The description “backward” to define communities is yet another colonial relic which we, as a collective, embrace with such enthusiasm, that we almost forget what it is supposed to mean. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arguments in favour of reservations by landowning castes that are politically and economically dominant.
The demand for being classified as “backward” by Marathas has been ongoing since the 1990s. With the announcement of the inclusion of Marathas into the Socially and Educationally Backward Communities (SEBC), the Maharashtra government has, once again, yielded to the demands of this powerful caste group. This would be the third attempt in the last five years to grant this quota, which has been repeatedly struck down by the courts.
Turning to the state
The ferocity with which dominant castes, mostly rich, landowning, politically influential communities (Marathas in Maharashtra, Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh), have turned towards the state and the public sector, demanding quotas in jobs and higher education, indicates that the economic growth in the last two decades, such as it was, did not manage to swing the fortunes of a large proportion of these communities upward enough. Their demand for being included in the quota bandwagon can be seen as an expression of their desire for good jobs and stable sources of livelihood for their youth, as their traditional sources of livelihoods become more fragile due to a widespread and multifaceted agrarian crisis.
Yet, quotas are not magic wands that create jobs. And everyone would like a good job or a decent stable source of livelihood. Given that public sector jobs represent a shrinking and much coveted pie, what should the yardstick be to determine the validity of the demand for quotas?
Insights from data
What does the evidence tell us?
Rajesh Ramachandran and I looked at data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), and compared Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra. We compared these to Brahmins, non-Brahmin forward castes, existing Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes-Scheduled Tribes, in their respective States.
The results are very stark. Marathas, similar to Jats and Patels, are more likely to own or cultivate land than all other social groups in their respective States. Marathas have a lower per capita consumption expenditure than Maharashtra Brahmins, but are at the same level as other forward castes and OBCs, and significantly higher than SC-STs. Marathas, on an average, are as poor as Brahmins and other forward castes, but less poor than OBCs and SC-STs. Maratha households have greater access to electricity compared to SC-STs. Marathas are 6 and 14 percentage points more likely than OBCs and SC-STs, respectively, to have access to a flush toilet in Maharashtra. The average years of education for Marathas is 6.58, which is lower than Brahmins by 2.18 years, but is similar to other forward castes and OBCs, and 1.22 years more than the SC-STs. The Marathas are 13 percentage points less likely to have completed 12 years or more of education as compared to the Brahmins, but are very similar to the forward castes, and do 2 and 6 percentage points better than the OBCs and SC-ST, respectively. Summing up, in most of the crucial socio-economic indicators, the Marathas are second only to Brahmins in the State, and are significantly better off than all other social groups.
The main bone of contention and the main motivation for quotas is access to government jobs. The surprising fact is that even before being included in the quota, the access of Marathas to government jobs is already similar to that of Brahmins, and higher than that for other forward castes and OBCs, and not different from that for SC-STs.
We examined both rounds of the IHDS data to see whether the position of these dominant communities deteriorated relative to the other groups. The short answer is no.
In terms of average per capita expenditure, their position has improved over time. In terms of probability of being poor, there is no worsening. There is, however, some evidence of a decline in the probability of owning or cultivating land, which could be the reason for the heightened anxiety.
Factors underlying anxieties
The Marathas are a predominantly agricultural community which benefited from the Green and White Revolutions. The structural transformation of the Indian economy, especially the declining importance of agriculture, and growth of corporatized agriculture and water shortages affecting productivity, have meant that these groups feel increasingly vulnerable.
Yet, data show that the Marathas have lower levels of casualization of the labour force in both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, as compared to the OBCs and SC-STs.
Overall, there is discontent among powerful farming communities due to the perception that real economic power lies in the hands of the big corporations, and the state, overtly or covertly, acts in their interest. These communities feel their power slipping away or eroding, in addition to feeling ill-prepared to shift towards urban, formal sector livelihood opportunities.
