parties have rejected the decision and called for another judicial review.

M K Stalin, the chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state, said the verdict was a setback in a “century-long crusade for social justice”.

“All the like-minded parties shall come together as one to fight the social injustice called EWS quota and carry the struggle forward,” he tweeted.

Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party also said it will challenge the move in the Supreme Court, according to Indian media reports.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) also said the verdict was unacceptable, a report in The Hindu newspaper said on Wednesday.

New Delhi-based academic and activist Apoorvanand told Al Jazeera the government is “making another discrimination” by upholding the new quotas.

“The arguments for reservation have always been what constitutes backwardness. It is social, not economic,” he said.

“When you appear before an interview board, you are discriminated against because you belong to a certain social group. That bias is there. The reservation was for people from certain communities who have not been able to access certain facilities because of their social background.”

Apoorvanand said the EWS quota is “against the principle of equality in the constitution”.

“This is the first time in the history of India that the Supreme Court has done something like this,” he said. “The very basis of the reservation has been distorted.”

Source: Al Jazeera