Lucknow: Mayawati, the so-called “queen of the untouchables”, is tentatively extending lower-caste quotas into the private sector, a move that may have major political and economic repercussions.
Lower castes and indigenous tribes already claim about half of government and public sector jobs, a scheme of affirmative action aimed at redressing the imbalance of Hinduism’s ancient caste system.
But Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and champion of Dalits or “untouchables,” is expanding this into any private projects undertaken with the state, a booming sector as India spends billions of dollars on infrastructure such as highways.
Most leading businesses have shunned the idea of quotas, worried it will worsen their competiveness in a global market.
Mayawati’s government issued a circular this week to ensure departments implemented the quota system and took out full-page advertisements in prominent daily newspapers, with the title “New Positive Reservation Initiatives”.
“Because of the anti-reservation mentality of the ruling classes the full benefits of reservation is not reaching the people,” the advert said.
It is the first prominent policy in India to include private business into the quota system, analysts say, and highlights the role caste politics will play in 2009 general elections.
“There is increasingly a competitive race politically over who is doing what with reservations,” said T.K. Bhaumik, chief economist of Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest business conglomerate. “There are elections ahead.”
Under the scheme, quotas will be introduced in public-private partnership enterprises, as well as in private companies doing outsourced state government work.
Firms solely working in the private sector are not included.
“This quota system is a very important move because for the first time we are seeing it implemented in business rather than just talked about,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst.
Critics say the economy is still split on caste, with top managers mostly higher castes while Dalits, about 16% of India’s 1.1 billion people, are relegated to menial jobs.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a 2006 speech, called on companies to take voluntary action to help lower castes get jobs, a statement at the time widely seen as a warning to India’s booming business sector to act or face possible legislation.
“Now how do we function?” said a leading industrialist in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh’s major industrial hub. He asked to remain anonymous because of fears his statement could have repercussions on his business in Uttar Pradesh.
“We will have to replace many of our workers, thereby rendering the existing manpower jobless.”