It's High Time Tamil Nadu Rationalises Its Quota System

Successive governments in the state have failed to do justice to the innate necessity to democratise the concept of reservations.

The recent Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019 which assures 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS) among the unreserved category by the Centre was rejected by majority of political parties in Tamil Nadu.

This constitutional amendment results in going over the maximum limit of 50% reservations, as prescribed after the Indra Sawhney Vs Union of India case. While it also gave leeway for the state to cross the limit in extraordinary situations, the judgment emphasised that mere economic backwardness cannot be a criteria for reservations.

Former finance minister Arun Jaitley, however, interpreted that the 50% per cent cap was meant only for caste based reservations.

A solid reason for Tamil Nadu’s rejection of this constitutional amendment was the fact that it was not backed by any empirical or scientific study. The Supreme Court has taken a consistent stand against any policy of tinkering with reservations without thorough study, as seen in Atyant Pichhara Barg Chhatra Sangh Vs Jharkhand State Vaishya Federation case of 2006,  the 10% reservation attempt for EWS in Gujarat in 2016, and similar attempts by Rajasthan, Odisha and Maharashtra in 2014.

Also read: Three Reasons the 10% Quota Bill Is More Than an Election Gimmick

Tamil Nadu’s successful reservation policy has democratised the public sphere, which was dominated by upper caste Brahmins during the beginning of the 20th century.

The exemplary performance of the state on human development indicators further vouches for the significant impact of reservations in Tamil Nadu.  The anti-Brahmin movement launched by Periyar has not only gone a long way in decimating the hegemony of Brahmins, but has also laid the foundation for inclusive development by removing several caste-based impediments in public education and employment.

Reservations in Tamil Nadu have thus increased, according to demands, from 41% in 1954 to 69% in 1990. Recent data from All India Survey for Higher Education (2018-19) shows comparatively fair representation of Other Backward Classes in both public and private higher education institutions in Tamil Nadu.

Category-Wise Teachers in Tamil Nadu Higher Education (2018-19)
Universities SCs STs OBCs Muslims
Government 15% 0.69% 61% 1.5%
Private unaided 5.9% 0.21% 63.32% 3.09%
Government 14.28% 0.30% 66.18% 5%
Private unaided 9.5% 0.19% 74.9% 2.36%

Source: All India Survey of Higher Education, 2018-19

However, much remains to be said for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Muslim representation. OBC’s too do not have fair representation in the institutions of national importance where they are at 25.7% and SCs are at 6.2%. Within these institutions, representation of Dalits and OBCs is particularly bad in the IITs as it is only 2.05% and 9.42%.

The history of reservations in the state says more.

The first backward classes commission of Tamil Nadu, appointed by M. Karunanidhi and headed by A.N. Sattanathan, in its report in 1970, felt that an upper crust within the backward caste i.e., a class within the caste has been appropriating major benefits of reservation and blocking the development of the real backward castes.

According to the Sattanathan Commission, nine castes including Vadugas, Thulluva Vellalas, Aghamudiyans, Gavaras, Veerakodi Vellalas, Sourashtrans, Sadhu Chettis, Kaikolan (Sengunthar and Sozhia) and Devangas, which account for around 11.3% of the total backward classes’ population, cornered 37% of non-gazetted and 48% of gazetted posts. They further took up 44% of engineering seats, 47% of medical seats and 34% of scholarships, creating a great imbalance in access to reservation benefits.

The Commission recommended the identification of a separate ‘Most Backward Class’ category and also an increase in quota to accommodate everyone.

Also read | Explainer: Significance of the Supreme Court’s Nod to Reservation in Promotions

To stop the reservation of seats growing into serving the interests of certain communities, the Commission recommended introducing economic criteria to stop the creamy layer from accumulating all benefits of reservation.

Further, the Commission recommended excluding certain castes from reservation benefits as it found them to be advanced enough. Based on the recommendations of the Commission, the backward class reservation was increased from 25% to 31% and that of SCs and STs from 16% to 18% by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in 1971.

But they ignored the recommendation on the creamy layer. Neither was any caste excluded from reservation benefits, and nor was a separate division of ‘Most Backward Classes’ demarcated.

