back to issue

State and identity

THE stay order by the Supreme Court on 29 March 2007 on the implementation of reservation of seats for the ‘other backward classes’ as provided by the Central Education Institutions (Reservation in Education) Act, 2006 has brought into sharp focus the role of the Indian state for the identification of citizens who can be categorized as Backward.

The meaning and implications of the involvement of the state for undertaking an exercise for the head count of its population deserves to be analysed with a view to substantiate the argument that this role is not an innocent activity of merely collecting data on the total number of its residents. The founding fathers of the Indian Republic, on the basis of their own bitter experience with the colonial state’s policies of categorizing and classifying Indians on the basis of their birth-determined identity, decided that caste-based identity should not be mentioned in a census of the Indian population.

This decision of the first government of Republican India in 1950, whether consciously or otherwise, confirms the fact that a population census or head count undertaken by the state is no ‘neutral’ activity of establishing the number of people inhabiting its territorial boundaries. A little reference to the meaning and impact of census activity of the British colonizers would show that such social statistics were used and manipulated by the colonial rulers to promote their policy of divide and rule. It is well known that the colonizers believed, to quote Hegel along with other Orientalists, that Indians were ‘people without history’ and such a conglomerate of multiple and completely divided human beings were to be brought together by the colonizers under one administratively united territory controlled by the colonizers.

The colonizers used social statistics generated by the Census for formulating their public policies for Hindus separated from Muslims and for different caste groups so identified while collecting caste-based population data regarding so-called believers of Hindu religion. Social categories based on religion versus religion and caste versus caste formed the basis for reservation of seats in every public institution. The upshot of this brief description is that these so-called demographic social facts became the essential guiding principles for the governance of a highly divided and fragmented society. Equally that the colonial state in the process of undertaking the census put a stamp of approval on the accident of birth of its conquered people. Who am I? The state has decided that my identity is determined on the basis of birth, and that I am different from the ‘other’ because he is born in another religion or caste or sub-caste of a society.

An irresolvable antagonistic contradiction exists between the constitutional responsibility of a republican democratic state which is committed to the idea of ‘equality of every citizen’ and its praxis of classification and categorization of ‘citizens’ on the basis of an identity of birth. How can an Indian citizen be equal before the state if he is born with differences on the basis of birth, recognized and certified by the state? It is worth reminding our rulers that Fundamental Rights as mentioned in Articles 14 to 16 of the Constitution clearly demand, even command, that ‘The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection, of the laws within the territory of India’ (Article 14) and, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’ (Article 15(i). The only exception is that the democratic state of India must take ‘special care’ of socially deprived citizens. Hence the emphasis in Article 15(4) that ‘socially and educationally backward classes of citizens’ will be taken care of by the state.

The reference to the constitutional provisions is not to enter into legalistic or juridical quibbling on the real meaning of the intent of the Constitution-makers but to attract attention to the fact that the concept of ‘citizenship in democratic India’ has been violated and showed contempt by following a policy of identifying a citizen on the basis of identity given at the time of birth.

The post-Independence state of India has appointed its own commissions and committees at regular intervals to undertake a head count of citizens on the basis of birth with a view to determine their social status. This caravan of commissions appointed by the state, viz. Kaka Kelkar, Mandal or Sachar, seems to have become unstoppable. Every commission follows the lead of the Census Commission and every head count is based on caste or religion of every person who is not allowed to forget his birth-based signpost because the powers-that-be have decided that birth markers have official sanction and approval. It is worth noting that the share of castes in the population has varied from commission to commission for the simple reason that if the state ignores some ‘socially backward classes’ and patronizes other castes or communities, the enumerators of social statistics get at truth based on self-reporting.