Individuals or communities who feel strongly that the odds of economic success are stacked against them are more likely to feel deprived. Other estimates from IHDS panel data show that “forward castes were about 30 per cent more likely to feel that they were worse off in 2011-12 than in 2004-05”. Thus, perceptions of being worse-off are real: our analysis suggests that these perceptions are exactly that — feelings — not supported by evidence on the ground.
Having said this, economic changes that give rise to widespread anxieties, definitely need to be understood and genuine grievances, including those that might come from forward castes dealing with agrarian transformations, need to be addressed.
However, is reservation the real answer? Given increasing privatisation, the base, i.e. total jobs that are eligible for reservations, is already shrinking. Our other research shows how existing OBCs and SC-STs are further lagging behind upper castes on a range of material indicators.
In this context, extending quotas to relatively richer and powerful groups would amount to diluting the already small and shrinking entitlement for communities that are truly disadvantaged and discriminated against.
Recently, the Marathas have had two main demands: one, being made quota beneficiaries, and two, the repeal of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The State government has, once again, given in to the first. Should it consider the second, ours would be no country for the most marginalized.
Quite apart from turning the term “backward” on its head, the writing on the wall is clear. Despite the rhetoric that accompanied the 10% quota, the plan is not to move to a caste-free system. It is to dilute the entitlement of castes that are objectively “backward”, stigmatized and discriminated against.
In the context of the lynching of Dalits for pursuing their traditional occupations, snatching away their livelihoods in the name of cow protection, violence targeted at inter-caste marriages, and other violence related to temple entry or for not following the illegal social norms dictated by untouchability, this move would legally reinforce the obnoxious hierarchies of the caste system. A forwardlooking, progressive Indian polity should be discussing instruments to weaken the deadly tentacles of caste, not embolden and reinforce existing hierarchies.
The 12th Extra-Ordinary Summit of the African Union (AU) which concluded on July 8 at Niamey, the capital of the Niger Republic, saw 54 of 55 of its member states signing the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) for goods and services. Of these countries, 27 have already ratified it. Actual cross-border free trade could start by July 2020 with an elimination of custom duties on 90% of the tariff-lines. If taken to its logical conclusion, this audacious project would eventually create an African Common Market of 1.2 billion people and a GDP of over $3.4 billion — the metrics are comparable to India’s. The AfCFTA would be world’s largest FTA, and in a world dependent on African markets and commodities, it would have global impact.
Hurdles and optimism
However, there are three main reasons to be sceptical about the viability of the AfCFTA. First, the African Union (founded as the Organisation of African Unity in 1963) has been largely ineffective in dealing with the continent’s myriad problems such as decolonization, underdevelopment, Islamic terrorism and the Arab Spring. The AU’s grand plans, including the Muammar Qadhafi-funded Africa Unity project, have been spectacular flops. It is, therefore, natural to take the AfCFTA, the AU’s most ambitious project so far, with a ladleful of salt.
Second, serious political, organisational and logistical challenges to the AfCFTA notwithstanding, the national economies in Africa are generally weak with a low manufacturing base. They also lack competitiveness and mutual complementarity.
Only a sixth of Africa’s current total trade is within the continent.
Third, the AfCFTA seems to be countercyclical to the ongoing global protectionist trends as seen in the U.S.-China trade conflict, Brexit and the stalemates at the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. World trade is likely to grow only by 2.6% in 2019, a quarter of last year’s figure. Commodity prices are stagnant and globalisation is often being reversed.
With Africa accounting for only 3% of global trade, can the AfCFTA defy the contrarian global tendencies?
Still, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Given the strong global headwinds including a cooling Chinese ardour for Africa, greater collective self-reliance through African economic integration makes eminent sense. Further, the AfCFTA can build upon the experience of the continent’s five regional economic blocks.
While the AU Commission is not famous for efficient planning, it has prepared an extensive road map towards the AfCFTA with preliminary work on steps such as incremental tariff reduction, elimination of non-tariff barriers, supply chains and dispute settlement. In December 2018, it organized the first Intra-African Trade Fair in Cairo with 1,086 exhibitors signing $32 billion in business deals. A new breed of African transnational corporations such as Dangote, MTN, Ecobank and Jumia have continental ambitions. Indeed, the logistical and financial networks across the continent are poor and customs formalities are foreboding, but these can be eventually overcome with stronger political will. Moreover, vigorous “informal” trade across porous national borders is already a fact of African life.
