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J&K offers quota to ‘poorest of poor': Why this could change Valley's political landscape

Riyaz Wani | Updated on: 13 February 2018, 17:31 IST

In a development of profound political significance, the J&K Legislative Assembly on Saturday, 10 February, passed a bill providing 6% reservation in jobs and admissions in professional colleges of the state for the "poorest of the poor". This is the first such reservation in the country which is not based on the community identity, but instead upon the economic criterion.

Elsewhere in the country, there are constitutional restrictions on reservations that are based on an "economic criterion". The Supreme Court and high courts have cancelled the grant of such quotas by states, making it clear that the community identity was the only marker of social and educational backwardness.

In th Indra Sawhney case, the Supreme Court ruled that an exclusive “economic criterion” was unconstitutional. The court explained that the category of “poor” did not reflect “social backwardness” that follows from being born into a caste group considered socially inferior.

The court also cautioned that the economic criteria for reservation will allow the upper classes to partake in the affirmative action, thereby defeating the purpose of the reservation scheme. This is why Supreme Court ruled against the reservation for Jats and Marathas.

But by virtue of having a separate Constitution, Kashmir's reservation for economically weaker sections may not be easily prone to a legal challenge. And for now, with the Assembly passing the bill, the economically disadvantaged sections of the society can hope to benefit from this reservation.

The state Social Welfare minister Sajad Gani Lone who mooted the bill thinks the reservation can make a redeeming difference to the plight of the urban poor who can hope to get “their due share in government jobs and admissions in professional colleges”.

“We desperately needed a reservation for economically poor sections of the society, more particularly, the urban poor,” Lone told Catch. “A predominant number of them are not covered under any affirmative action scheme”.

Most backward sections to benefit

In J&K, the move will benefit the poorer sections of society in cities and towns like Srinagar, Jammu, Kathua and Baramulla. Though the grant of reservation has definite political motivations, it is specifically geared to address the growing urban distress in the state which is believed to underpin the lingering turmoil in the state.

"Urban areas in Valley have been the worst hit by the conflict in the state. The youth in these areas are not covered by any reservation category which puts them at a distinct disadvantage with their counterparts from the countryside,” the minister for Public Works and the state government spokesman Naeem Akhtar told Catch. “This has created a deep alienation and anger in these areas fuelling the unrest”.

One such area which has borne the brunt of the lingering conflict is the Downtown, the old densely settled area of Srinagar.

Before the start of the armed separatist struggle in 1989, the Downtown was the state’s commercial and political hub. But in the early nineties, the area witnessed the most violence whose fallout is still playing out. Life continues to be prone to hartals and protests in a lingering throwback to the 1990s. The youth remain angry, rebellious and always willing to pick up stones, if no longer the gun, to take on New Delhi. Militancy is now passé, but the still-simmering anger finds its outlet through intermittent bursts of stone-pelting. But along the way, the city’s demographic has also transformed. The elite and the middle class have largely moved out, leaving poor sections of the population behind. The Downtown has now been reduced to a periphery of the expanding Srinagar.

Same is more or less the case with the other urban centres like Sopore, Baramulla, Anantnag, Kupwara etc. What is more, the people from urban areas invariably boycott elections

“There has been a consequent economic and political disempowerment of the people in the urban centres,” Lone said. “Though it will take time to politically address the situation, the government needs to formulate a suitable administrative response. The reservation for the poor is one such measure”.

However, the state remains chary of a legal challenge. “We don’t think there will be one. This is a reservation which will go to the most backward sections of the society,” Lone said.

The state, however, takes heart from the fact that the new category for the poor comes within the 50 percent cap on reservations. “We have our system of statutory provisions where we can have something like this,” says Hilal Bhat, the mission director of Integrated Child Protection Scheme, a branch of Social Welfare Department. “Besides, we don’t exceed 50 percent cap”.

Pertinently, while the Assembly passed the reservation bill for the poor, it also passed another giving 3 percent reservation to Paharis, a nomadic community. Together, the bills have tried to usher in the reservation politics in the state. Traditionally, the politics in Kashmir has been alien to the reservation-based community movements. Will new reservation categories change this? Only time will tell.

First published: 13 February 2018, 17:31 IST