Examining OBC Sub-Categorization in India: Challenges and Social Implications

The report of the Rohini Commission, tasked with examining the sub-categorization of OBCs in India, has been submitted to President Droupadi Murmu. The contents of the report have not been made public yet.

Srajan Girdonia
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Rohini Commission's Report on OBC Sub-Categorization Submitted to President

The much-awaited report of the Rohini Commission, tasked with examining the sub-categorization of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in India, has been submitted to President Droupadi Murmu. This report carries significant implications for the equitable distribution of benefits among OBC communities and has the potential to reshape Indian politics. 

However, the contents of the report have not been made public yet, leaving many to speculate about its findings and recommendations.

OBC Reservation and the Perceived Inequity

OBCs in India are granted a 27% reservation in jobs and education under the central government. Over time, a widespread perception has taken root that this reservation has disproportionately benefited only a few powerful OBC communities among the more than 2,600 listed in the Central List of OBCs. This perception has fueled calls for sub-categorization to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of reservation benefits.

State-Level Sub-Categorization Efforts

Nine states in India, including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Karnataka, Haryana, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, have already initiated sub-categorization within OBCs at the state level. 

This move aims to address the inequalities within the OBC community and allocate benefits more fairly. However, the central government's decision on sub-categorization holds greater significance and can set a precedent for the entire nation.

Supreme Court's Role in Reopening the Debate

In a significant development, the Supreme Court of India reopened the legal debate on sub-categorization in 2020. This move came as the Supreme Court disagreed with its own 2005 verdict, which had held that sub-categorization of Scheduled Castes would violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination. 

The 2020 decision highlighted the existence of inequalities within the lists of SCs, STs, and socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs).

E.V. Chinnaiah vs. State of Andhra Pradesh (2005) Verdict

The 2005 Supreme Court judgement in the case of E.V. Chinnaiah vs. State of Andhra Pradesh held that sub-categorization of Scheduled Castes was not permissible under Article 14. This judgement essentially treated Scheduled Castes as one homogenous group, making sub-categorization legally challenging. However, the Supreme Court referred the issue of preferential treatment for certain sub-castes within SCs and STs to a larger bench, leaving room for further examination.

Rohini Commission's Terms of Reference

The Rohini Commission, established in 2017 under Article 340 of the Indian Constitution, was tasked with specific terms of reference. These included investigating the extent of inequitable distribution of reservation benefits among OBC castes and communities, developing a scientific mechanism for sub-categorization within OBCs, identifying and classifying castes, communities, and sub-castes in the Central List of OBCs, and reviewing the list for errors and discrepancies.

In 2018, the commission conducted a comprehensive analysis of data related to 1.3 lakh central government jobs under the OBC quota over the preceding five years. This analysis also encompassed OBC admissions to central higher education institutions, including prestigious universities, IITs, NITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, over the previous three years.

Startling Findings of the Data Analysis

The findings of the data analysis conducted by the Rohini Commission were startling. It revealed that a staggering 97% of all jobs and educational seats had gone to a mere 25% of OBC castes. Even more concerning was the fact that 24.95% of these jobs and seats were secured by just 10 OBC communities. 

Equally troubling, 983 OBC communities, comprising 37% of the total, had zero representation in both jobs and educational institutions. Additionally, 994 OBC sub-castes had a meagre representation of only 2.68% in recruitments and admissions. However, it's important to note that this analysis faced limitations due to the absence of updated population data.

Challenges Faced by the Rohini Commission

The commission encountered significant challenges during its tenure. One major challenge was the absence of reliable and up-to-date data on the population of various OBC communities. Without this data, it was difficult to accurately assess the representation of OBCs in jobs and education. 

In December 2018, the commission requested a budgetary provision for a nationwide survey to estimate the population of various OBCs. However, it later decided not to undertake the survey at that stage.

