Cause for Social Justice tampered?
The Supreme Court’s decision on reservations in promotion is a step back in the fight against social injustice.
Reservations in promotion for people belonging to the Scheduled Castes(SCs) & Scheduled Tribes(STs) in public services and government employment has been subject to intense debate and severe criticism ever since it first came into effect. However the issue was in the limelight again after the apex court in February ruled that reservation in promotions isn’t a fundamental right, meaning that the states are not legally bound to grant reservations to SCs & STs in government jobs and services. The ruling reiterated that under Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution, the government is empowered to undertake such legislation at its discretion. However, it ordered that the states undertaking this step have to provide quantifiable data proving the backwardness of the reserved communities and the inadequacy of their representation in public posts as a precondition. This becomes a slippery slope since state governments are not required to provide any quantifiable data backing their decision to deny reservations to SCs and STs. The narrative one can draw from this is that reservations aren’t necessary and the government isn’t obligated to support its decision to deny reservations by quantifiable data and facts. This is dangerous since it incentivizes state governments to overlook and neglect social injustice, it creates an avenue for the government to shirk its responsibility to work towards the upliftment of the socially disadvantaged and marginalized people. In the context of Uttarakhand, the state government, before denying reservations had formed a committee to determine the backwardness of these communities and their adequacy in representation in government jobs. The report prepared by this committee established inadequacy and backwardness. Despite this, the government decided to make no provisions for quotas. The ruling becomes problematic because it gives a freehand to state governments to deny reservations in promotions without placing any obligation to justify its actions or provide alternate methods for social upliftment. The situation will worsen if other state governments follow a similar pattern, which will result in further marginalization of the SCs & STs, something which isn’t desirable in India’s quest for equity.
It is noteworthy that it has been well established by our justice system that SCs and STs are in a perpetual state of social and economic backwardness by virtue of their caste. In the Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court had established that representation of SCs & STs in public services was inadequate. This view was reiterated in the 77th constitutional amendment after the parliament evaluated quantifiable data at an all-India level. We have substantial evidence for inadequate representation and social backwardness of SCs & STs, it has been observed from the available data that this inadequacy in representation is prevalent in all states & Union Territories except Goa. What makes the situation worse is that is already low percentage of SCs in government services is inflated by a large number of SCs who work as sweepers. The ruling neglects the gravity of the situation by implying that reservation in promotion isn’t a need of the hour, for example, in Haryana the share of SCs in Group A service is only 3.7% while the share of SC population in the state is close to 20%. This brings up two important questions, firstly, if it has been established by reliable official data that serious lack of representation is a pervading problem, why does the Supreme Court consider it to be perfectly fine for a state government to deny an upliftment mechanism, and secondly, despite several legal precedents which establish the social backwardness of the SCs & STs, why does the Supreme Court place an additional burden on the states to reiterate this fact through quantifiable data if they wish to make provision for quotas. Another matter of concern is that, like in the case of Uttarakhand, even if a state through independent evaluation of quantifiable data establishes inadequacy in representation, it isn’t legally bound to make any provisions to resolve this problem. This makes the state government less accountable towards SCs & STs since it has the leeway to neglect the problem even if it has been identified, which unfairly leaves people from these communities in casteist echo chambers.
Representation of SCs & STs in upper echelons of public administration and bureaucracy is abysmal, which means that their voice often goes unheard in top-level decision-making and also affects the proper implementation of welfare schemes aimed at their upliftment. This justifies the claim for more representation in posts of seniority in public services. An argument against reservation in promotions is that it might lead to inefficiency which is also outlined in Article 16(4) of the Indian constitution, however, such a claim must be backed with quantifiable data. It is important to understand the larger picture, even if it is established that reservations lead to inefficiency to some extent, efficiency cannot come at the cost of further marginalization of the SCs and STs, who are in a perpetual state of misery by virtue of the oppressive caste system. This trade-off will leave the country worse off, since the gap between the upper and lower castes will continue to expand, preventing sustainable and inclusive growth, leading to a divisive society. Nullifying the negative impacts of the caste system requires a comprehensive plan of action that ensures the overall upliftment of its victims. Policies by the government must be duly followed and implemented. SCs & STs face a long list of problems that ensure their systematic marginalization, this includes violence, harassment, lack of representation & resources, poverty, homelessness, landlessness, exposure to inhospitable and inhuman working conditions. A survey during the last census revealed that 75% of the SC population lives below the poverty line. Only comprehensive efforts will prompt structural change and the Supreme Court ruling is a dilution of these efforts. Its decision might be legally sound, but it is morally hollow since it incentivizes a legislative response that further marginalizes the SCs & STs and systematically strengthens the hegemony of the already privileged.