Creamy layer politics
P RadhakrishnanFirst Published : 30 Oct 2008 11:47:00 PM ISTLast Updated : 30 Oct 2008 09:15:51 AM ISTOne step forward, two back’ is perhaps the most apt shibboleth for India’s ongoing reservation rigmarole. To begin at the beginning, in the Supreme Court rulings of November 16, 1992 in Indra Sawhney and Others vs. Union of India, eight out of the nine judges decided to exclude the advanced sections from the OBCs. Their reasoning was: in a backward class if the connecting link is social backwardness, it should broadly be the same in a given class; if some members are far too advanced socially (which in the context necessarily means economically and, may also mean educationally) the connecting thread between them and the remaining class snaps; they would be misfits in the class; after excluding them alone,would the class be a compact class; and in fact, such exclusion benefits the truly backward.
Six of the judges also cautioned that exclusion should not be merely on economic basis (means test or income ceiling), but on the basis of social advancement so as to ensure that the exclusion test does not affect the really backward among the OBCs.
The political chicanery of the Centre in the subsequent years has deprived the really backward OBCs of reservation benefits.
For this, the means test chosen has been precisely what the judiciary has avoided.
The Centre’s justification for its decision of February 4, 2004, to hike the income ceiling for determining the ‘creamy layer’ among the OBCs from Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 2.5 lakhs a year was that it was in line with the recommendations of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). But the NCBC did not have any data to support its recommendations.
In less than five years after the hike in income ceiling and without any evaluation of its impact on the OBCs, the Centre decided on October 4, 2008, to raise the income criterion for the creamy layer from Rs.2.5 lakhs to Rs. 4.5 lakhs a year. The Centre’s argument that this would help in bringing more people under the reservation category and help students seeking admission under the Central Educational Institutions Act, 2006, which provides 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs, is prima facie misleading.
For one thing, there has not been any economic revolution in the country in the last four years that would affect the OBCs as a category and warrant such a huge hike in the income criterion. For another, as OBCs are a disparate socio-economic ensemble, the effects of the factors supposedly taken into consideration by the NCBC need to be assessed in a disaggregated manner.
That takes this write-up to four larger issues which the Centre has all along ignored: (a) losing sight of the rationale for elimination of the creamy layer; (b) use of income ceiling when multiple tests are possible, and use of “non-creamy layer” certificate when the “non-creamy layer” status should ideally be arrived at through multiple tests; (c) need for addressing the unequal regional effects of reservations; and (d) continuing neglect of the SCs and STs.
Of the first, it was probably Justice V R Krishna Iyer who coined “creamy layer” in State of Kerala v. N M Thomas (1976). He observed that the experience of reservation in practice showed that the benefits were snatched away by the top creamy layer of the backward classes, thus keeping the weakest amongst weak always weak and leaving the fortunate layers to consume the whole cake; and that the claim for reservation by the backward class was ‘overplayed extravagantly’ by large and vocal groups whose burden of backwardness had been substantially lightened by the march of time, measures of better education and more opportunities of employment. These observations are more relevant today than in the 1970s.
Related to these observations is the following definition of creamy layer by the Justice R N Prasad Creamy Layer Identification Committee appointed by the Centre following the Supreme Court rulings of November 16, 1992: “The Committee defined the ‘creamy layer’ as when a person has been able to shed off the attributes of social and educational backwardness and has secured employment or has engaged himself in some trade/ profession of high status and at which stage he is normally no longer in need of reservation.”What the Centre should have addressed and the judiciary should have been convinced about is whether sections of OBCs have shed off the attributes of social and educational backwardness as disabilities of their castes.
The Prasad Committee had given multiple criteria under six broad categories for identifying the creamy layer: Children of: (a) Those who hold constitutional posts; (b) Group A (Class I officers) and Group B (Class II services) including employees holding equivalent posts in PSUs, banks, insurance companies and universities; (c) Officers of the armed forces of the rank of colonel or an equivalent post and above; (d) P