Varying Estimates of Caste Share

Backward Classes

Mandal Commission


National Sample Survey 1992-2000


National Family Health Survey 1998-99


Reservation available


Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes

Mandal Commission


National Sample Survey 1999-2000


National Family Health Survey 1998-99


Reservation available


Forward Classes

Mandal Commission


National Sample Survey 1999-2000


National Family Health Survey 1998-99


Reservation available


What is the implication of the perpetuation of birth based identity or the impact of such a value-loaded enumeration of citizens on the meaning of the idea of India? It is a truism to maintain that the value-loaded enumeration by census commissions and other agencies of the state has played havoc in society because Indians are made to live on the basis of the ‘concept of the other’, and every Indian has been made conscious of his ‘difference’ from the ‘other’. These policies followed by the post-independence state have contributed to the politics of targeting of caste versus caste and religion versus religion. Accompanying the sharpened ‘social divisions’ resulting from census categorization the other, and more significant, consequence is that history has been frozen and the levels of social consciousness of Indians have not transcended the givens of birth. It is no one’s case that a ‘class state’ will follow policies for the promotion of new levels of social consciousness such that the united mass of people are prepared to ask basic questions about the existence of a property-based exploitative social system. It only means that larger issues concerning the inequitable existing social order have been pushed into the background and particularistic demands of segments of deprived sections have come to occupy the centre-stage in Indian politics.

It is a sociological law validated by the history of class-divided societies that education is a marketable commodity available to only those who can afford to buy it. Even as millions of Indians who have been deprived of elementary education for the last sixty years are not in public reckoning, education for the children of the kulak classes has become a priority of the Indian state. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, as a government sponsored project to provide education to the children of really oppressed and deprived strata of society, has received a step-motherly treatment from a government which instead is fighting a battle for ‘reservation of higher education for the children of surplus producing and exploiting agrarian classes.’

This reality was witnessed in the meeting of Educational Ministers of India on 10-11 April 2007 where the Sarva Shikha Abhiyan scheme was reduced to a football game on the basis of resource sharing between the Centre and states, and ‘reservations for the OBCs’ received unanimous support. It is to the credit of some highly motivated ‘voluntary agencies’ that projects for the education of the really poor are in operation in some areas of the country. But the reality is that NGOs cannot supplant the role of the state in providing basic education to the millions of children whose families are living at subsistence levels in remote villages of the country.

Education for all is not the agenda of the class-based Indian state but education for specific caste groups or religious minorities has priority because data collected by government appointed commissions and committees have identified some castes or religious groups for some special treatment to win over political support of some social constituencies. Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth does not resonate with the Indian state because our people have been made incapable of uniting together to raise real social demands for the oppressed. No wonder the politics of the bullet is practiced in thirteen states by groups declared Left extremists by the Indian state instead of responding to their social demands.

An upshot of the above is that social divisions on the basis of birth have been solidified by the conscious policies pursued by the managers of the state, negatively impacting the level of social consciousness of our already divided caste versus caste or religion versus religion based society. The agenda of reservations is in the class interest of the different factions of the ruling classes even as the ‘really poor and oppressed’ are nowhere in the picture because they are made to breathe ‘separately’. The warning from colonial history is that social statistics were used, misused and abused by the ruling elite and this process still continues.

C.P. Bhambhri


The absence of accountability

WATER delivery is the responsibility of the government. Thirty years ago many parts of Delhi received drinking water much of the time. Today no area receives water round the clock and worse, the water delivered is contaminated. In common with cities in many developing countries, industrialisation, rapid urbanisation and growing population estimated to be around 16 million, caused in part by migration from rural areas, have put pressure on Delhi’s water resources. An increased demand for water and falling ground-water levels have only intensified this pressure.

However, despite rapid urbanization, industrialization and population growth, per capita water availability in Delhi is around 255 litres per day, according to the Delhi Human Development Report published last August. This availability puts Delhi on par with many other cities, including London and Paris. It also means that it has more water than the 165 lcpd available in Singapore. However, the Delhi Jal Board fails to meet its own target of providing consumers with a constant supply of piped drinking water although affluent areas receive more than the poorer districts.

Delhi’s continuing water crisis is man-made and stems from (i) the absence of accountability between its governing authorities, (ii) between them and consumers, (iii) uncoordinated development strategies, and (iv) the failure to formulate a coherent policy for water delivery.

Delhi’s water problems reflect a broader crisis of governance caused by a multiplicity of governing authorities. They include the Centre, which has control over Delhi’s administration. The President of India nominates the Lt. Governor of Delhi. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Urban Development also influence the planning and administration of the city through the appointment of a Commissioner, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). The Municipal Commissioner discharges his duties under the general supervision of the Centre, not the elected Municipal Council.

Linkages between Delhi’s governing and planning authorities are opaque and conflicts arising from a lack of jurisdictional clarity are frequent. The general development of Delhi is under the jurisdiction of the town planning department of the MCD, but the DJB is responsible for the production and distribution of drinkable water and also the treatment and disposal of waste-water.