Karunanidhi with M.G. Ramachandran. Photo: Twitter/@kalaignar89

In 1979, the M.G. Ramachandran-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government attempted to introduce the creamy layer concept based on the Sattanathan Commission recommendations, but had to withdraw it later due to stiff political opposition. That it lost the parliamentary elections in 1980 made things no better.

The MGR government justified its action of introducing the creamy layer concept saying it would indeed benefit the economically backward communities and stop the emergence of a ‘neo-Brahminical cult’ among the wealthier sections of the backward classes.

To overcome the political distress created by this introduction, the government further increased the reservation for backward classes from 31% to 50%. But the Supreme Court directed the government to appoint a commission to look into the real status of backward classes in Tamil Nadu.

Also read: SBI Exam Leaves OBCs, SCs, STs Struggling To Figure Out EWS Quota Trick

Thus the MGR government appointed the Second Backward Classes Commission, led by J.A. Ambasankar in 1982. The commission made concrete efforts to scientifically assess the status of the backward classes and came out with a finding that around 11 castes, (Kongu Vellalar, Nadar, Agamudaiyar, Labbai, Gavara, Sengunthanar, Kallar, Maravar, Sozha Vellalar, Devangar and Sadhu Chetty) who constituted around 34.8% of the backward classes held 50.7% posts in the public service commission, 62.7% seats in professional courses, and 53.4% scholarships.

They left behind the rest of the seats to as many as 211 castes, who formed around 65.2% of the total backward class population in the state. The Commission estimated the backward class population to be around 67% and recommended to include 17 forward communities within the list and delete 34 communities from the list.

The government added another 29 communities to the backward classes list but did not delete any community from it and maintained the existing 68% reservation for backward classes, SCs and STs.

M. Karunanidhi. Photo: Facebook/www.kalaignarkarunanidhi.com

The agitation by the Vanniyar caste against such a concentration of reservation among a small section of backward class population forced the Karunanidhi-led DMK government to compartmentalise the reservation of 50% into 30% for backward classes and 20% for Most Backward Classes and de-notified communities, in 1989.

Then came the Jayalalithaa government, which to protect the 69% reservation after the Indra Sawhney judgment restricting the reservations under 50%, passed the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of Appointments or Posts in the Services under the State) Act, 1993, the and got it under Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to escape from judicial scrutiny.

Under the Supreme Court’s direction to offer quantifiable data to justify the move, the Janarthanam Commission in 2011 in its report ‘Justification of Reservation under the Tamil Nadu Act 45 of 1994 on Quantifiable Data’ on the basis of data given by state government reiterated the Sattanathan and Ambasankar Backward Class Commission reports while at once ignoring the concentration of benefits by fewer castes within backward classes. 

The White Paper on job reservations tabled in the state assembly by Karunanidhi, who was chief minister in 2000, highlighted how the backward classes are over-represented and Most Backward Classes, SCs and STs are underrepresented in jobs in Tamil Nadu. The Janarthanam Commission failed to assess the impact of reservation by comparing the data collected by the Ambasankar Commission with the present day reality, which would have rationalised the reservation policy in Tamil Nadu in a better manner.

The creamy layer concept has been misused in many parts of the country by excluding the creamy section and converting the reserved seats into general category in the name of not finding the suitable candidate within the OBC section.

Also read: An SBI Exam Has Exposed the Illusion of the EWS Quota in Uttar Pradesh

But allotting seats within the community, after the exclusion of the creamy layer, could open up opportunities for the really deserving within the backward communities. Yet within the backward communities are those with political and economic clout, who will always block such democratisation processes.

With 46% of unaided private universities and 76% of unaided private colleges in Tamil Nadu not following the reservation policy in recruitment, the real intent behind reservations has already weakened in Tamil Nadu.

The under representation of SCs and STs in government institutions and their poor representation in private institutions has further weakened the essence of social justice in the state. There is an urgent need to rationalise the reservation policy of Tamil Nadu on a scientific basis without reducing the quantum or giving space for Brahminical anti-reservationists to decimate what has been a progressive reservation policy.

Dr Venkatanarayanan S. teaches at Andaman Law College, Port Blair. Views expressed are his own.