On Friday, the Gujarat government finally reacted to nine months of Patel agitation by announcing a 10% reservation quota for the economically backward among upper castes. The proposed quota, to be promulgated through a special ordinance on May 1, will benefit those from the existing general quota with an annual income of Rs 6 lakh or less.
Since the 10% quota will be in addition to the existing 49% quota for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes, it will also take the state’s total share of reservations for education and government jobs well above the Constitutionally-prescribed 49% mark.
Like in Rajasthan and Haryana, where special quotas targeted at agitating caste groups are being challenged in court, Gujarat’s 10% quota is also likely to face judicial scrutiny. But even before it reaches a court of law, the new reservation offer has already been categorically rejected by the Patidars, the caste group at whom the quota is indirectly aimed.
‘We wanted OBC, not EBC’
Most vocal in their dismissal of the 10% quota are members of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, the organisation led by Hardik Patel that mobilised lakhs of Patidars across Gujarat to demand reservations at a massive rally in Ahmedabad in August 2015. The rally triggered violent clashes between Patels and the police that eventually led to 10 deaths, arrests of hundreds of Patel youths and police attacks on Patidar homes and vehicles.
“We have been asking for reservations within the 49%, under the OBC or socially backward class category,” said Rahul Desai, a Patidar Samiti convener for Ahmedabad west. "Instead they have taken out a chunk from the general category and for the economically backward classes."
The problem with the EBC category, says Desai, is that it is not yet Constitutionally valid. “It’s not that we don’t want reservations based on economic backwardness, but the EBC quota should then replace all other quotas, including the current ones for SC, ST and OBC,” he said. “Everyone who is poor should get reservation, irrespective of caste.”
While Patidar Samiti activists are still waiting for Hardik Patel and other leaders to be released from jail after being arrested in October on charges of sedition, Patidars across Gujarat seem to have agreed upon one dismissive word to describe the new quota: lollipop.
“We are calling it a big lollipop, because when you think about it, what will we do with a 10% quota that is not even exclusively for Patidars?” said Mahesh Patel, a diamond cutter from Ahmedabad’s Patel-dominated Bapunagar settlement. “The government is just trying out these gimmicks because an election is coming up next year.”
‘Any common person can earn Rs 6 lakh’
The Patidars, also known as the Patels, were traditionally a lower-caste group that gained economic and social prominence because they owned land and were successful in agriculture. They eventually came to dominate the diamond, textile and ceramic industries in Gujarat, and control around 40% of Gujarat’s small and medium enterprises today.
However, with businesses slowing down in recent years and landholdings getting smaller and smaller, the Patidars developed a strong feeling that they were losing out on government jobs and admissions in medical and engineering colleges because of SC, ST and OBC quotas.
In the past year, agitating Patidars have often insisted that the stereotype of the successful Patel businessman is not reflective of the acute poverty that many Patel farmers and labourers are struggling with. Despite this, the community now claims that the government’s income cut off of Rs 6 lakh to be eligible for the new 10% quota is too low.
“Any common person can earn Rs 6 lakh a year these days,” said Sonalben Patel, a Congress leader in Ahmedabad who believes the quota should be of at least 20% with an income cut off should be at least Rs 12 lakh a year. “If someone is earning Rs 6 or 7 lakh, and has to pay Rs 4 lakh as fees to get into medical college in the general category, how can he afford it? What is the point of the reservation for the economically backward?”