There are no clear guidelines for coordination of policy or accountability mechanisms between Delhi’s different governing authorities. The impact of this lack of coordination between Delhi’s governing authorities on water delivery can be illustrated in different ways. For instance:

(i) The DDA decides what land is to be developed and draws up the city’s Master Plan. The plan is implemented by the MCD. But there is no review or sanction by the DJB when the DDA clears a building plan so that adequate water supply is ensured even to an authorised development.

(ii) Delhi’s authorities cannot even agree on how much water the city needs. The DDA’s Master Plan for 2021 envisages that Delhi will need 1800 million gallons per day (MGD) for a projected population of 23 million. But the DJB’s capacity augmentation Master Plan envisages that its capacity will increase to a maximum of 919 MGD from all possible sources.

(iii) The DJB cannot lay pipelines for 1025 slum and unauthorized colonies because it has not received ‘authenticated’ (their term) maps of the areas from the MCD. If and when the MCD does provide the maps it will take the DJB at least five years to lay new pipelines.

(iv) At another level, the question arises how ‘illegal constructions’ – which are said to comprise around 60-70 per cent of all buildings in Delhi, and which include diverse commercial establishments, schools and places of worship – have been getting water from the DJB for almost a decade when legal consumers do not get enough. (Could one guess that part of the explanation may lie in power politics and corruption?)

Leakages contribute to Delhi’s water shortage. No part of Delhi’s water network is leakage free and at least 40 per cent of the water that leaves the DJB is lost through leakages. In fact the euphemistic official term, ‘unaccounted for water’, points to a crisis of governance. Leakages are also caused by some people making unauthorised connections to get water. But these unauthorised connections are probably made in the first place because people do not get enough water in their homes. The problem is compounded by the absence of laws against water theft. Since water is ‘a very sensitive issue’, the chief minister thinks that her government ‘cannot go after people who have no water to drink and are forced to "tap it" illegally.’

For long, underinvestment and undercharging were among the causes of Delhi’s water problems. The DJB barely recovers 40 per cent of its operating costs because for, decades Delhi’s water rate was among the lowest in the world – at 35 paise per litre. Higher tariffs are supposed to help facilitate the delivery of 24/7 water.

One reason why the DJB wanted to raise tariffs in 2004 was that before July 2002, when the power distribution system in the capital was privatised, the DJB rarely paid its electricity bills. ‘But after privatisation, the situation has changed and now we have to pay our bills on time, otherwise the power distribution companies disconnect our electric supply. Consequently, it has become very difficult to survive with the present tariff,’ a DJB official said. The revenue collected by the DJB – Rs 263 crore – is less than its anticipated annual electricity bill of Rs 300 crore.

Higher rates have, however, not improved water delivery. In some areas consumers complain about monthly connection charges ranging from Rs 40 to Rs 120 per connection. This charge has to be paid even in the absence of improved water delivery. Moreover, the better-off and the poor both spend time and money on coping costs, which amount to 3-4 times the water bill, on pumps, water tankers, and precious time, which, especially for poor women and children, could be used better for earning money or attending school. New meters do not work properly partly because of the salts that come in with a dirty and intermittent supply of water. So consumers most complain about inaccurate bills. And most take the view that the authorities are not motivated to deliver because delivery is not the norm.

Consumer voice is weak and inadequate. It does not exist in the slum areas; it is extra-constitutional and powerless in better-off areas. The authorities are not obliged to listen to RWA representatives. Bhagidari does not ensure water delivery; indeed no mechanism in Delhi does.

The better-off can make their voice heard through Residents Welfare Associations (RWAs). But RWA representatives take the view that the RWA is just a society, without any legal status or constitutional backing. RWAs can articulate complaints but have no money to underpin it. RWAs cannot ensure accountability in delivery by the DJB or, indeed, any of Delhi’s governing authorities. RWA representatives pointed out that the idea that government must deliver does not exist among the authorities. In March 2006 RWAs demanded legal status, but it is unclear how this would improve the ability to get the authorities to improve water delivery.

Slum dwellers tell a different story. They get free water but have no contact with any civil society organisation. Any problems are reported to the local MLA, who can intervene with the DJB on water problems. If a tube well breaks down a complaint to the MLA results in repairs by the DJB in ten to fifteen days. So slum dwellers often pay a private workman – who could be a DJB employee working on a private basis after office hours – to do the job in two to three days.