Demand for a Caste Census

OBC groups and many political parties, excluding the BJP central leadership, have persistently demanded a caste-based census at the national level. Several states, including Bihar and Odisha, have already initiated caste-based census exercises. The demand for such a census continues to be a contentious issue in Indian politics.

Socio-Economic Implications of the Report

The recent report by Hindustan Times, dated September 2, 2023, sheds light on the anticipated outcomes of the Rohini Commission's recommendations. Sources suggest that the commission is likely to propose three or four bands for sub-categorization within the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). 

These bands would classify castes with similar access to benefits, effectively creating tiers where they would compete with each other for reservation benefits. One proposed structure includes three bands: the castes with no previous benefits could receive 10%, those with some prior benefits may receive another 10%, and those with maximum benefits could be allotted 7%. Alternatively, there could be four distinct bands designed to reconfigure the distribution of benefits within the OBC category. 

The commission's mandate includes studying how these benefits should be divided and updating the list of 2,633 OBC groups. In 2018, the Rohini Commission publicly shared its findings, revealing that less than 1% of backward castes had secured 50% of the reservation benefits in admissions to Central educational institutions and Central service jobs between 2014 and 2018.

As the Union government contemplates the recommendations of Justice G. Rohini's commission, it faces a challenging decision, especially in the midst of an election year. The possibility of implementing a tiered system within OBC reservations is expected to open a Pandora's box of political and social dynamics. 

The Modi government has found itself on the defensive, grappling with growing demands for a caste census. Opposition parties have thrown their support behind the census initiative, with Bihar already completing its census and similar efforts underway in Odisha and Jharkhand. 

The government's decision regarding the Rohini Commission's recommendations is likely to have far-reaching implications, not only for OBC reservation policies but also for the broader political landscape in India, making it a critical and sensitive issue in this election year.

The Challenge of Representation and Sample Size

Criticism has emerged regarding the ongoing debate on the OBC reservation in India, particularly in the absence of updated demographic data. It's important to note that the last caste census was conducted a staggering 92 years ago, back in 1931. At that time, India's demographic landscape was vastly different from what it is today. 

In 1931, India's population was recorded at approximately 35 crore, a fraction of the over 140 crore people that make up the country's population today. Additionally, the subcontinent witnessed significant geopolitical changes, with the partition of India leading to the formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh as independent nations. 

These developments have had a profound impact on India's demographics, with migrations to and from these countries significantly altering the composition of the Indian population.

A second point of criticism centres around the sample size used by the commission and authorities tasked with determining OBC representation. Critics argue that the sample size is minuscule when compared to the vast and diverse representation of OBCs across the country. This raises valid concerns regarding the efficacy and fairness of creating policies based on marginally representative data. The question of whether the limited data can accurately capture the nuanced socio-economic and educational status of OBC communities remains a subject of debate.

In light of these criticisms, the reservation policy for OBCs, which is a critical aspect of India's affirmative action initiatives, comes under scrutiny. Without updated demographic data that reflects the current realities and needs of India's population, the implementation of OBC reservation can be viewed as unscientific. Critics argue that without a precise understanding of the distribution and status of OBC communities in contemporary India, it might not provide the intended relief to those who need it the most.

Past Efforts and Potential Consequences

Past efforts to implement sub-categorization have faced challenges. For instance, the Social Justice Committee constituted by the UP government in 2001 recommended sub-categorization of the OBC quota, but the Supreme Court quashed the plan. 

This resulted in a significant setback for the BJP in the 2002 Assembly polls. The implementation of the Rohini Commission's recommendations carries the potential to alter the political landscape and impact the BJP's electoral prospects.

The Rohini Commission's report on OBC sub-categorization holds the key to addressing perceived inequities in reservation benefits. The political implications are profound, and the decision to implement sub-categorization will require careful consideration by the central government, with an eye on the upcoming 2024 elections. The complex interplay between social justice, political strategy, and legal precedents makes this a critical issue in contemporary Indian politics.