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Myths About Private Sector Reservation

By Chandrabhan Prasad

14 June, 2004
The Pioneer

The Congress' "national level dialogue" slogan, and the Maharashtra government's legislation on job reservations in the private sector have infused new blood and hope among the unemployed Dalit youth. Many senior citizens of the community are are elated. And why not? The Dalits' legitimate right to reservations goes beyond the realm of the government sector. How can the private sector justify its existence without adhering to the objectives of the Indian Republic, which insists on restructuring Indian society on the lines of justice? The day India's bourgeoisie allows itself to be persuaded to comply with the Republic's objectives, half of India's social tensions would wither away.

What is, however, missing in this euphoria over "private sector reservation", is the limitation of the "emancipatory" role these jobs can play. According to the Union Ministry of Labour (1999), the total work force in the organised private sector was 86.98 lakh or close to nine million. At a conservative estimate, low skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers add up to more than three-fourths of the workforce of the Indian private sector.

The Dalits may be having a sizable presence here which is proportionately more than their share of the national population. Thus, in effect, the Dalits' claim can be located in some two million white collar jobs - their share through reservations being about five lakh. These are the jobs (supervisors, clerks, professionals and managers) where the Dalit presence is likely to be too little to write home about. The current position, insofar as these five lakh jobs is concerned, is that they are already taken by non-Dalits. Will the private sector, if it abides by the policy of reservations, calculate the backlog and fill the vacancies?

Well, the government of India has not been able to calculate the backlog vacancies for even primary level teaching positions in central schools. So it would be far fetched to expect the private sector to excel in terms of filling the Dalit quota where even the government has failed. What can be expected from the private sector is that when it comes to making new appointments, the share of the Dalits should not be overlooked. The number of such vacancies would easily run into a few thousand in the best of times. If we explore the business area, as we have been advocating, and which has been dramatically removed by the Congress coalition, we find an altogether a different scenario.

By September 2003, there were 4,200 licensed liquor shops in Maharashtra. If the Sushil Shinde government is really honest in empowering the Dalits, it can allot 22.5 per cent of the licenses to Dalits, which comes to close to a thousand. These 1,000-odd Dalits liquor shop owners can earn more than an equal number of IAS officers. In addition, each Dalit liquor shop owner can give additional employment to at least five other people to run his business.

Andhra Pradesh has 75,000 licensed liquor shops. If the present Reddy governmt is serious on Dalit issues, it can allot about 1,700 liquor shops to Andhra Dalits. Similarly, the PWD, Irrigation and Municipal departments farm out construction projects worth tens of millions in construction to private contractors. Even if the smaller contracts, which run into a few lakh each, are reserved for Dalit contractors, thousands of Dalits in each state can become economically powerful. So is the case with the Department of Health, where hospitals buy medicines worth several crore annually. If a proportion of such purchases is set aside for Dalit chemists, hundreds of Dalits in each state can rake in big money.

The Agra Dalits were the first to enter into manufacturing and made big money. Many turned into millionaires by supplying shoes and belts to the British army during World War II. That continued after Independence as well. Agra became the centre of the Dalit movement in northern India. By the 1970's or so, non-Dalit traders entered the field. They began to bag Army tenders by buying in bulk from Dalit manufacturers. Slowly, they themselves became manufacturers, forcing the Dalits to retreat. Dalits now supply raw material to non-Dalit manufacturers. Why can't the Manmohan Singh government revive the policy and set aside a portion of the Armed Forces' requirements to the Dalits? The million-strong Indian Army and paramilitary and police buy shoes and belts worth several hundred crore every year. All the above measures put neither any extra-financial pressure on the treasury nor require any legislative action.

The public sector oil companies reserve 22.5 per cent of their petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG dealership for the Dalits. All the nine PSUs could stimulate employment for lakhs of Dalits by introducing Supplier-Dealership diversity for Dalits even in the areas of office equipment, electrical gadgets and furniture. Sadly though, during its earlier four-and-a-half decades of rule, the Congress couldn't envision creating a strong business class from within the community. And now, when the opportunity came, it has betrayed the Dalits in a most ruthless manner.

Now the party leadership is selling the "private sector job quota" dream, a repeat of the previous experience when it did not allow Dalits to move beyond government jobs and become partners in the market economy. An economically strong Dalit community can be a headache for the mainstream polity, this they understand better than the Dalits.