Implementing Affirmative Action In Public Services: Comparative Administrative Practice

III.Affirmative Action in India’s public service: A case study

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III.Affirmative Action in India’s public service: A case study


India is a multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-religious country in Asia. It is the world’s largest democracy with a population of little over 1 billion in 2001. Over three-fourths of the population lives and works mainly in villages, although the cities contribute increasing shares of national income. The sex ratio of men to women has been unfavorable to women: for every 1000 men, it has declined steadily from 946 to 927 over the last 50 years. The human development indicators such as literacy and maternal mortality are also more adverse for women.
India has a secular polity and no state religion. Approximately 80 % of the population is Hindu, and 14 % is Muslim. Other religions include Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Although Hindi (spoken in the north) and English are used officially, more than 1,500 languages and dialects are spoken in India. The Indian Constitution recognizes 15 regional languages.

Historical Context of Social Justice and Constitutional Principles

For many centuries, social stratification in Hinduism has been structured on the basis of castes and sub-castes, with a person’s social position being determined on by birth and occupation. Over the past few centuries, the caste system degenerated into rigid social exclusion. Castes at the bottom of the social scale were considered untouchable by those in comparatively higher castes. Those discriminated against are described Scheduled Castes3 in the Constitution, as Harijans by Mahatma Gandhi and referred as dalits in recent times. Also described in the Constitution are Scheduled Tribes (ST), who were subjected to spatial and cultural isolation, and lack of opportunity.
Before independence, British colonial administrators and rulers of some Indian states, such as Mysore, were guided by considerations of social justice and diversity in public employment. The first quarter of the twentieth century saw reservations in Government employment in almost the whole of Southern India, which covered not only the depressed classes (see footnote 1) but also other backward classes. The Poona Pact on communal harmony, in which Mahatma Gandhi participated, made a provision for fair representation of depressed classes in public employment. The British Act of 1935 provided a legal basis for the principle. In 1943, a quota of 8.33 % was reserved for SC. There was no quota for the scheduled tribes before independence.
In the post-independence period, the leaders carried forward the realization that the persons belonging to the SC and ST would require special protection and legal provisions to emancipate them from centuries of prejudices and exploitation. The strategy therefore rested on the twin planks of deterrence against discrimination of SC and ST, as well as affirmative action in their favor. The Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution cast a special duty on the State to “promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and in particular of the Scheduled Castes” and enjoined the State to “protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” These provisions found potent expression in several articles of the Constitution.
The Constitution authorizes the central government to notify the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in different states. The criteria for designation include anthropological studies and recommendations of states and central ministries. There have been disputes about which castes should be categorized as SC in different states, and whether SC can be notified from religions other than Hinduism. There is less dispute surrounding the designation of ST on the basis of social, religious, linguistic, and cultural distinctiveness. Approximately 179 million persons were listed in the 2001 Census as belonging to SC, or approximately 17.5 % of the population, including those practicing Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity. There are 250 recognized tribes, who speak 105 distinct languages and practice a number of religions and formed 7.8 % of the population in 2001.

Apart from SC, members of some other Hindu castes had also been discriminated against, and are officially referred as Other Backward Classes (OBC). Even before India’s independence in 1947, 13 states had identified socially backward (meaning disadvantaged) classes for job reservation. However, census data does not provide detailed information about which castes comprise OBC. In 1978 the Mandal Commission on Backward Classes provided an estimate that 52 % of the population in 3,743 sub-castes could be categorized as OBC. The Supreme Court laid down that no more than 50% of positions could be reserved for preferred groups. With 22.5% government positions reserved for SC and ST (15% and 7.5% respectively), no more than 27% of jobs are reserved for OBC.

Structure of Government and Public Service

Structure of Government

India adopted a democratic, secular and federal Constitution in 1950, which installed a parliamentary democracy in the Westminster model. India’s federal structure and local government provides adequate scope to reflect the diversity of the country and people. The Indian federation is now composed of 28 states and 7 union territories, with the boundaries mainly based on linguistic reorganization in 1956. Three new states came up a few years ago due largely to agitation for regional autonomy. The Constitution provides for multilevel governance, with both the central and state governments exercising independent and concurrent powers according to subject lists mandated in the Constitution. Elected local government bodies in rural and urban areas enjoy constitutional status as a third tier of government since 1993, but they are subject to control of state governments.

Structure and Character of Public Service

The federal civil service consists of three All India Services and 66 central civil services, all of whose members are recruited by the Union Public Service Commission. The All India Services include the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Forest Service (IFOS). They are considered as instruments of national unity.

Central government employees are divided into four groups A to D on the basis of pay scales. The higher civil service in India comprises groups A in policymaking positions and B in front-line supervisory and secretariat positions in generalist and technical positions. Together they form just 7 % of the employees. Seventy % of staff works in support positions in group C. Group D consists of artisans, unskilled workers and cleaners. There are 2.86 million women employees in central government, but women are under-represented in senior positions.

Selection to public services can be on the basis of direct recruitment, promotion, deputation, or contract. The central and state governments have notified rules relating to the recruitment to posts in services under their control with due regard to reservation for different categories. The Constitution provides for independent public service commissions in the central and in states, to ensures protection to civil servants from arbitrary punishment or removal from service except after reasonable opportunity and due process. Public Service Commissions (PSC) at the central and state levels operate independently to undertake merit-based recruitment, while enforcing reservation policy. There are separate selection bodies for support staff such as the Staff Selection Commission (SSC). Some state governments operate rules designed to ensure adequate representation of majority groups in the state. State governments have set up their own services for administration at state and local levels. There are many government-controlled or funded public enterprises and autonomous agencies whose personnel policies are subject to government direction. Government seeks to ensure the merit principle in promotion through the preparation of panels by Departmental Promotion Committees (DPC), which take note of performance assessment and reports of integrity. Apart from stipulation of reservation in promotion for SC and ST, the seniority principle is generally respected
Public sector employment grew 24% between 1981 and 1991. Over the next 10 years, its growth was constrained to 2%. Central government employment grew least: 7% between 1981 and 1991, and shrank 5% between 1991 and 2001. Employment in state governments and government funded agencies grew most during this period.

Objective of Affirmative Action in Public Service

The main objective of affirmative action for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes in public service positions, and special policies for women is to increase their representation in public service, consistent with the principle of egalitarian social order and justice underlying the Directive Principles and protective discrimination. The effort is part of the package of positive and protective measures for the amelioration of the economic and social condition of disadvantaged classes and disabled persons and for making the public service truly representative of the socioeconomic composition of the population (Government of India 2003). The objectives of affirmative action were different for groups other than SC. In the case of Scheduled Tribes, the greater need was that of social integration as they had remained in isolation from the national mainstream for centuries.

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