Sunday, July 21, 2024

Reservation policy in Meghalaya: A perspective on equality of opportunity


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By James Dkhar

Reservation is a constitutional mandate aimed at ensuring representation for historically marginalized groups in various domains such as education, employment, government initiatives, scholarships, and politics. The provision stipulates that the extent of reservation must be commensurate with the population and representation of these groups, adhering to the constitutional maximum of 50 percent. Additionally, it mandates that reservations are contingent upon the presence of qualified and eligible candidates from these groups, thereby maintaining performance standards and quality.
Since achieving statehood, Meghalaya has adopted a reservation policy based on a 40:40:5:15 formula. This allocates 40% of state service vacancies to the Khasi-Jaintia tribe, another 40% to the Garo tribe, and the remaining 20% to other groups. Nonetheless, this policy faces several challenges and limitations that compromise its effectiveness and fairness. A notable concern with the policy is that it does not fully align with the state’s demographic distribution; the 2011 census indicates that Khasi-Jaintia tribes constitute 46% of the population, while Garo tribes represent about 31%. Hence, Khasi-Jaintia tribes appear somewhat under-represented and Garo tribes somewhat over-represented when compared to their respective population sizes.
This imbalance has led to feelings among some that there is lack of equitable recognition and allocation within the state. Another problem is that there are serious allegations that the policy has been violated and manipulated by some officials and politicians who favour certain communities or individuals over others. There have been cases of corruption, nepotism, political interference, and violation of rules and norms in the implementation of the Reservation Policy. Some groups feel they are denied a fair chance or merit-based selection in the recruitment or admission process. They also feel that the Policy is being misused and abused by some groups that benefit from it at their expense.
A less discussed but significant drawback of the policy is that it ignores the disparities and underdevelopment among various regions of the state. In other words, the reservation policy is based largely on caste/tribe identities with little consideration for the social and economic factors. There are variations in the level of backwardness and development among different regions and sections within the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo tribes.
For instance, some areas have higher poverty, illiteracy and unemployment rates than others. Some sections have lower social and economic status than others. Some regions have less access to basic amenities and infrastructure than others. The policy does not take into account these differences and treats all members of a tribe as a homogeneous group. Such members of the community despite being more disadvantaged or marginalized than others don’t get a fair treatment. There is deprivation and discrimination, as they are not getting adequate opportunities or benefits from the policy.
As a consequence of these problems, the Reservation Policy has been opposed and challenged by some groups who demand a review or change in the Policy. They argue that the Policy is outdated, unjust, and divisive. They perceive the Policy as unfair and biased, leading to feelings of imbalance, injustice, corruption, nepotism, deprivation and discrimination. These feelings are especially strong among those who believe that they are more deserving or disadvantaged than others, but are denied their due share, recognition, chance, merit, opportunity or benefit by the policy.
According to the Constitution, reservation should be seen as a temporary and transitional measure that aims at achieving equality of opportunity for all, and not as a permanent or rigid policy that creates entitlements or privileges for some. Reservation should also be subject to periodic evaluation and review to assess its effectiveness and relevance in achieving its goals, and to make necessary modifications or adjustments as required. The recent introduction of Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation in the country serves as evidence that the reservation system is a flexible and dynamic policy that responds to the changing needs and aspirations of different groups in different contexts. Thus, a Reservation Policy can be updated according to the needs and changing times.
Therefore, it is reasonable to review or change the Reservation Policy, as there is still scope for improvement and reform in the reservation system to make it more fair and equitable for all. Individuals should be able to compete on equal terms for advantaged positions in society. To compete on equal terms means that people have the same chances of success regardless of their social circumstances, such as their economic class, or race. This political ideal emphasizes the personal ambition, talent and abilities of the individual, rather than based on membership in a group.
However, there are different ways of understanding how to achieve equality of opportunity in practice. One way is to adopt a formal concept of equality of opportunity, which means that positions and posts that confer advantages should be open to all applicants and that applications are assessed on their merits (unreserved category). Another way is to ensure that substantive equality of opportunity (reserved category) prevails, which means that people have not only formal access to opportunity but also fair access to education, training and resources that are necessary to compete for advantaged positions.
