This is bound to remind one of the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, whose demand for a review of the reservation policy had triggered a nationwide debate. During the run-up to the Bihar polls, Lalu Prasad Yadav made it an election issue and benefited electorally from it. But no one cared at the time to remind Lalu Prasad that he was not contesting the elections alone. His party was part of the Grand Alliance and Nitish Kumar, his partner in the alliance, kept mum on the issue. Nitish’s government had already begun a review of the reservation policy of Bihar and it would not be surprising if he continues with it. In fact, Nitish Kumar’s politics is centred on this “review” – whether it was the “Nitish formula” of the Karpoori Thakur era or the appointment of Upper Castes Commission (Savarna Ayog in popular parlance).
Why do we forget that in his first term, Nitish had made inroads into Lalu’s vote bank by reviewing the reservation policy with the tacit consent of the BJP? Words like “Mahadalit” were born out of this review.
The Mahadalit Ayog was mandated with studying the socio-economic condition of the Backwards among Dalits and suggesting ways and means for ameliorating their lot. The Mahadalits got some new facilities courtesy of Nitish Kumar. Now, Nitish and Lalu are in alliance. But you should not forget that after strengthening his position among the Backwards, Nitish Kumar is now trying to woo the Savarnas.
Nitish’s Savarna vote bank
The Savarnas had got disillusioned with Nitish in the wake of the Bandopadhyaya Commission’s recommendations for land reforms. It was to smooth the ruffled feathers of the Savarnas that Nitish Kumar had promised the setting up of the Savarna Ayog in the last assembly elections. Nitish had said that the government would introduce programmes to improve the lot of those Savarnas who have been left behind in the race for development and growth. However, during the campaign for the 2015 assembly elections, neither the BJP-led coalition nor the Grand Alliance could gather the courage of even indirectly referring to the report of the Savarna Ayog.
But if Nitish Kumar plays his Savarna Ayog cards right, a sizeable chunk of the BJP’s traditional voters may align themselves with him – which will benefit him and cost the BJP dear in the 2019 general election and 2020 assembly election.
Before we dwell on the report of the Savarna Ayog, let us talk about three earlier commissions and their recommendations. The first of them was the Kaka Kalelkar Commission set up in 1953. The Commission recommended four identifiers of backward communities. First, the social status of the castes on the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy; second, educational backwardness; third, the representation of various castes in government services; and fourth, the shares of different castes in business, commerce and industries.
The commission accepted that caste is a measure of backwardness. According to the commission, adopting caste as a measure of backwardness would enhance the probability of the most backward classes benefiting from the welfare measures of the government. That is why it was suggested that the castes which were traditionally considered backward should be given priority in granting reservations.
In 1971, the Bihar government appointed a commission headed by Mungerilal. This commission submitted its report in 1979. It identified 128 backward castes from among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The parameters used were: socio-economic status, representation in government jobs and share in industries and business. This commission recommended that these castes should be granted 26 per cent reservation in government jobs and 24 per cent in educational institutions. Accepting the recommendations, then chief minister Karpoori Thakur introduced 8 per cent reservation for OBCs, 12 per cent for MBCs, 14 per cent for SCs, 10 per cent for STs, 3 per cent for women and 3 per cent for the economically backward.
In this context, the report of the Mandal Commission has been the most talked about. In 1979, the second Backward Classes Commission was set up under the chairmanship of B.P. Mandal. In its report submitted in 1980, the commission fixed three determinants of backwardness: social (status of living, dependence on manual work for livelihood, marriage of girls at an early age and number of women in the workforce), educational (non-enrolment of children in schools, large number of school dropouts and low percentage of matriculates) and economic (meagre assets, low household income, lack of potable water and indebtedness).
Recommendations of Savarna Ayog
In this series of commissions, the recommendations of the Savarna Ayog, appointed by the Bihar government in 2011 under the chairmanship of D.K. Trivedi, a retired chief justice of Allahabad High Court, should also be studied. Earlier, the government had commissioned a survey by the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) to gather data on backwardness among Savarnas.
Several interesting facts emerged from this survey. The survey arrived at the conclusion that while there were historical reasons for the social and educational backwardness of the backward classes, backwardness was not limited to these classes. A section of Savarnas was also backward. It was in the light of the survey’s findings that the Nitish Kumar government decided to set up the one-of-a-kind Savarna Ayog. The survey covered Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas among the Hindus and Sheikhs, and Syeds and Pathans among the Muslims.
The Savarna Ayog was tasked with identifying the educationally and socially backward sections of the Savarnas, helping understand the class differences among the Savarnas and identifying the reasons for the backwardness. The survey revealed that among the aforementioned castes, Kayasthas, Bhumihars and Syeds were comparatively prosperous and spent more money on the education of their children.
The commission said that the Savarnas – whether living in cities or in villages – had greater faith in allopathy than in Unani or Ayurveda. Another interesting finding was that while the rural Savarnas almost never relied on government hospitals, the urban Savarnas reposed greater faith in public health facilities.
Among the rural Hindu Savarnas, 20.20 per cent admitted to having faith in witch doctors while the corresponding figure for Muslims was 35 per cent. The situation was slightly better in the cities, where 12.7 per cent Hindu and 24.2 per cent Muslim Savarnas had similar beliefs.
In villages, 35.3 per cent Savarna Hindus were deep in debt, while in case of Muslims, this percentage was 26.5. The Bhumihars were the most indebted and, as mentioned earlier, also the most prosperous community. On an average, each Bhumihar family owed Rs. 1.03 lakh. The report minutely examines the deteriorating status of the Hindu and Muslim Savarnas. They are selling their lands and sinking into the morass of backwardness.
The commission has urged the government to reach out to the Savarnas and announce welfare programmes for them.
To ensure that the benefits of the welfare programmes reach the intended people, the commission has suggested that the government fix an upper-income limit for eligibility. It has also recommended that the scholarships awarded to students passing matriculation examination in first division should be extended to Savarna children. According to the commission, eligible Savarnas should be given the benefit of government programmes related to education, housing, toilets, agriculture and social security. It also urges the government to ensure that the benefits of welfare programmes meant for all reach the economically weak Savarnas.
If and when the Nitish Kumar government implements the recommendations of the commission is anybody’s guess but the million-dollar question is whether Lalu will have the courage to confront his alliance partner and chief minister the way he confronted Mohan Bhagwat.
(Published in the January 2016 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine)