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OBC subcategorization needed but easier said than done

One wonders how the Rohini Commission can complete such a complex exercise aimed at equitable redistribution of the OBC quota without countrywide consultations and detailed study of the multiple issues. The National Commission for Backward Classes had proposed that the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) carry out such an exercise, writes P.N. Sankaran

In view of the widespread indications that, over the years, the benefits of 27 per cent “Mandal” reservation to OBCs have not accrued to the deserving communities, the issue of subcategorization of OBCs has received serious attention of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). A five-member commission for subcategorization of OBCs (CSO), appointed on 2 October 2017 and chaired by Justice (retired) G. Rohini, is examining the politically sensitive issue. CSO is due to submit its report in November 2018. The commission is: examining the extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation among the OBCs with reference to the Central List (of OBC castes); working out the mechanism, criteria, norms and parameters for sub-categorization; and identifying the castes to be included in the sub-categories. In 2015, the NCBC had proposed that OBCs be divided into the following three categories:

  • Extremely Backward Classes (EBC-Group A) facing social, educational and economic backwardness even within the OBCs, consisting of aboriginal tribes, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes who have been carrying on with their traditional occupations;
  • More Backward Classes (MBC-Group B) consisting of vocational groups carrying on with their traditional occupations; and
  • Backward Classes (BC-Group C) comprising of those comparatively more forward among the OBCs.
Justice (retired) G. Rohini heads the commission for subcategorization of OBCs

The issue of sub-categorization had received the attention of the first and second backward classes commissions. The first Backward Classes Commission (1955), headed by Kaka Kalelkar, presented a list of 2399 backward classes (castes) and 837 of these were classified as most backward”. L.R. Naik (member, second Backward Classes Commission) suggested classification of OBCs into Intermediate Backward Classes and Depressed Backward Classes. And he suggested allocation of the total reservation of 27 per cent among the above two subgroups in the proportion of 12 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. The United Progressive Alliance government (2004-2014) also seems to have taken note of the skewed distribution of reservation among OBCs that favoured the more developed classes (castes) in the group; hence, establishment of a special commission to identify communities that have not benefited from reservation was promised in the Election Manifesto 2014 of the Indian National Congress, as part of the party’s promise to empower SCs, STs and OBCs. According to the NCBC, 10 states (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Karnataka, Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) have subcategorized OBC for reservations in state-government-owned institutions; Rajasthan is reported to have joined the list on 26 October 2017. Despite the observations of the Supreme Court that there is no bar on subcategorization of OBCs in order to ensure equitable distribution of the benefits of reservation, the original OBC quota has remained intact in the remaining states and at the Centre.

A sit-in in support of reservations

In spite of repeated reminders issued by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (PPG&P), several ministries/departments have not provided data about the OBCs working under them. However, Dr Muralidharan, a Chennai-based activist and an IIT Madras alumnus, was able to source some detailed information through an RTI petition:

  • As on January 2017, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, only 25 (4.97 per cent) of the 503 Group A officers belong to the OBCs; and
  • In 2015, representation of Group A OBC officers was only 10.71 per cent and Group B officers 7.18 per cent across 12 ministries, 10 departments and five constitutional bodies (only 24 ministries employing 8.75 per cent of total government employees provided data; others refused).

Hence, the available figures may not give the complete/true status of reservation for OBCs. For example, representation of OBCs in Groups A, B and C central services has been stated in the Annual Reports of the M/o PPG&P as 19.28 per cent, 18.24 per cent, and 21.58 per cent, as on 1 January 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, according to data obtained from 71, 63 and 78 ministries/departments. However, the OBC quota of 27 per cent is not fulfilled in several ministries/departments, as shown in Table 1, indicating an average 4.56 per cent representation against the mandated 27 per cent. Though the ministries/departments covered are not the same for the three reserved categories in the table, and the figures relate only to ministries with the biggest lags, it is to be noted that reservation has benefited SC groups (12.37 per cent) and ST groups (2.42 per cent) more than it has OBCs (4.56 per cent), given the mandated quotas for the three groups ­– 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 27 per cent.