Substantive equality of opportunity is a broader and more expansive concept than formal equality of opportunity. It is preferable to formal equality of opportunity as it takes into account the broader social situation and it aims to address not only the direct discrimination that some groups may face due to their status or identity, but also the indirect discrimination that results from the cumulative effects of social and economic inequalities. Substantive equality of opportunity requires that all individuals have the same opportunities to become qualified to occupy advantaged positions through competition, and that society should take appropriate measures to ensure those equal opportunities, such as the equalization of starting conditions. It recognizes that formal access to positions and posts is not enough to ensure equal chances of success for everyone, because some hinder their ability to acquire the qualifications and resources that are necessary for competing for advantaged positions.
For example, a person born into a poor family may have less access to quality education, health care, nutrition, social networks etc. than a person who is born into a privileged family. These factors may affect their cognitive development, physical well-being, motivation, and confidence, which in turn may affect their performance in tests, interviews, and other selection procedures. Hence, substantive equality of opportunity (reserved category) promotes not only fairness but also dignity for everyone.
Therefore, to improve the reservation system in Meghalaya and update the existing policy, some possible steps are:
· Reviewing and revising the reservation quota for different categories based on their proportion in population, representation, degree of backwardness and development necessary to make the reservation policy more equitable and proportional. This would help in addressing the concerns and grievances of various groups who feel that they are under-represented or over-represented in the services under the state. It would also help in creating a balance between the interests of different groups and fostering a sense of belonging and unity among them.
· A comprehensive survey or census is important to collect accurate and updated data on the social and economic status of different regions and communities in Meghalaya. This would help in assessing the ground reality and identifying the gaps and challenges faced by various groups. It would help design and implement a reservation policy that meets the needs and aspirations of all the people. It may be better to provide special reservation to those backward and underprivileged members based on their social and economic status, and let them compete among themselves instead of with their more privileged members. This would ensure that the reservation policy is more targeted and effective in addressing the specific needs and challenges of different groups. That the most deserving and needy groups are provided with adequate opportunities and benefits to overcome their backwardness and achieve their potential. This embodies the core constitutional ethos that guides the reservation policy.
Clear and objective criteria and thresholds are essential to identify who is backward and who is not based on various indicators such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, health, infrastructure, employment status of their parents in state services etc. This would help in avoiding any ambiguity or arbitrariness in the classification and categorization of different groups.
· Ensuring transparency and accountability in the implementation and monitoring of the reservation policy and preventing any violation or manipulation by any authority or individual is crucial to make the reservation policy effective and credible. This would ensure that the reservation policy is followed in letter and spirit. It would also help in detecting and correcting any anomalies or irregularities that may occur in the process of recruitment or admission
While there are opinions suggesting that the VPP has taken a significant risk with this reservation issue, I believe that their move is not merely a gamble but a well-calculated strategy. The Reservation Policy in Meghalaya, as initially mentioned, is bound by the Constitutional cap of 50 percent. This limitation has sparked debate over the policy’s constitutional validity, given that the combined reservation for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category—encompassing both Khasi-Jaintia and Garo communities—surpasses this threshold. While some contend that Meghalaya’s unique circumstances exempt it from this rule, this claim remains untested in court, with a similar case ongoing in Punjab. Should the court uphold the ‘exceptional situation’ exemption, the policy will stand as is. Conversely, a ruling against it could profoundly affect Meghalaya, particularly the Garo community, who might then have to vie for ST category positions alongside Khasi-Jaintia individuals. Despite this concern, I am optimistic that such an outcome will be circumvented to ensure fairness for the Garo community.
To conclude, inequality is a widespread and complex issue in our world today. It affects various aspects of our lives, such as education, health, income, and justice. However, not all inequalities are the same. Some inequalities are unjust, meaning they are caused by discrimination, oppression, or exploitation. These inequalities violate human rights and dignity and need to be challenged and eliminated. Other inequalities are natural or inevitable, meaning they are based on individual differences, preferences, or abilities. These inequalities are a way of life and acceptable as long as they do not harm anyone or create unfair advantages.
Therefore, it is important to recognize the difference between unjust and natural inequalities and respond to them appropriately. Lastly, discrimination, marginalisation, nepotism, corruption are evils to be avoided, not policies to be enforced.


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