The Union Cabinet has decided to replace the existing National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) with a National Commission for the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (NCSEBC). This transformation has been endorsed by the Lok Sabha on April 10, but the Rajya Sabha has referred the bill to a select committee whose report will be tabled in the Upper House during the Monsoon Session.

The new legislation will transfer the power of amending the list of the OBCs from government to Parliament and will also shift the responsibility of determining the list of their OBCs from the states to this new body. Some observers, including Satish Deshpande in a recent oped (‘Misreading caste’, IE, April 12), did not rule out an attempt by the government to extend reservations to not only dominant castes like Jats, Marathas or Patidars, but also “economically backward” upper castes.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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While we have reviewed the case of the Patels and Jats in previous opeds, the situation of the Marathas deserves more attention, because it is more complex. First, the Marathas have not only asked for quotas, but also for the revision (abolition?) of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Second, they have mobilised in a very peculiar manner. Their agitation started exactly one year ago, in April 2016, after a Maratha girl was allegedly raped by a Dalit. In contrast to the Jats, the Marathas opted for a non-violent — and even silent — modus operandi. Rallies were organised at the district level in August-October 2016, mobilising more than 1.2 million people. Third, Marathas form a huge caste cluster, representing more than 30 per cent of the population of Maharashtra, a record number in India.

The reasons why Marathas are asking for quotas are very similar to those of the Jats and the Patels: While their elite group is doing fine economically, a large fraction is lagging behind. Certainly, the Marathas have dominated Maharashtra’s politics for decades (with a record number of MLAs, 36 to 40 per cent of the total since 1967) and are second only to the Brahmins in terms of per capita income, Rs 36,548 against Rs. 47,427 — according to the 2011-12 round of the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in collaboration with the University of Maryland. The other forward castes get only Rs 34,546 and the OBCs, Rs 28,580.

But the Marathas are highly differentiated in socio-economic terms. The highest quintile (20 per cent of the caste group) gets 48 per cent of the total income of the Marathas with a mean per capita income of Rs 86,750. The lowest quintile of the Marathas earns ten times less (Rs 7,198) and the quintile just above, only Rs 16,285. Which means that the 40 per cent poorest get less than 13 per cent of the total income of the caste — and are lagging behind the Scheduled Caste elite.

In fact, the mean incomes of the highest Dalit quintile, Rs 63,030 and that of the second highest, Rs 28,897, are above those of the three lowest quintiles of the Marathas.

This reflects the rural character of the Marathas in the context of an increasingly pronounced rural/urban divide. Cultivation is the main source of income for 43 per cent of the Marathas — against only 32 per cent for the OBCs and 10 per cent of the SCs — who find alternative sources of income thanks to reservations: Respectively 22.5 per cent of the OBCs and 28 per cent of the SCs belong to the salariat, against 31 per cent of the Marathas.

Not only do Marathas resent the rise of the OBCs and the Dalits because of reservations, but they cannot compete with the upper castes because of their low level of education: Only 7.6 per cent of them are graduates (not more than in the case of the OBCs), against 24 per cent of Brahmins. As a result, Marathas have not benefited as much as upper castes from the rise of the services, including in the IT sector, in post-1991 liberalised India. And only the richest among them could profit by the policy of Sharad Pawar, when he was chief minister in the late 1980s-early 1990s, which consisted of promoting export-oriented agriculturists.

To sum up: Poor Marathas have more and more lagged behind the rich peasants as well as the urban upper caste professionals and have been surpassed by some OBCs as well as Dalits who got quotas.

But is granting reservations to the Marathas a good solution? The condition of the Kunbis, 10 per cent of the state population, suggests otherwise. Traditionally, Kunbis have also been cultivators (with greater numbers in Vidarbha and Konkan), but with a more modest status than the Marathas, especially after Shivaji claimed the title of Kshatriya for his caste. However, during the non-Brahmin movement, which started with Jyotirao Phule in the 1870s, and peaked in the 1920s, the distinction between the Kunbis and the Marathas became unimportant.

But the Kunbis have suffered from such socio-economic disadvantages that they’ve been included in the list of OBCs by the Mandal Commission. About 25 years later, the impact of reservation is hardly perceptible. In fact, the Kunbis are worse off than every caste group, including the SCs. Their mean income, Rs 23,541, is below that of the other OBCs and Dalits. This is largely due to the fact that they rely on cultivation more than any other group. It is the main source of income for 63 per cent of them. Only 3.6 per cent of Kunbis are graduates and less than 10 per cent of them belong to the salariat.

Why have reservations made such little difference? Because other caste groups have cornered the quotas. Malis are a case in point. With 8 per cent of them being graduates, Malis are ahead of the Marathas (7.6 per cent) and of course, the Kunbis (3.6 per cent). As a result, they joined the salariat in larger numbers: This is the main source of income for 16 per cent of them (against 10 per cent for the Kunbis) and their annual per capita mean income (Rs 30,823) is above the state average (Rs 29,823).

The case of Maharashtra, therefore, shows that the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC list may not be a solution, simply because it will make upward social mobility even more difficult for those who are already at the receiving end of socio-economic transformations, the Kunbis. It also shows that the creamy layer mechanism has not been effective enough since the Malis have continued to corner reservations at the expense of the Kunbis.

Whether the new Socially and Educationally Backward Classes will be in a position to correct these defects remains to be seen. In any case, to look at reservations as an employment scheme is self-defeating in a state where government jobs represent only 3.7 per cent of the employed workers in 2012, according to the Labour Bureau.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.