A United OBC Forum march in Delhi

Table 1: Representation of Backward Classes in Central Ministries/Departments-2016


(15% mandated)

(7.5% mandated)

(27 % mandated)
Space11.66Investment & Public Asset Management1.96Agricultural Research & Education2.78
Personnel & Training12.25Vice-President’s

2.04Food Processing Industries3.12
Drinking Water & Sanitation12.36Cabinet Secretariat2.28Land Resources5.33
Cabinet Secretariat12.70Social Justice & Empowerment2.85Science & Technology5.71
Ayush12.87Panchayati Raj2.99Coal5.86
Average12.37 2.42 4.56

Source: Lok Sabha Question Hour, as reported in The Hindu, 4 April 2018, p 9

Similarly, data furnished under RTI Act by 24 of the 35 Union Ministries, 25 of the 37 central departments and various constitutional bodies also reveals that 24 years since the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations (from 8 September 1993) the OBCs have not optimally benefited from it in any of the three groups of employees (see Table 2). As on 1 January 2017, only 17 per cent of the Group A officers in the 24 ministries are OBCs. Their representations in Group B (14 per cent), Group C (11 per cent), and Group D (10 per cent) are even lower than Group A. In the staff of the 24 ministries, 25 departments (out of 37) and eight constitutional bodies (including Prime Minister’s Office, President’s Secretariat and the Election Commission of India) taken together, only 14 per cent, 15 per cent, 17 per cent and 18 per cent of the four groups, A, B, C and D, respectively, are OBCs. Though special recruitment was also undertaken from time to time to bridge the gap, the backlog in OBC reservation continues to plague the delivery mechanism of social justice.

Table 2: Representation of OBCs in groups of Ministries as on 1 January 2017

TypePercentage of OBC employees

in 24 Ministries
Percentage of OBC employees

in 57 Ministries/Departments/constitutional bodies
Group A17%14%
Group B14%15%
Group C11%17%
Group D10%18%

Source: The Hindu, 10 December 2017, page 1

Despite the availability of convincing data on under-representation of OBCs in public services, non-availability of data on community-wise beneficiaries of the OBC quota makes the proposed subcategorization exercise and carving out of “quotas within the quota” a formidable exercise. Thus, the task of CSO is truly herculean on account of the factors presented below:

i.  Large number of classes (castes)

Existence of a large number of castes under the OBC umbrella makes their scientific subcategorization highly challenging in the Indian context of federal governance in which separate Central and State lists of the OBC castes are drawn up, which then remain unchanged for decades. Kalelkar Commission identified 2,399 castes with an estimated population of 11.35 crore in 1951, constituting 32 per cent of the country’s population. The Mandal Commission listed 3,743 castes which together made up 52 per cent of the total Indian population. The People of India Survey (1994) identified 4693 castes/communities, including 1046 OBC castes. According to the latest records of the NCBC, there are 2514 OBC castes/communties spread across 31 States/Union Territories.

ii. Heterogeneity and spread

Another complex issue is heterogeneity and the highly localized presence of a large number of OBCs. In response to the problems of aggregation of caste data, it was suggested in the Delhi Symposium (organized by Sociology Unit of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, on 17 July 1998, in the context of the 2001 Census) that no consolidation be attempted beyond the state level: this would also better reflect the realities of caste as a local institution, given that 86 per cent of all castes were limited to single states.

iii. Lack of credible caste data

Referring to the OBCs in general, a scholar noted that the lack of credible caste data to tell us who deserves preferential treatment could be the main cause that prompts some community to make unreasonable demands for reservation. OBC is a heterogeneous and internally vastly differentiated category whose conditions and community-wise numerical strength, unlike the Dalits and Tribes, have yet to be officially surveyed. Hence, NCBC has been requesting ministries for OBC-specific data and access to the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 (SECC 2011) data.