Reform would require a change in attitude of both government and consumers. As in other Indian cities good water management needs to be made a primary planning obligation. Accountability to clients is at the heart of successful service provision. The expansion of this relationship of accountability is central to the challenge of scaling up drinking water services. Accountability could be political and administrative or economic, established through rates to be paid by consumers, by improving the quality of the interaction between consumers, the RWAs and the DJB.

The real issue is better management, whether by the DJB or by the private sector. Policy-making, regulatory and service provision functions need to be kept in separate organisations and processes. Also, the definition of powers and responsibilities of the different tiers of government is essential to provide fiscal incentives for change.

A ‘culture’ of efficient and timely delivery needs to be created through the participation of providers and consumers through consultative legal and administrative mechanisms. Only then will the accountability of, and public confidence in, the DJB and Delhi’s governing authorities be enhanced.

Anita Inder Singh


A mortal blow to panchayat raj

IN the heat and noise generated in the Karnataka legislature by the controversy over Infosys honorary chairman and chief mentor Narayan Murthy’s views on the national anthem, another equally significant and damaging event virtually passed unnoticed – the hurried passage of the amendments to the Panchayat Raj Act by both houses of the legislature. There was pandemonium in both houses when the legislature passed the bill. In the legislative assembly, the opposition staged a walkout. In the council, the vote was evenly split, and was followed by the chairman exercising his casting vote in favour of the government. Yet this event, probably one of the darkest spots in the history of panchayat raj in Karnataka, did not get anything but a cursory mention in the media.

Grama sabhas have been given a unique position as institutions of participatory governance under the Constitution. Article 243A defines a grama sabha as being a body of voters relating to a village within a panchayat. Under the constitutional pattern, grama sabhas provide the foundation for effective panchayat raj. The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act 1993 initially had provided for relatively weak grama sabhas. Under Section 3 of the Act, while grama sabhas were to meet at least once in six months. If grama panchayats failed to convene grama sabhas, then the executive officer of the taluk panchayat concerned could convene them. Grama sabhas only had recommendatory powers under the law. The law also provided that in case the grama sabha failed to identify the beneficiaries within a reasonable time, the executive officer shall, in consultation with the grama panchayat, identify the beneficiaries. Obviously, there was low confidence about the capacity and interest of grama sabhas and they were routinely ignored by higher levels.

In 2001, M.Y. Ghorpade, then Karnataka’s Minister of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, constituted a working group under the chairpersonship of the Development Commissioner, N. Viswanathan to make recommendations on panchayat raj reform. In its report submitted in February 2002, the working group recommended several measures for strengthening grama sabhas, including changes in the law to provide for ward sabhas below grama sabhas at the neighbourhood level and elaborate processes for beneficiary selection by ward and grama sabhas under government programmes. Amendments based on these recommendations were intensely debated both outside and within the legislature. In mid-2003, while presenting the draft amendment bill to the Assembly, Ghorpade himself suggested that they should be examined by a joint select committee. After a detailed examination by the joint select committee, the bill was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature in September 2003. The Act, a tribute to the wisdom and statesmanship of Ghorpade, was uniformly acknowledged as a big step forward, putting Karnataka in the forefront of good panchayat raj. The first ward sabha in the state was organized in the constituency of D.R. Patil, MLA, at Gadag, on Gandhi Jayanthi day, 2003.

The landmark changes brought about in 2003, apart from establishing a two-tier system of ward and grama sabhas for effective and greater people’s participation also listed as many as 19 functions for them, including approval of annual plans, generating proposals and determining priority of schemes, identifying beneficiaries, water supply and streetlight arrangements and promoting adult education.

In respect of beneficiary selection the new law left no room for doubt. Section 3(3) (b) of the amended Act provided that ward sabhas would identify the most eligible persons from its area for beneficiary-oriented schemes on the basis of criteria fixed and prepare lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority and forward it to the grama panchayat. These lists were then to be placed by the grama panchayat before the grama sabha, which under Section 3A(3)(c) would consider the ward sabha lists and prepare the final lists of eligible beneficiaries in order of priority. For good measure, the law also provided that once such detailed beneficiary lists were prepared by the grama sabha, they could not be changed by any higher authority.

