World

Protesters Shut Down Delhi’s Water Supply, Demand To Be Recognized As ‘Backwards’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal

A damaged section of the Munak canal, near the village of Bindroli is guarded by Indian military, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Fears of a water crisis in the Indian capital eased Monday with security forces securing a canal in Haryana, which provides 60 percent of its water needs.

Days of violent riots in the Indian capital city of Delhi and in the adjoining state of Haryana left 16 people dead and caused nearly $500,000 in losses for area industries. Nearly 10,000 Indian troops and paramilitary force members were deployed by the federal government to quell the uprising, which is still ongoing in parts of the region.

The protesters cut off the water supply of 10 million in Delhi — the world’s second most populous city — when they breached and damaged a wall of a canal that supplies the city with water. The city’s water supply is incredibly vulnerable, with parts of the water infrastructure dating back to the 13th century. The state government deployed the army to the canals to secure them, but the city’s water is being temporarily rationed as normal water flow is restored.

Fraught with arson, looting, and damage to public property, the demonstrations were led by the Jat community, an Indian minority group that’s seeking to be classified as a disadvantaged group in order to be considered for public service jobs and public institution admissions that are reserved for historically marginalized groups.

The special access for marginalized people to such opportunities is an effort by the Indian government to remedy long held prejudices that stem, in large part, from the Hindu caste system.

That’s not to say that the system has ensured perfect representation for previously disenfranchised people. Decisions on which groups classify as marginalized groups have been marred by political aspirations, with politicians anointing important voting blocs as “backwards” in order to win their support.

Haryana State Minister Ram Bilas Sharma, who is not himself a Jat, told the BBC that the government would introduce a bill that would allow the group access to affirmative action considerations by public institutions.

The federal government has set up a committee to review the situation, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Jat leaders such as Satpal Singh Sangwan have voiced skepticism about these initiatives.

“We’re not 100 percent satisfied,” the retired government official said, “but it’s a beginning.”

This is not the first time that the Jat community has attempted to seek official classification as an “Other Backward Caste,” or OBC.

A decision on the eve of elections in 2014 afforded Jats OBC status in several states where they have “strong social and political clout” according to the Indian Express — but the move was struck down by the Indian Supreme Court in May last year.

The Court cited a constitutional provision that obligated the state “to reach out to the most deserving” class before affording OBC status to any one group and said that the Jat community does not meet standards of “social backwardness” set by the National Commission for Backward Classes.

While some individuals of the social groups included in the reservation and quota system have seen personal gain, it’s hard to measure how much of an impact it’s hard for those group on the whole. As The Economist has reported, the impact of on India — and its government institutions — hasn’t been a very positive one:

The various quotas have partly achieved their most basic tasks. In public jobs members of backward groups claim more posts than of old. Dalits had just 1.6% of the most senior (“Group A”) civil servant positions in 1965, for example. That rose to 11.5% by 2011, not far off the 16% or so of the general population that Dalits represent. The share is higher for more junior posts.

Judging a broader impact is harder. Very few Indians have formal jobs, let alone government ones. “The [jobs] policy only matters for perhaps 2% of the Indian work force”, points out Harsh Shrivastava of the World Development Forum, a think-tank in Delhi. Other than in tweaking quotas (to reflect the local size of a [specific marginalized] population) states have never experimented, nor competed, to find out whether their jobs policies have any wider, beneficial impact.

Worse, the policy has probably helped to make India’s bureaucracy increasingly rotten—and it was already one of the country’s greater burdens. An obsession with making the ranks of public servants representative, not capable, makes it too hard to sack dysfunctional or corrupt bureaucrats. Nor will this improve. In December 2012 parliament’s upper house passed a bill ordering that bureaucrats be promoted not on merit alone, but to lift the backward castes faster.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in a landslide in 2014, was overwhelmingly supported by the Jat community in Haryana. Now the community wants the man they elected to stand by them in their fight for OBC status.

He has largely ignored the issue but derided the protesters in a speech to a group of farmers in the state of Odisha.

“They are now hatching conspiracies every day to finish and defame me,” Modi said.

Some members of his party have been more vocal — and have even laid out plans to quash the Jat protests. One MP from Haryana said he would “fight back” against the Jat protesters with “direct action” if calm is not reached soon.

“The state government should clear roads and rail tracks,” declared Raj Kumar Saini on Sunday. “Jats have created ruckus in the state for an illegal demand of reservation and it is completely unacceptable to us.”

A dangerous precedent will be set if the government does decide to afford to Jat community OBC status after days of looting and arson.

“Giving [Jats OBC status] after four days of violence, [means that] there will be violence on every issue,” a former head of a large Bangalore-based food company called Britannia Industries said.

“The government has given in to the violence,” Prakash Ambedkar, who heads a political party founded by India’s most noted OBC leader said.