The Supreme Court has done well to halt the quota juggernaut with a ruling that makes eminent sense: states are not bound to provide quotas in government jobs and there is no fundamental right to claim reservation in promotion. Defending the Uttarakhand government’s decision to fill posts in the state without providing reservations its legal team argued, correctly, that the exceptions in subclauses 4 and 4(a) to Article 16 of the Constitution – which guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment – are enabling rather than mandatory provisions, and do not constitute fundamental rights in themselves.
In reality, the logic of reservations demands that they have a self-cancelling character. If it is contended that they institute equality of opportunity then they cannot continue in perpetuity, as the goal will have to be attained at some point. Surely it should be up to governments to determine if and when intended policy goals are achieved, and if it cannot be achieved then to shift to some other strategy. Making reservations itself a fundamental right denies governments any flexibility and amounts to a subversion of equality of opportunity.
In practice reservations have been turned upside down as ever more powerful castes muscle into this space brandishing their street power. The desperation for jobs as millions of youth enter the workforce in a slumping economy, combined with the comfort and perks of government jobs, have caused the latter to be coveted and led to intense caste wars to divide up the pie. This is not good for merit, for equality of opportunity, or for fostering a modern sense of citizenship transcending caste divides. It is high time Centre as well as state governments shifted to a different strategy for ensuring equality of opportunity: by offering high quality public education to all. And oh yes, don’t forget to act on the overall economy too.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.