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Examining the 'Creamy Layer' Principle

Once the validity of the "creamy layer" principle is acknowledged in any one dimension of application, or as an axiomatically appealing principle of equality at an abstract level, it would be inconsistent to deny its validity in other spheres of application. It therefore becomes a matter of some importance to submit the appeal of this principle to critical scrutiny.


Examining the‘Creamy Layer’ Principle

Once the validity of the “creamy layer” principle is acknowledgedin any one dimension of application, or as an axiomaticallyappealing principle of equality at an abstract level, it would beinconsistent to deny its validity in other spheres of application. Ittherefore becomes a matter of some importance to submit theappeal of this principle to critical scrutiny.


n a recent verdict, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the 77th, 81st, 82nd and 85th constitutional amendments on reservation for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) in the matter of promotion in government employment. This verdict has generated afresh a debate on the merits of the so-called “creamy layer” criterion in determining eligibility to the benefits of affirmative action. Abstracting from the specificities of the judgment, a matter of general concern it provokes relates to the principle that in any scheme of group-based reservation, the creamy layer ought to be excluded from preferential treatment.

Indeed, this principle – which, for convenience, will here be called the “creamy layer” principle - has been held out by many forward caste persons as an argument against providing reservation in education to the creamy layer segments of the “backward castes”. Once the validity of the creamy layer principle is acknowledged in any one dimension of application, or as an axiomatically appealing principle of equality at an abstract level, it would be inconsistent to deny its validity in other spheres of application. It therefore becomes a matter of some importance to submit the appeal of this principle to critical scrutiny.

One means to this end is to work through a particularly simple illustrative example, and to examine the analytical implications it has for considerations of group equality. This is a method which Amartya Sen has called the “case-theoretic method”: it involves constructing counter-factual, though conceivable, situations, and testing our moral intuition against the outcomes dictated by this or that principle when applied to this or that situation. The idea is not to build a complex and nuanced moral or political theory on the basis of a simple example, but rather, at a preliminary level, to provide an anchor for certain ideas which, at the present moment, are not exactly distinguished for their clarity or freedom from ambiguity.

With this in mind, let us imagine that society can be partitioned, along caste lines, into a backward caste (which has been historically discriminated against and oppressed) and a forward caste; and, along economic lines, into the poor and the rich. We are interested in assessing what sort of mechanism of compensatory discrimination might assist the cause of justice in the allocation of scarce educational opportunities among competing contenders for them. That is, whom, and to what extent, is a system of preferential treatment toward those who are disadvantaged by caste and/or income-deficiency likely to assist?

One Judgment, One Assumption

To answer this question requires one to make some plausible judgments and assumptions. I shall make one judgment and one assumption. I shall judge that caste backwardness is a more crippling disability than is income insufficiency, and, in particular, that the “capability gap” between a rich backward caste person and a rich forward caste person is greater than that between a poor forward caste person and an economically better-placed person of his own caste. Further, I shall assume that poor cohorts of the backward caste group would, because of their social and educational disadvantage, typically not fare academically well enough to be greatly aided by the availability of compensating concessions in their behalf. Under these circumstances, the implementation of a “creamy layer” corrective is likely to exacerbate prevailing caste disparities in the access to education. The example furnished below is intended to illustrate this conclusion. It is important to stress that the example is just that – an example, whose role is to clarify a certain line of reasoning, and not serve as a precise and literal replication of reality.

Suppose, then, that four candidates appear for a competitive examination for admission to a professional college and that only two seats are available. Imagine that one of the candidates is a “poor backward caste” person (whom we shall refer to as PBC), one is a “rich backward caste” person (whom we shall refer to as RBC), one is a “poor forward caste” person (whom we shall refer to as PFC), and the fourth is a “rich forward caste” person (whom we shall refer to as RFC). Let it be the case that a candidate has to secure a mark of 80 per cent in order to qualify for admission. This, however, is only a necessary condition. Among those that qualify, only the two top-ranked candidates will be selected. In what follows, we consider a certain hypothetical distribution of marks among the four candidates, and alternative schemes of compensatory discrimination, together with the outcomes they lead to, in terms of the candidates selected.

