There is many a slip between a bill and the act. The proposed scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and other backward classes (reservation in posts and services) bill, 2004 treads carefully on reservations policy: not removing them, but limiting them. There is already a dispute over the bill, with the SC/ST parliamentary forum demanding one thing and the OBC members of parliament demanding another. Inevitably, it is the beneficiaries of reservations under different categories who have split up first. Things might get hotter, and therefore inconclusive, once the bill becomes the centre of attention. Yet in all fairness, it should be welcomed as a small step towards lessening the harm that has been wrought socially and professionally by the deliberate use of the quota policy to create or increase vote banks. In it, the provision causing most excitement states that the government will not impose the existing quotas in what were public sector undertakings but in which its share capital has become less than 50 per cent. This is a logical move at a time when divestment and privatization are being encouraged. It is only natural that the same government would assure industry that the quota system would not be imposed on private companies.
Traditional inequalities need to be corrected by affirmative action, which is why the policy of reservations is supported by the Constitution. But politicians have misused the quota system to suit themselves. What has been ignored, therefore, is the widespread fragmentation of society this entails. Apart from competing with other castes for pieces of cake, different segments have also thrown up 'creamy layers', sections advantageously placed to draw out the full sap of the benefits. With no given time-frame in which to show results, quotas have become identical with the birthright of backward classes and scheduled castes and tribes. Surely it is the wrong kind of birthright. Instead of helping the target segments to find their own feet, politicians ensure their dependence, and hence their lack of self-esteem. It is not clear why there should be reservations at the level of jobs. Here the new bill offers some reassurance. The combination of political will and economic logic might give rise to a more balanced system where justice is done both to the underprivileged as well as to the purely meritorious.