Thus, by adopting the AfCFTA, African leaders are only following the economic logic. Looking into the future, a recent UN projection showed that nearly half the world’s population growth between now and 2050 would come from sub-Saharan Africa, the population of which would double to nearly two billion. This surge in consumer base would make the proposed AfCFTA even more important.
From the Indian angle
Africa is already an important economic partner for India with total annual merchandise trade estimated at $70 billion or nearly a tenth of our global trade. India is Africa’s third largest trading partner. While India’s global exports have been largely stagnant, those to Africa have surged. For instance, exports to Nigeria in 2018-19 grew by over 33% over the previous year.
Africa still has unfulfilled demand for Indian commodities, especially foodstuff, finished products (automobiles, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods) and services such as IT/IT-Enabled Service, health care and education, skilling, expertise in management and banking, financial services and insurance.
India needs to anticipate the AfCFTA’s likely impact on its interests and try to influence and leverage it to enhance India-African economic ties. In principle, African economies becoming more formalised and transparent would be in India’s interest.
While local manufactured items and services may ultimately compete with Indian exports, Indian firms can co-produce them in Africa. If handled in a proactive manner, the AfCFTA is likely to open new opportunities for Indian stakeholders in fast-moving consumer goods manufacturing, connectivity projects and the creation of a financial backbone.
India donated $15 million to Niger to fund the Niamey AU Summit. As the next step, New Delhi can help the AU Commission prepare the requisite architecture, such as common external tariffs, competition policy, intellectual property rights, and natural persons’ movement. It can also identify various African transnational corporations which are destined to play a greater role in a future continental common market and engage with them strategically. The cross-linkages of a three million strong Indian diaspora spread across Africa can also be very valuable.
Finally, once the AfCFTA is accepted as beneficial game changer, the African elite could perhaps contemplate crossing another Rubicon: an India-African FTA.
Before Africa was “discovered” by the West, it had a thriving overland trade. Large camel caravans ferried commodities such as ivory, gold, mineral salt, precious stones and slaves across prosperous trading centres such as Timbuktu, Ghana, Kano, Burnu, Agadez, Edo, Zinder, Ghat, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam and Cairo. Subsequent colonialism and mercantilism destroyed internal trade routes, replacing them with an ecosystem in which Africans had better links with their foreign “mentors” than among themselves.
By the AfCFTA, the Africans are only trying to correct this historic distortion.
A persistent concern exists about democracy’s failure to fulfil our expectations. While our votes are forceful ‘paper stones’, effective in getting rid of governments we dislike, they are powerless to give us effective, efficient, good governments.
Why do we have to put up with corrupt rulers with criminal records — qualities that obstruct good governance?
Why tolerate those who strive to do more good for themselves than for the people, who have neither vision nor wisdom?
Why have mediocre politicians who shun contact with people with ability and talent?
Better, wiser governments
Some cynics may respond to this crisis of democracy by arguing the following: to achieve our national goals, we must assemble the best team to govern. Such a team cannot be elected by popular mandate but instead by those who have the intellectual wherewithal to select those fit for it. To such people, democracy — which is committed to the principle of one person, one vote, and which extends franchise to all regardless of ability — can never produce the best team.
They might draw an analogy from cricket where we play to compete at the highest level and win — something not possible if the best cricketers are not selected. But this is not achieved by popular vote. Instead, we rely on experts — a selection committee consisting of experienced cricketers. If popular mandate can’t give us the best team that realises our national goal in cricket, why expect a different result in politics? Why not select our government by a similar procedure involving experts?
