DURING the campaign for the 2014 Parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi promised to create two crore jobs a year. Instead, it has reached the point of losing one crore jobs a year. In 2018 - the Government’s fourth year in power - 110 lakh jobs were lost in India, and unemployment rates are soaring steeply.
With the 2019 Parliamentary polls just a few months away, and with its recent defeats in key North Indian Assembly elections, the Modi Government is trying desperately to deflect from its abysmal failure to deliver on promises of ‘development’ and ‘employment.’ Its latest tactic of deflection is its move to introduce 10% reservation in government higher education institutions and government jobs to the economically backward among the ‘general category’. This measure has just been passed by the Lok Sabha.
The Modi Government’s move is a fundamentally dishonest one for many reasons. In the first place, Article 340 of the Constitution clearly states that social and educational backwardness alone can be the criterion for reservations. In other words, the Constitution recognises the principle that reservations are not a tool to address economic deprivation - they can only address (to an extent) systematic social and educational discrimination and exclusion. The claim that the upper castes, even those who are poor, face systematic discrimination, exclusion, and underrepresentation in education and jobs does not bear scrutiny. Joblessness and poverty are a separate problem that can only be addressed by the creation of jobs and better wages - and the Modi Government has signally failed on this front.
Modi is by far not the first to moot the idea of a quota for the economically deprived in the non-SC-ST-OBC quota jobs and educational seats. The Narasimha Rao Government introduced a similar measure in 1991, reserving 10% Government posts for “other economically backward sections of the people who are not covered by any existing schemes of reservation”. A nine judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court struck down that measure, observing that poverty alone cannot be the test of backwardness, and holding that social and educational backwardness was the only Constitutional basis for reservations. Since then, some state governments made attempts to introduce similar measures, which faced legal challenges. The Modi Government is introducing the move on the very eve of the 2019 Parliamentary polls, knowing full well that the move is bound to run into legal and Constitutional hurdles. If the Modi Government moves for a Constitutional Amendment to enable reservations based on economic criteria, there is the valid apprehension that this would be a covert move to open the doors for a subsequent undermining the SC/ST/OBC quotas, as the RSS has been demanding for long. As it is, the system of reservations has been increasingly marked by delays, loopholes and non-implementation, and is now being undermined by sweeping privatization in education and employment. The Modi Government has refused to allow reservations in the private sector, which is a long-pending demand.
The other question is about the criteria used to identify economic deprivation. The Modi Government’s proposed criterion is an annual household income of less than Rs 8 lakhs or ownership of less than five acres of agricultural land. This is such a broad categorisation that it covers approximately 90% of the non-SC-ST-OBC population, renders the definition of ‘poverty’ meaningless, and fails to effectively target the poor and unemployed among the upper castes. Persons from households with annual income of less than Rs 8 lakh a year already have more than a 10% share in non-quota government jobs - so the Government measure offers no new benefits to anyone! It is, in every sense, a ‘jumla’ - a talking point and a rhetorical device that, on closer scrutiny, turns out hollow and empty.
Moreover, this move is offering its beneficiaries a slice of a fast shrinking cake. Not only has the Modi Government failed to create new jobs, it has failed to fill existing vacancies in Government jobs. There was a decline of 89 per cent in the direct recruitment in central government ministries and departments in 2015 as compared to 2013 (the decline was 90 per cent for reserved category recruitments). Data presented in Parliament in 2018 shows that there are 10 lakh vacancies in government schools; 5.4 lakh vacancies in Police forces, 2.5 lakh in Railways, 1.2 lakh vacant positions in Defence services, 61,000 in Paramilitary forces, 5,800 in courts and 1.5 lakh in the health sector. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, responding to a press query about quotas for Marathas, admitted as much when he asked, “Government recruitment is frozen. Where are the jobs?”
As this editorial goes to press, nearly the entire strength of India’s working population is on a two-day Strike, affecting all sectors of the economy. The striking workers are demanding a minimum wage of Rs 18000 and strict implementation of the provisions of equal pay for equal work, which would require an end to the rampant contractualisation of jobs. The Strike is also protesting the steep hike in the prices of essential commodities including food, and the soaring unemployment rates. If the Government indeed wishes to alleviate poverty and economic backwardness, it should begin with fixing the minimum wage at Rs 18000 per month and ensuring the strictest possible implementation of minimum wage and other labour laws.
But the Modi Government has in fact made life much harder for the poor. More than one crore jobs were lost in 2018, 84% of which were lost in rural India. Women accounted for 88 lakh jobs of the 110 lakh jobs lost. Prices of food and other essential commodities have soared. Demonetisation and GST have hit small enterprises badly and dealt a body blow to the poor.
Those who do hold jobs, work in conditions that the Modi regime has rendered even more precarious and exploitative than before. On the eve of the All India Workers’ Strike, the Modi Cabinet has approved the Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill 2018, which seeks to replace the tripartite (employees, employers and government) consensus process with Government discretionary powers for recognising Central Trade Unions. The Bill moreover does not have any provisions mandating recognition of trade unions at the enterprise/establishment level based on majority established through Secret Ballot, or legal protection from victimisation for workers taking the initiative to form Unions.
The two-day All India Strike by Trade Unions this year is receiving unprecedentedly widespread support and participation not only from workers in organised and unorganised sectors, but from University, college and school teachers, students and youth, and farmers. In every sense, it is a Bharat Bandh - a massive shut-down of the country and a vote of non-confidence towards the Modi Government. The jumla of 10% reservation for the poor in the ‘general category’ is a last-ditch attempt by the Modi Government to manipulate and mobilise caste hierarchy and prejudice, deflect the attention of upper caste voters from the real causes of growing unemployment and economic deprivation, and somehow derail the growing popular anger building up across the country.