Social justice and empowerment minister Meira Kumar is a passionate advocate of the government’s policy of reservation in educational institutions and a proposal to follow a similar policy in companies. She is at the forefront of a group within the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that has been pushing the private sector to reserve jobs for the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). In an interview with Mint, Kumar, an Indian Foreign Service official-turned-politician, and daughter of the country’s former deputy prime minister, and dalit leader, the late Babu Jagjivan Ram, said the private sector needs to do something more concrete towards the cause, and fast. Edited excerpts:
You recently demanded that the government increase the quota for reservation because of the increase in the percentage of people belonging to the scheduled castes in the country. Can you elaborate on this?
I would never make a demand that reservation should be increased because of an increase in population. That would amount to rewarding population growth.
For a cause: Meira Kumar says reservation has a social dimension that doesn’t change with one generation getting its benefits.
My point is that over time, a number of castes, and even a religion, neo-Buddhists, have been added to list of SCs. From 607 in 1950, there are now 1,210 castes in the SC list. Of course, their population must have also grown. As a result, the percentage of SCs has grown from 15% to 16.23% (of the population). That is why I said the quota should be increased.
Where do you stand on the debate over excluding the creamy layer, or the second-generation beneficiaries of reservation, and linking reservation to economic status rather than caste?
It is very easy to give sermons sitting here in Delhi. What do such people (asking for the exclusion of the creamy layer) know about the reality in India? You can’t expect people who have suffered for so long to come up in one generation. As for the economically underprivileged, the government has several poverty alleviation programmes. There should be more such programmes.
But reservation for the SCs and STs has a social dimension that doesn’t change with one generation getting benefits of reservation. The economically disadvantaged from the other castes don’t have to suffer the stigma of untouchability. How do you explain this (the creamy layer argument) to someone in a remote village school who won’t accept a mid-day meal because the meal has been cooked by someone belonging to a particular caste? How do you explain this to an innocent five-year-old who is oppressed by a schoolteacher because of the accident of his birth?
This would mean that the current reservation policy hasn’t changed mindsets. And that successive social reformers, too, have failed. Would you agree with that?
Let me tell you why. Besides basic needs like food, shelter and affection, you need respect. If you belong to a certain caste, you are guaranteed that respect by birth. People from certain other castes come and touch your feet, right from your birth. So, why would you like to change such a system?
Does that still happen?
What are you talking about? Where do you live? Go beyond Delhi. This is the reality in India, in the villages, in the majority of the country. Untouchability is a fact of life even now. And it is very difficult to change mindsets about that.
In that case, how can reservation help? Don’t you think it creates further resentment among those left out by this policy?
If we had a better solution, we would adopt that. I (a Dalit) am sitting here. I have come up. So there is hope. The government does its (part)... That helps to an extent. But the real change will happen...because of the change in mindsets.
Other political parties are now arguing for an economic basis for reservation. The Bahujan Samaj Party, for instance, is already reaping the political benefits of doing this.
You should do certain things without reaping the political benefits. You are talking about other parties, but let me tell you they are only building on the foundation laid by the Congress. Nobody sees the foundation, only the building is visible. If you add zero to zero, you still get zero. If you add one to one, you get two. Remember, the Congress had to start from zero.
You have also been insisting on reservation in private sector jobs, apart from educational institutions. Do you really believe the private sector is moving towards reservation of sorts?
There has been some progress. I have been meeting them (companies) amicably, and regularly, and there has been some change in their attitude. In the beginning, they were really opposed to me. But I have been telling them it is a golden opportunity for them to do something for the society. The private sector does it in the US as well.
Is the government committed to this objective?
There is total commitment, on part of the prime minister, the government and the UPA chairperson.
Do you think the government did the right thing by giving up the option of legislation for reservation in the private sector?
Who has given up the option?
The Prime Minister himself has said so.
The idea is to take at least some people along. We want them to do it voluntarily.
If you still fail in achieving your goal of jobs for SCs and STs in the private sector, whom would you blame more: the government or the private sector?
I don’t doubt the intention of the private sector, but I must say it is not doing enough. It must do something concrete, and fast. You can’t succeed in a society that fails.
Is there an apprehension that society is failing? That this government isn’t doing enough for the common man?
There is no such apprehension. I meant that for the private sector. It must reflect on this. We have achieved a good (economic) growth rate. It should percolate to the small towns, the villages.