Last week’s amendment has set the clock back in no uncertain terms. It inserts similarly worded provisos to Section 3(3) (b) and 3A (3) (c), stating that if the grama panchayat fails to discharge its duties in respect of housing schemes or programmes funded by the government, then a committee headed by the member of the legislative assembly of the constituency shall select the beneficiaries from the list prepared by the grama panchayat! The crudity of the amendment and the blatant arrogance of legislators takes one’s breath away. In one stroke the legislator becomes the final arbiter over decisions of the grama sabha. These provisos are dangerously open-ended. Who is to decide that a grama panchayat has failed to discharge its duties? Who will constitute the committee? Why specifically mention housing schemes? What is the implication of providing scope for taking away the powers of the grama sabha in respect of all schemes of the government?

At first sight, though the unseemly hurry in piloting the amendment is unnerving, this was a long time in coming. Interestingly, a year back, the government tried to bring in the same amendments through an ordinance. However, saner counsel prevailed after upright officers in the RDPR department fought tooth and nail against it. The state’s law secretary also objected to this provision on the grounds that taking away powers given to panchayats and grama sabhas signified a reversal of panchayati raj and therefore required presidential assent. He also voiced the view that taking away powers specifically in respect of housing schemes would contravene Article 14 of the Constitution. On what grounds does the government justify that for all other schemes the grama sabhas have the power, and supposedly the intelligence, to select beneficiaries but when it comes to the selection of people for housing, they are incapable and therefore should not have the right?

This time around, there were no niceties of consultation. The law secretary voiced the same objections, but they have been ignored. The upright officers who objected earlier are no longer around – they have been replaced by those more compliant and spineless, who have with alacrity prepared the crude and dubious draft amendment. No select committee has been set up to consider the serious implications of such a legislation.

The amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act virtually puts MLAs in the driver’s seat in respect of the selection of any beneficiary for any scheme. Currently the grama sabhas are the deciding body in this regard; the only platform we have that recognises true participation of every citizen to participate in decision-making. This amendment revokes this right. The message is loud and clear: people are now being held to ransom by their MLAs, who want to usurp virtually all powers, including those given to constitutionally mandated local bodies. This trend is not confined only to panchayats – MLAs now want more powers in urban local bodies and university senates too. We need to ask our legislators, regardless of the threat of breaching legislative privilege: Is it their business to select beneficiaries for programmes? Are they legislators or chief executives of their constituencies? Is our vote a general power of attorney? Can MLAs take away the powers of others that we have elected to represent us in the panchayats? Can MLAs usurp the rights of the grama sabhas? Do MLAs have knowledge and insights that are superior to the members of a grama sabha regarding the needs and situation of individuals in each grama sabha?

While we are witnessing the darkest hour of the panchayats, there is also a silver lining. Not all MLAs or bureaucrats are panchayat unfriendly. At the two day sammelan organized by the Institute of Social Sciences in Bangalore recently to celebrate twenty years of panchayati raj in Karnataka, several MLAs who had risen from the Panchayats spoke of their commitment to decentralization. When the amendment was presented in the legislature, both in the assembly and the council they met with stiff resistance. In the council the vote was tied, till the council chairperson tipped over the balance with his casting vote. In these circumstances, it is time that people know exactly where their elected representatives stand on the issue of strengthening of grama sabhas – and particularly to know who has let them down at the time of reckoning.

We should remind MLAs that we have not given them open-ended powers to pass laws to usurp every privilege for themselves. People elect legislators primarily to enact laws and not to control the delivery of services that are, in accordance with the Constitution, to be delivered by panchayats. Legislators cannot look at works undertaken in their constituencies with a proprietorial air. It is public funds that are being spent by panchayats, not the pocket money of MLAs. The works undertaken or the services delivered cannot be owned by any category of elected member. Legislators have already enriched themselves by providing a local area fund for themselves. Now they can override all the decisions of panchayats and grama sabhas on beneficiary selection. The larger implications of this amendment should also not be forgotten.

What next? First, this is not the time for seminars and intellectual discussions in confined halls. Our inaction and apathy at this stage will only encourage more unconstitutional actions. Were this amendment to become law, the government could at any time, without any notice to us, revoke our participatory rights and decisions. Rather than moving towards the vision of our founding fathers and active and informed civil society participation, we are regressing towards a dictatorship of legislators over citizens and other levels of elected government. This is not an issue that concerns panchayat members alone – undermining the ward sabhas and grama sabhas truncates the powers of the people themselves. This action of the government calls for widespread protest. If we truly believe in democracy, now is the time to defend it.

Nandana Reddy and Damodar Acharya