Reservation for Dalits in Private Sector

For sometime past there has been a persistent demand from Dalits that law should provide reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in business enterprises and in works funded by the Government and the Public Sector.

This question has assumed urgency because of the undesirable haste by which the public sector is being dismantled, with the inevitable consequence of loss of opportunities for employment for a large segment of Dalits.

It is no longer in dispute that because of the caste system, large portions of the population in our country have been deprived of the equal of opportunity in various walks of life. Pt. Nehru even in 1930 wrote “therefore, not only must equal opportunities be given to all, but special opportunities for educational, economic and cultural growth must be given to backward groups so as to enable them to catch up with those who are ahead of them.”

Our Supreme Court has emphasized that the Preamble of the Constitution which directs the State to secure to all citizens justice will remain a myth unless first economic justice is guaranteed to all.

In this context, it should not be forgotten that hitherto for centuries, there have been cent per cent reservations in practice in all fields, in favour of the high castes and classes, to the total exclusion of others. It was a purely caste and class-based reservation.

The employment – whether private or public – thus, is a means of social leveling. A deliberately conscious attempt to secure it to those who were designedly denied the same in the past, is an attempt to do social and economic justice to them as ordained by the Preamble of the Constitution and also the mandate of Article 16 of the Constitution.

However, opponents of social transformation mischievously spread the canard, that to legislate on a quota or reservation in the private sector would be impermissible in law, a proposition totally unsound in law. Article 14, when it talks of equal opportunity, does not forbid reasonable classification. Therefore, if any provision is made to give some part of business or contracts which are funded by the Govt. and public sector to Dalits and backward classes, the same would be justified on the ground of reasonable classification inasmuch as it was to give benefits to a class or society which have been deprived of opportunity for hundreds of years and which can only be redeemed by providing them special provisions.

A similar situation arose before the United States Supreme Court in Fullilove V Klutznick. There was a “minority business enterprises” clause in the Public Works Employment Act of 1977 which contained a provision that 10% of the federal funds granted for local public works projects must be used by state and local grantees to procure services or supplies from businesses owned and controlled by “minority group members”, the latter being defined in the Act as United States citizens who are “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals ……”.

This provision was challenged as denying an equal protection clause provided under the 14th amendment of the US Constitution from which Article 14 of our Constitution has been adopted. The Court, while upholding the law, relied on official reports which were to the effect that the effects of past inequities stemming from racial prejudice have not remained in the past, and the reality was that past discriminatory practices have, to some degree, adversely affected the present economic system.

The Court upheld the validity of the legislation as it contained provisions designed to uplift those socially and economically disadvantaged persons to a level where they may effectively participate in the business mainstream of the U.S. economy.

The arguments raised as to why the private contractors should be compelled and their choice in this particular manner be limited as to where the supplies will be received and whom they will sub-contract, was given short shrift by clarifying that it is not as if these prime contractors are being held responsible for any violation of anti-discrimination of law, but this legislation was enacted to prohibit practices which perpetuate the effect of discrimination being practiced, with a view to eliminate those barriers and to ensure that the minorities were not denied equal opportunity to participate in federal grants to state and local governments, which is one aspect of the equal protection of the laws.

Thus it is fallacious to say that if a similar law was made in India, non-Dalits will thereby be thus discriminated because as the US Court said “it is not a constitutional defect in this program that it may disappoint the expectations of non-minority firms. When effectuating a limited and properly tailored remedy to cure the effects of prior discrimination, such “a sharing of the burden” by innocent parties is not impermissible. The legislation was held to be only an attempt to remedy the ingenious and pervasive forms of discrimination against the Negros where “the position of the Negros today in America is the tragic but inevitable consequence of centuries of unequal treatment”.  The Court ended with ringing words “if we are ever to become a fully integrated society, one in which the colour of a person’s skin will not determine the opportunities available to him or her, we must be willing to take steps to open those doors.” The same principle aptly applies to the position of Dalits in our country.

The non Dalits cannot in law complain of being deprived of equal opportunity. It is settled law that equal protection requires affirmative action by the State towards the un-equals by providing facilities and opportunities to them over and above the others.

Every classification is in some degree likely to produce some inequality. But differential treatment does not per se constitute violation of Article 14.

As Justice Homes of US Supreme Court said “if the law presumably hits the evil,  where it is most felt, it is not to be overthrown because there are other instances to which it might have been applied.”

Our Supreme Court has held that “economic empowerment of the poor, in particular the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as is enjoined under Article 46, is a constitutional objective as basic human and fundamental right to enable the labourer, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to raise their economic empowerment.”

A look around will show the horrendous deprivation in the matter of employment, notwithstanding the Constitution providing for reservation for Dalits and backward classes. The backlog of vacancies for Dalits even after over 50 years of the adoption of the Constitution is appalling – thus there is 70% in Group A jobs and 45% even in D group, the lowest job of peons, Khallasis etc. In the public sector it is more shocking, being 88%. The backlog of appointments of S.C and S.Ts. is reported to be about a million in various government services.

Even now in many places, the country tea shops have two tumblers outside, and a Dalit is expected to wash his own tumbler. Such humiliating and inhuman behaviour is resorted to because Dalits do not possess the financial clout to assert their constitutional rights to equality and non-discrimination. Poverty is so enveloping amongst Dalits that of agricultural labour, about 49% are Dalits, who are being denied dignity because without land ownership there is no respect in rural areas.

It is for this reason that it is time when similar legislation, like the one passed in the US, is essential, so as to give status in society to Dalits.

I feel that all political parties must be compelled to give as an election promise that they accept this principle and will effectuate it, namely, that of funds spent by the Central, State Govt., local bodies or public sectors in connection with public works projects etc. will carry an in built clause that, at least to start with, 15% (though on population basis it should be 22% – just as USA provided 10% being the proportion of minority population) would be used to procure services or supplies from businesses owned and controlled by Dalits and the most backward classes. This commitment alone will now entitle the parties to Dalit votes.

Legislation as mentioned above may go a reasonable distance in atoning for past iniquities committed on Dalits and give them a somewhat equal place in our society as is the mandate of Human Rights.