The Maha Vikas Aghadi government received a major setback on Monday after the Supreme Court stayed the 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the local body elections until further orders. The apex court’s order has come days before the byelections to 4,554 gram panchayats, 59 seats in the Dhule, Nanded, Sangli and Ahmednagar municipal corporations and 105 nagar panchayats, slated for December 21. Elections are also due for zilla parishads and municipal corporations, including the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation in early 2022. The government had said that the 27 per cent OBC quota could have been applicable in these elections but with the SC order on Monday, polls will take place without seats reserved for the OBC community.
After the apex court order in March quashing the 27 per cent quota for OBCs in local bodies, the state government had, in September issued an ordinance in a bid to pacify the OBCs by proposing amendments to the Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act, 1961, and the Maharashtra Village Panchayat Act.
The state government faces a major political challenge to keep the OBCs who constitute about 53 per cent of the population, in good humour. The 27 per cent reservation was applicable to all urban (municipal corporations, councils and nagar panchayats) and rural bodies (zilla parishads, panchayat samitis and gram panchayats) across the state. The apex court’s decision is yet another blow, as the state government is already struggling to pacify the Maratha community which is angry over the cancellation of 12 per cent quota in education and 13 per cent in jobs by the apex court and also because of the state government’s inability to restore it.
The ordinance had clearly mentioned that reservation to the OBC community will be below the 50 per cent ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court or 27 per cent, whichever was lower. This meant, after ensuring reservation for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs, the quota would not exceed the 50 per cent limit in civic and local bodies. Had the ordinance not been stayed, the OBCs in the state would have got 27 per cent reservation in some districts, 20 per cent in some places and four per cent in others. The total number of OBC seats would have reduced by 10 to 12 per cent.
Maharashtra Minister for Food and Civil Supplies and Samata Parishad founder Chhagan Bhujbal, who is at the forefront for the restoration of OBC quota in local bodies, told The Free Press Journal, “The government will discuss with lawyers the future course of action and the nature of arguments during the next hearing. The issue will also be taken up at the next cabinet meeting chaired by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.”
The Supreme Court observed that the government had not followed the triple tests that included setting up “a dedicated Commission to conduct contemporaneous rigorous empirical inquiry into the nature and implications of the backwardness qua local bodies, within the state” to specify the proportion of reservation required to be provisioned local body-wise, in the light of the commission’s recommendations. It also stated that such reservation, in any case, could not exceed the aggregate of 50 per cent of the total seats reserved in favour of SCs, STs and OBCs taken together.
A senior MVA minister said that the government had already formed the State Commission for Backward Classes (MSCBC) for conducting a socio-economic and caste census in Maharashtra, covering the entire population of the state. However, the MSCBC could not embark on the census due to the coronavirus pandemic and also for lack of sufficient funds and staff. It has also sought Rs 450 crore from the state government, which is yet to be cleared.
He noted that the MSCBC would soon have to complete the census, especially as the Centre had refused to share the 2011 census data. The latter information would have enabled the MSCBC to prepare empirical data of the OBC population. He recalled that byelections for zilla parishads and panchayat samitis were held recently without OBC quota and the upcoming elections may also take place in its absence.