In simple terms, reservations may be seen as an invariable consequence of years of systematic discrimination on the grounds of class, caste, colour, creed and/or gender. It would not be an exaggeration to state that caste has been an undeniable reality in India. It may be termed as a historical “wrong” today but no one can deny its existence. The question to be asked, then, is whether reservation in any sector—public or private—was a logical outcome of the caste reality in India. Though reservations were introduced in the early 30’s, they were formalised only in the latter half of the 20th century. In 1989, the V. P. Singh government decided to implement the recommendations put forward by the Mandal Commission, granting reservation for OBC’s (Other Backward Classes). However, Tamil Nadu was an exceptional State as it offered 75% reservation for the backward castes. This led to heavy protests which compelled the Supreme Court to intervene and give a final verdict that the total reservation for government jobs in any State shall not exceed 50%. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) promised to provide reservations in the private sector in its National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) igniting debates and arguments from across the nation as to whether reservations in the private sector will work and if they should be introduced at all.
Before analysing anything about that, we first need to understand why and how reservations came into effect and how efficient and fruitful has it been in its current form. As mentioned earlier, reservations is usually seen as an attempt to correct a historical wrong done to our country—caste discrimination. By providing reservations for a certain section of society marred due to its social and more often than not, economic status as well, it emerges as a potential tool to erase years of oppression and discrimination meted out to certain sections of society and attain the constitutional aim of attaining “social justice”. People who support this concept often cite the example of Tamil Nadu, a state that (possibly) has maximum inhabitants belonging to backward castes. There have been instances of OBCs outshining “forward” classes in the Southern state of India.
When it comes to introducing reservations in the private sector, one has to look at how successful it has been in the public sector. Past experiences and examples have shown how reservations remains a reality only on paper and how the actual backward sections, who are meant to benefit from it, hardly get to reap them as it is often the “creamy” layer who gets the entire cake. If the idea is to attain social justice, the opposite has been true as truly deserving candidates are rarely benefitted from these quotas with rich, powerful “backward” people enjoying all the privileges entitled to them on the grounds of their caste identity. Of course a generalization on the success rate of reservations cannot be thoroughly made. But going by the current situation in India, it would not be wrong to say that attaining social justice is a commendable and ambitious aim that is yet to be achieved and reservations have not helped in any significant way.
The most obvious and common argument against reservations in any sector is that in the process of its implementation, it compromises merit. However, this may not always be true. Malaysia is an interesting case in point. It is an example of a country which has combined a restrictive form of reservation with remarkable economic growth for several decades now. The Indian private sector, consisting of an overwhelming number of MNCs, obviously doesn’t have a tarnish-free image. Notorious for employing people on large discriminatory grounds and a place that is increasingly being seen as a space of red-tapism (often associated with the government and not the private sector), reservations in the private sector seems to be a “social necessity”, as Dr. K. Vidyasagar Reddy argues in his essay. If inheritance, contacts and other social networks determines an individual’s job prospects, reservations for the socially deprived seems to be a necessary corrective measure in order to set things right and give equal opportunity for all.
In one of his earlier interviews, Ram Vilas Paswan, President of Lok Janshakti Party, had once said: “Reservation in the private sector is necessary and inevitable.” His argument is that since tribals, Dalits and other backward castes have neither land nor business, this has resulted in their heavy dependence on government jobs whose number is reducing with each passing day. With no vacant seats left in the public sector, there is no other space except the private sector left for them to look at. Post-liberalization, many public sectors were also privatised. Thus, there is no other way out but to introduce reservations in the private sector in order to achieve two main targets—one, address the problem of unemployment, and two, an attempt to provide equal opportunities for all. But, this remains more like a thing to be read rather than a thing to be seen in action.
Once reservation is introduced in the private sector, “efficiency” is most likely to be affected. What separates and differentiates the private sector from the public sector is this USP that the former boasts of, the reason for which is considered to be absence of reservations. When there is no reservation, there is no discrimination; the very concept of reservations perpetuates caste discrimination. Another argument is that it further weakens the democratic notion of social justice, as reservations evaluate a person on the basis of his/her caste and not merit. Quota implies a denial to the right to equality. Caste prioritises merit, when, ideally, it should be the other way round as far as jobs are concerned. A person’s caste may be decided and decisive but his/her merit is something that the person acquires during the course of his/her life. And by introducing reservations now even in the private sector, merit is definitely seen as secondary which, in effect, is very likely to affect efficiency.
If reservations are introduced in the private sector, it will be difficult for the companies to get rid of non-performing personnel simply because the employee has come because of reservation. This holds good for the public sector as well. Introducing reservations in the private sector would also invariably imply interference of the government as well as politics into management affairs. The productivity as well as the competitive edge that distinguishes the private from the public may get heavily affected. The move could also result in brain drain—a phenomenon which is not new to our country that is already witnessing students leaving India and deciding to go abroad to foreign universities for higher education, only to almost never come back. Reservations in the private sector could also make international clients suspicious and sceptical about the quality of products made in India, and this might lead to a setback in export business. The government has to keep in mind that the quality and credibility of any product and/or company is not affected as that would defeat the very purpose of introducing reservations in the first place.
Paswan made an interesting pointing when asked about his opinion on reservations. “Reservation should be ended if there are equal opportunities for all,” he said. As one knows, attaining equal opportunities for all can be the utopian ideal and target to be achieved in order to attain the constitutional aim of “social justice.” Given that caste has been a reality and there have been years of systematic discrimination and prejudice owing to social discrimination, reservations seems to be the only way out to correct what has been historically gone wrong. However, since reservations have not been really been a success in providing government jobs to “truly deserving candidates” belonging to backward castes, introducing them in the private sector just seems to be an ambitious project that is very likely to go wrong and possibly, also backfire.