When Haresh Lal’s daughter told him she wanted to become an architect, he thought her dream had every chance of coming true.
The family belongs to the Ghadashi caste, recognized by Maharashtra as “backward” and eligible for reserved seats in several architectural colleges across the state.
But to get a piece of paper saying as much, Lal has travelled to a caste verification office in Belapur eight times in the last nine months. Each time, Lal says, he is turned away on some pretext or the other. The problem, he says, is that he has not offered anyone a bribe, nor can he afford to pay one.
“I spend Rs100 per trip and travel two hours each way from Ulhasnagar,” said Lal, tears welling under his spectacles as he is turned away for the eighth time. “Nobody listens.”
At a Supreme Court hearing scheduled for 8 May, the Centre will defend its decision to broaden the national reservation policy to include members of other backward classes, or OBCs. A law passed last year sets aside 27% of all seats at publicly-funded institutions for the classes, in addition to the existing 22.5% quota for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
Meanwhile, states such as Maharashtra already have been trying to ensure these same groups make up about half the students in higher education, even extending the benefit to private colleges. But the policy has been largely fraught with fraud, corruption and confusion over the exact definition of “backward”. Maharashtra’s experience offers a window into the difficulty of increasing access to higher education for those whom the quotas intend to help most. Observers say convincing the court of the need for more reservations is just the beginning. The real challenge for the Centre, they say, will come in implementation.
“The real OBCs—and no one really knows who they are, but assuming they mean the educationally and economically backward groups—don’t get to reap the benefits of reservations,” said Neera Shastri, a member of the National Commission of the Backward Classes for the last six years. “It is only the rich communities that benefit. It’s all about politics.”
Guaranteeing access to opportunity for lower-caste and lower-class citizens has been an issue with which India has wrestled for much of its 60-year history since Independence. In April 2006, the ruling Congress party invoked the contentious 1989 Mandal commission report, which recommended that reservations in public colleges and government jobs reach 49.5%, in an avatar that came to be dubbed “Mandal II.”
Minister for human resources development Arjun Singh has led the campaign to set aside the 27% of seats at Centre-funded institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management for members of OBCs, a group mixing professional designations—butchers and tea workers, for example—with religious sub-groups like Ambedkarite Buddhists, Parsis, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.
For those who fall in these categories and want to seek admissions or jobs under their right to reservations, a caste validation certificate is mandatory. It is submitted along with an official caste certificate, a separate document also requiring application. The validation certificate is proof that government officials have investigated documents and approved the claim of “backwardness,” said B.B. Patil, who works in Maharashtra’s scheduled tribes verification department and occasionally doubles as a middleman between applicants and officers.
The office is intended to be the last line of defence against fraudulent claims, explained Shastri. But that is not the way it has worked out. As Lal, who performs religious rituals for a living, waited tearfully, Patil told him to stop crying: “No one cares for your tears. Bring some contacts and ask about the money.”
Again, Lal protested. “I have no money to give anyone. I am a poor man.”
Patil, realizing the man was about to start crying again, said, “Don’t worry. Aadmi dekh ke baat kartein hain. Aap chai pila dena, lunch kara dena restaurant mein.” His implication was that a person’s wallet is inspected as much as his caste. You can just get us a cup of tea, or a lunch at a restaurant, he assured.
Lal nodded and shuffled away to pace the dingy corridor. When he was out of earshot, Patil said that if Lal continued in this manner, no officer would help. “He should know how to talk about money. They need to be given something. A cup of chai can do it. Or if the officer thinks you have money, he can even demand one lakh rupees.”
Also, there are many officers to pay off, he explained. “If you give it to one, he will give your file to the next person. You have to give a little bit to everyone in the chain. Otherwise your file will gather dust on someone’s desk.”
When Mint recounted the scenario to N.N. Bhadikar, deputy secretary at the ministry of social justice in Maharashtra, he did not seem surprised. Bhadikar also said the state government is aware of fake certificates being issued but little can be done. “We have had court cases about some fake certificates, too,” he said, adding that the caste verification committee is a quasi-judicial authority. “We have only administrative control there. Otherwise, we cannot interfere with the way it works.”
Complaints must be made through courts and police, he said. Thus, those who are able to, say they pay—whether or not they really fall into the lower caste or class categories.
B. Patel is a Mumbai-based Gujarati Lawa Patil, which is considered an OBC in Maharashtra (although not in some other states, such as neighbouring Gujarat). When his son decided to apply to an engineering college, Patel went to the Belapur office to get a caste validation certificate. Officers demanded Rs60,000 from Patel, who runs a small construction business. “And I had to give it,” he said simply. “The need was mine.”
The certificates are needed upon admission and failure to submit can mean the loss of a seat; with admission rates at some colleges less than 1%, to say seats are highly coveted and precious is an understatement. “If you make something so important that it can make careers, anyone can pay anything for it,” said Gunjan Sharma, a final-year medical student and a member of the anti-quota Youth For Equality’s chapter in Mumbai. “That document means they will get admissions to some of the best schools without working hard, they will get subsidized education and get a job.”
Under the current system, groups belonging to scheduled castes and tribes and other backward classes need to pass a lower bar in competitive exams; they also pay lower fees to study at some of the state’s best institutions. In most states, these same groups also qualify for job reservations and faster promotions within the government.
Many change their names and convert to Ambedkarite Buddhism for it, said Patil. “It is not hard to do if you have money,” he said. He refers to the sect of Buddhism founded by Babasaheb Ambedkar, who came from a lower-caste Mahar family from Maharashtra. Ambedkar published a series of articles in 1956 suggesting that Buddhism was the only way for untouchables to gain equality in India. In October that year, he converted his 3,80,000 “untouchable” followers to Buddhism.
In an ironic twist, several upper-caste Hindus have also converted in order to benefit from reservations, Patil said.
The 27% quota law was passed in January and was about to come into effect when the Supreme Court intervened and imposed a stay in late March; it continued that stay last month. The Centre’s appeals to revoke the ruling have been ignored so far, but it was successful in moving up a hearing from August to May.
“This country belongs to everyone. Everyone has the same right to its institutions, not just privileged people. I have benefited from reservations and I think it is a good thing. It is the way to bring people to the mainstream,” said Dr Alankar Ramteke, an orthopaedic surgeon at JJ Hospital in Mumbai. A son of Ambedkarite Buddhists from Maharashtra, Ramteke says that villages “need this push.”
“Otherwise how do you expect a fatherless village boy to compete with a boy in the city whose mother gives him food on a plate while he studies?”
Other students disagree, citing the fraud. Dr Sachin Salvi, who belongs to the “backward” caste of Palshet from a village in Maharashtra, said his parents are farmers and cultivate paddy. “I don’t think reservation in higher education benefits anyone. If you do a survey, you will find that those who use these reservations are not children of poor people... How can they compete...without having studied properly in schools?”
The national commission’s Shastri said the OBC issue has been exploited as a way for politicians to get votes. “If they did want to help OBCs, they’d invest in rural education,” she said.
Meanwhile, Haresh Lal has not received the verification certificate for his daughter. He plans to return on Monday, waiting in line for the ninth time.