iv. Cap on total reservation

In view of the approximate share of OBCs (52 per cent) in the total population of the country and the need to strike a balance between the concerns of merit and reservation in government recruitments, a cap of 50 per cent has been fixed for reservation by the Supreme Court, with separate quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs. Hence, the issue of ensuring social justice “within” each group and within the OBCs in particular is challenging, and any solution that benefits one community may not be of any use to, in fact deprive, another. Hence:

i) It is desirable to extend operationally the concept of social exclusion (beyond material deprivation, to include institutions and processes) to examine the extent of inequality in reservation to OBCs, develop the mechanism, criteria, norms and parameters for sub-categorization and identify scientifically the sub-categories among OBCs and apportion the reservation quota among the sub-groups.

ii) Enhanced inclusion of a few OBCs could be achieved only through partial/total exclusion of the forward classes (castes) among the OBCs, in the interest of maximization of social justice at intra-group and inter-group levels.

iii) In order to maximize social justice for OBCs using quotas within the quota, the Pareto Efficiency Principle, as applied to economic allocation of resources, would be highly useful. Division of the OBC quota among three identified categories of OBCs could be considered Pareto efficient if it is impossible to improve social justice of one category without reducing social justice of other two categories.

iv) Since 86 per cent of the OBCs are highly localized, those classes (castes) enjoying pan-India presence which have contributed to the country’s culture and heritage and have a distinct cultural identity (like the Vishwakarma – artisan – community), need recognition and inclusion in MBC (Group B).

v) Going by the proposal of L.R. Naik (member, Mandal Commission) to allocate 15 per cent sub-quota to Depressed Backward Classes, MBC (Group B) could be allocated that sub-quota. The balance could be distributed to EBC (Group A), and Backward Classes (Group C) – 7 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively.

At a meeting to review the functioning of the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, convened by the Union Home Minister on 31 August 2018, it was decided to collect detailed OBC data as part of the Census 2021. The only comprehensive data we have on the OBCs is from eight decades ago – that is the 1931 Census. Though the dramatic decision was taken following vehement criticism of the withholding of the caste part of the SECC 2011 and to facilitate effective functioning of the empowered NCBC, the exercise involving “house listing” in 2020 by 25 lakh enumerators, the “headcount” commencing in February 2021 and publication of final figures (expected to take three years) is not going to be helpful either for the implementation of the report of the CSO (expected after 30 November 2018) or the new NCBC, armed with, among others, powers similar to that of a civil court in redressing grievances and other issues “beyond reservation”. This makes one suspect that CSO (yet to submit its report) and the new NCBC (yet to be constituted) and the plan to profile the OBCs in Census 2021 are only part of the slew of measures trumpeted in the media with a view to win the support of the OBCs in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The term of CSO has been extended to 30 November 2018. The commission said that the collection of data/information from OBC organizations, the Union and the states, educational institutions and concerned individuals through surveys, studies, visits and so on had been completed and it needed more time for cross-checking and drafting the report. But, given the challenges stated above, one wonders how the CSO can complete such a complex exercise aimed at equitable redistribution of the OBC quota, without countrywide consultations and detailed study of the multiple issues. NCBC had proposed that the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) carry out such an exercise.

Copy-editing: Anil Varghese

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About The Author

P.N. Sankaran

Sankaran is a development economist and former head of Department of Economics, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Sankaran was the chairperson of the commission set up by the Government of Kerala in 2012 to study the problems faced by the members of the Vishwakarma community, who have traditionally been artisans. He has contributed a chapter titled 'Traditional Artisans as Stakeholders in CSR: A Rehabilitation Perspective in the Indian Context', in the book 'Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility' (Developments in Corporate Governance and Responsibility, Volume 13) published in 2018 by Emerald Publishing (UK)

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