I begin with a confession. Even with all my self-proclaimed so-called progressiveness, I did feel until recently that reservations for the economically poor over and above caste and gender-based affirmative action was not a bad idea. But I must thank the Narendra Modi government, which approved a 10% upper caste quota earlier this month, for showing me how wrong I was.

I was on a flight recently when two passengers seated in the row before me discussed this subject. Both individuals obviously came from caste privilege.

Passenger A: “Soon your children will hardly have 10 to 15 seats in colleges.”

Passenger B: “I thought Modi will abolish caste-based reservation as soon as he came to power in 2014.”

The conversation continued as I wrote down my thoughts. Why did I think reservations on the basis of economic status was justified? I had unconsciously equated the need for uplifting the economically needy with social exclusion, its unrelenting stigma and caste-driven deprivation. I knew that irrespective of economic status, caste just does not disappear, yet in my misdirected sub-conscious mind there was an urge to secure balance – directed towards my kind, the caste privileged. It is this that made me consider economic reservation as sensible. There can be absolutely no argument that the poor among all communities including the most-forward among the forward castes need a helping hand. The issue is with being convinced that reservation is the way to achieve this end.

This is the problem with caste, it just does not go away from our minds. Every person of caste privilege, however conscious of its vulgarity, must keep this in mind and constantly question themselves.

Recently at a meeting in North Chennai, a much stigmatised cluster of suburbs, a young man explained to us how he has always hidden his caste origins. Whether it was college or a job interview, the very mention of his home address would deny him an opportunity. This is directly connected to caste discrimination and stereotyping. In fact the relative economic stability of the individual never erases their caste identity, unless of course it is crushed, concealed or transformed.

Uplifting the poor

If Modi was really so interested in uplifting the poor of the country, he should have done everything in his power to strengthen the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Instead from day one, his government has diminished and attempted to destroy this paradigm shifting socio-economic initiative.

There has been an acute crunch in funds and inordinate delays in payment of wages under this scheme. Its notified wage rate has been delinked from the statutory state minimum wage. This was done in spite of this being held illegal by the Central Employment Guarantee Council, a committee of the Ministry of Rural Development, the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court. The Union government has also ignored a recommendation to index the wages under this scheme to the Consumer Price Index (Rural Labourers).

In 2017-’18, the wages under the rural employment guarantee scheme in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand were either not increased at all, or raised by just Re 1. Studies indicate that nearly 60% of households want more work but are not able to get it. In nearly all the 74 starvation deaths in 2017-’18, work was not provided to people despite the fact that they had a job card.

My mother has established a school in a little village called Anaikatti, in Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala. Her school provides education primarily to tribal and underprivileged children. From her experience, one of the myths that needs to be busted is that the poor are more interested in sending their children to work. Every family wants to educate their child and make huge sacrifices for their children. A programme like the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme is boon for so many. It provides some basic financial security, allowing parents to send their children to school. But this government just does not care.

The stigma of manual labour

The upper-castes have always considered this employment scheme to be wasteful. They have constantly said that it encourages unproductive, useless work, that it has increased the cost of agricultural labour and the general casteist slight that no one (referring to Dalits and other labourer castes) wants to work on their farms anymore. I wonder why those who argue for reservations on the basis of economic criteria did not consider the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as one way of supporting their poor caste brethren? This is because the upper-caste mind just does not place manual labour and their ilk together. In our mind’s eye, we would never picture an upper-caste individual as a manual scavenger or daily wage labourer.

And hence when it comes to a socially awakened economic initiative such as this employment scheme, they ridicule it and vehemently protest its existence. People instead are given a lesson on a merit-based system. Speak to an upper-caste non-resident Indian, who most likely lives in an elite neighbourhood, and you will hear about how they left India because of reservation and why due to caste-based reservation the country has gone to the dogs as inefficient and incompetent people have taken control of it. But today these very people are excited and applauding an economic status-based reservation system. The presumption, of course, is that the upper-castes are naturally endowed with merit and ability.

Today the Modi government has provided 10% reservation in the general category for people who earn Rs 8 lakh a year or less. This is an unjustified and unfair advantage given to people who should be not receiving this benefit. If an income of Rs 2,000 (approximately) a day is the definition of poverty then I am not sure what we will call those who earn Rs 100 or less per day. And most people who earn so little belong to the oppressed castes.

At the same time, successive Union and state governments have done little to bridge the demand and supply gap in education, especially higher education. With an enormous pressure for seats in a limited number of quality educational institutions, the admission cut-off for the general category in past years reached ridiculous levels, at times 98% or 99%. Many more institutions need to be established in order to absorb the needs of our large and growing population. This is the responsibility of the Union and state governments. By not addressing this growing need, governments have accentuated caste tensions and encouraged a donation-based admission system.

There is another issue that always crops up in the reservation discussions among the upper-castes. The creamy layer argument. Just as reservations cannot be based purely on economic markers, the removal of a community based on its economic status is as problematic. There have to be other indexes that include social and cultural inclusion in larger society that need to be taken into consideration. To believe that a financially stable Dalit is equal to an upper-caste belonging to a similar economic band is incorrect.

Reservations not the solution

Going back to the primary question, do the economically backward (in the true sense, not those who earn Rs 2,000 a day) need reservations? The answer is a clear “No”. Reservations cannot be the route. What they need is the vigorous implementation of poverty alleviation programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and ensuring that our delivery mechanisms are functional and targeted. I guess for this government, snatching away money from its citizens in the name of demonetisation and putting in place a Goods and Services Tax system that was oppressive, was part of their grand plan of helping the economically backward.

Well done, Mr Modi!