So, to reiterate the conundrum: democratically elected governments in our times are neither efficient nor wise. They show a propensity to fail at achieving their national goal — a high quality of life for all people. Then why not abandon democracy? Or at least introduce an eligibility criterion, restricting the vote to those with formal education? Won’t education help in identifying the best political representatives? A democrat need not reject this argument. She may respond that this need not entail abandoning universal adult franchise but the distribution of education to all. This seems a decent solution. Sustainable democracies require a high rate of literacy. The more educated we are, it might be claimed, the better we become at choosing the best people to run our government.
But this argument is flawed. Literacy and education by themselves do not create good citizens or yield mature democracies. Many are formally illiterate but are politically astute and even possess qualities of good citizenship. Conversely, many educated people are prone to being self-obsessed, undemocratic, and even authoritarian. Primary, secondary or even higher education by itself does not guarantee good citizenship.
The solution then is not just education per se, but universal education of a certain kind, one that is focused on improving the quality of our democracy. Our current education system does not focus on education in democracy or what we might call democratic education. Nor does it build on elements of democratic culture embedded in our traditions.
What then are the core elements of democratic education?
For a start, it requires the cultivation of democratic virtues. For instance, the ability to imagine and articulate a minimally common good. This requires that we distinguish what is merely good for me from what is the good of all. And since each of us may develop our own distinct idea of the common good, to find an overlapping common good. Relatedly, an ability to handle difference and disagreement and to retain, despite this difference, the motivation to arrive at the common good through conversation, debate, dialogue and deliberation.
The ability to imagine and conceive a common good is inconsistent with what the Greeks famously called ‘pleonexia’, the greed to grab everything for oneself, to refuse to share anything, to not acknowledge what is due to each person, to have no sense of reciprocity or justice. It follows that the idea of the common good cannot be developed without some sense of justice. Democratic education requires training in not succumbing to pleonexia.
Also crucial is a spirit of compromise, of moderation, and a willingness, within acceptable value parameters, of mutual give and take. None of this is possible without other general capabilities such as listening patiently to others, being empathetic to the plight of others, and having a commitment to continuing a conversation with people despite disagreement.
More important is the ability to participate in a particular historical narrative or, as the political theorist Jeremy Webber puts it, a “commitment to a particular debate through time”. Members of a political community become better citizens when they relate to critical issues through historically inherited terms of debate, a continuing narrative, a specific ongoing conversation. The reflection of that debate in political decision-making is central to the members’ feeling of engagement and participation. For example, there is a particular way in which the question of religion has been framed in India, as also issues of nation, caste and gender. Individuals become effective and meaningful citizens only by learning the terms set by debates around these specific issues.
Since a useful entry to them is available through rich debates in the Constituent Assembly, a familiarity with them is a crucial ingredient of democratic education in India.
It also follows that democratic education involves a basic understanding of our society and its history, of its multiple cultural, intellectual and religious traditions, which set the terms of specific debates. I am frequently appalled at my own ignorance of the historical trajectory of our complex social problems. And saddened to find that my highly educated friends do not know that a constitutional minority in India is not just a numerically small group but one potentially disadvantaged by virtue of that fact; some mistakenly believe that religious minorities have reservation in jobs and in institutions of higher education; massive illiteracy continues to exist about the atrocious nature of our caste system; many continue to think that ‘secularism’ is a wholly western concept, as if ‘religion’ is not!
Only a proper democratic education can remove these misunderstandings and flaws.
What then is democratic education? Conceived broadly, it is a historically specific enterprise, determined by the inherited vocabulary of specific political languages and the terms of debates in a particular community.
It is designed specifically to enable conversation on issues central to a particular community, to strive for agreement where possible and to live peacefully with disagreement where it is not. In short, it involves social and historical awareness and key democratic virtues.
Many of these understandings and virtues can be inculcated by a good liberal arts education. The 2019 National Education Policy recognizes this but alas insufficiently. And as far as I can tell from my skimpy reading, it has virtually nothing to say about how this relates to democracy. So, it appears relatively innocent of the more specific requirements of democratic education. Without proper democratic education, I am afraid we will continue to perpetuate bad democratic practices, allow unhealthy scepticism about democracy to grow and eventually imperil it.