Can OBC reservations lead to social development?

The affirmative action debate has always been rocked by the issue of merit versus social justice. Critics of the reserves argue that admission to public employment should be performance-based. In response, activists rightly questioned the meaning of merit in a society as unequal as ours.

Political observers have written about the reluctance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to count the other backward classes (OBCs), fearing Mandal 2.0, a new wave of OBC mobilization that could benefit regional parties. Data-inclined commentators have raised important questions regarding the broad class division within CBOs and the possible implications of the census in restructuring the quota system.

These are all valid questions. But can reservations in public employment help development? After all, public servants are supposed to work for the public good.

Let’s start with some historical background. The term OBC dates back to the Madras presidency in the 1870s. The British administration combined the Shudras and Untouchables castes under the label “backward classes” to identify non-Brahmins. The untouchables were reclassified as Scheduled Castes (SC) in the Indian Government Act of 1935.

After independence, the Indian government continued to use this classification for affirmative action policies for SCs and List Tribes (ST). The Constitution had, at least in principle, also decided to provide for CBOs. But it was not until the late 1980s that “OBC” moved from an abstract administrative category to a politically salient group.

After Prime Minister VP Singh announced reservations for CBOs based on the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1989, massive protests from upper-caste students erupted across northern India. Some academics have argued that the emergence of the BJP as a strong electoral force during this period reflects an “elite revolt” against the rise of the lower castes. The counter-mobilization of the otherwise fragmented Shudras solidified the policy of the CBO, in what Yogendra Yadav called India’s “second democratic boom”. As a result, the political representation of the CBO increased dramatically in the 1990s. Parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) increased dramatically with this “mandalization” of politics – which the BJP can now fear with the new census of the castes.

Like trends in political representation, the largest increase in OBC reservations occurred after 1993, following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Currently, all states have some level of quotas for CBOs in public employment. What has been the impact of these quotas on development?

We generally view OBC reservations as a form of sponsorship. But civil servants are the main people involved in the implementation of government programs. Local bureaucrats are also often the most visible presence of the state in the lives of citizens. Their inability or unwillingness to design and implement development projects can have important implications for determining the success of politicians’ policies. I am currently working on my first book on how caste-based mobilization has shaped development in India. Some research findings may be relevant to the current debate.

I have examined the relationship between caste-based representation and public spending patterns in all major states from 1960 to 2012. Governments can choose to allocate their limited resources across economic or social sectors. Economic sectors, such as industry, ports and highways, generally support economic growth by attracting private investment. Social sectors such as education, health care and social security promote the well-being of the masses. I have studied the factors that affect redistribution, measured as the proportion of the development budget that goes into social sectors.

Contrary to expectations, I have found that the political representation of SC and the CBO is not associated with redistributive spending. But places with higher OBC political representation and a higher OBC reserve in the bureaucracy are more likely to spend more in social sectors. Why could it be?

The interaction between the legislature and the bureaucracy remains a black box in the social sciences, but I have some ideas from Bihar, where I conducted my research for many years. The appointment of lower caste officials can help break down traditional networks of upper caste patronage and thus reduce elite hold on government programs. Caste bias in development projects has been widely documented in various sectors in India. A more representative bureaucracy can also make the state more accessible to a larger population and allow citizens to make demands.

Recalling the transformation after the RJD appointed more lower caste officials, an officer from India’s administrative service in Bihar, for example, told me: “The lower castes would not have dared to enter the office of the DM (magistrate district) or BDO (development officer). They thought that if they said something, they would be punished. This has changed. Now they have the confidence to speak out against the DM. They don’t know if their job will be done, but they can walk into his office without fear.

The concerns of favoritism and poor governance in some states are not unfounded, but it is important to note that CBO mobilization is relatively new in northern India and that, on the whole, castes Arrears are still under-represented in most state governments. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are celebrated as models of social development, but the politics of these states have become mired in what has been termed “identity politics” for decades. In the southern states, concerns about collective and representative claims have gradually given way to a broad social protection program and a long-term inclusive civil society. Maybe we can expect the same in the north?

Poulomi Chakrabarti is Assistant Professor in the Department of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

Opinions expressed are personal

Joel C. Hicks