Suppose the distribution of marks is as follows: 70 for PBC, 81 for RBC, 83 for PFC and 85 for RFC. This distribution simulates the commonly observed phenomenon that, other things equal, academic performance improves with each of economic and caste status. Suppose, further, that no mechanism of compensatory discrimination is in place (Case I). Then, clearly, the selected candidates will be PFC and RFC. Next, suppose that we have a scheme of extra marks allotted to a person suffering from the disadvantage of caste backwardness (Case II); specifically, assume that a backward caste person is given six extra marks. Then, the “effective” marks of PBC and RBC respectively will be 76 ( = 70 + 6) and 87 ( = 81 + 6), while the “effective” marks of PFC and RFC will remain at 83 and 85 respectively. The chosen candidates, in this situation, will be RBC and RFC.

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

Consider a third case (Case III), in which caste-based preferential treatment is given to a backward caste person (six extra marks), but only if s/he happens to be poor: this scheme upholds the creamy layer principle. Then, the effective marks of PBC, RBC, PFC and RFC will be, respectively, 76 ( = 70 + 6), 81 (no extra marks for RBC because he belongs to the creamy layer by virtue of being rich and is excluded from preferential treatment), 83, and 85. In this situation, the selected candidates will be PFC and RFC. Finally, consider a scheme (Case IV) in which an extra six marks are allotted for caste backwardness and an extra three marks for poverty: both caste and economic status are seen as grounds for preferential treatment. In this situation, the effective marks of PBC, RBC, PFC and RFC will be, respectively, 79 (six extra marks for caste backwardness and three extra marks for the condition of poverty), 87 (six extra marks for caste backwardness), 86 (three extra marks for poverty) and 85 (no extra marks at all), and the selected candidates will be RBC and PFC. These details are conveniently summarised in the table. (Notice that the table reflects the judgment and the assumption we started out with.)

Let us consider each of the schemes of compensatory discrimination in turn. Scheme I, which does not allow for any group-related preferential treatment whatever, is the sort of scheme that would be favoured by an undiluted belief in the virtues of meritocracy: notice that it is the two members of the forward caste who are selected under this scheme. No doubt there are large numbers of individuals – of predictable caste and class affiliations – who would approve of Scheme I. We shall, however, take the view that Scheme I does not belong in any reasonable discourse on social justice: it is a bit late in the day to deny, for instance, the historical and contemporary reality of the disadvantages imposed by the caste system.

An acknowledgement of this reality is compatible with a scheme of compensatory discrimination such as Scheme II, which endorses preferential treatment in the event of caste disadvantage. For the example we have considered, the candidates who are selected under this scheme are RBC and RFC. Given a certain perspective, this outcome is unfair to PFC: the poor, forward caste person is seen as having been forced to lose out unjustly to the rich, backward caste person. This perception plays an important role in upholding the creamy layer principle, which underlies Scheme III.

Notice that the distribution of effective marks under Scheme III is different from what it is under Scheme I: in particular, PBC’s effective marks are higher (at 76) in Scheme III than in Scheme I (at 70), and this fact can serve as a basis for upholding the “justice” of the scheme. For all practical purposes, however, neither of the backward caste candidates is helped by Scheme III: PBC’s “raw” marks are too low to be aided by the preferential treatment to which he is eligible, and RBC, by virtue of being rich enough to belong to the creamy layer, is not eligible for castebased preferential treatment at all. The outcome of Scheme III is that it is the two forward caste candidates that are selected. This outcome is identical to the one corresponding to Scheme I: consequentially, it makes no difference whether it is Scheme III that is implemented or a scheme that does not allow for any caste-related preferential treatment.

Combining Caste andEconomic Status

In judging the merit of any principle of social justice, there is a strong case for being guided (even if not exclusively) by consequentialist considerations. By this reckoning, the creamy layer principle underlying Scheme III puts up a pretty poor showing. If the grievance with the Scheme II outcome is that the poor, forward caste candidate has not been adequately compensated for his disadvantaged economic status, then that grievance is badly served by invoking the creamy layer principle: the solution does not reside in asserting that the social and educational disadvantage of a backward caste group is obliterated at some (sufficiently high) level of income. Assuming there is merit in the grievance just described, a more rational approach to the problem would consist in basing preferential treatment on grounds of both caste and economic status. This, precisely, is the view that underlies Scheme IV. Under this scheme, the outcome is that the selected candidates are RBC and PFC. Notice that, of the two rich candidates RBC and RFC, Scheme IV favours the candidate disadvantaged by caste; and of the two forward caste candidates PFC and RFC, Scheme IV favours the candidate disadvantaged by poverty. This, one would imagine, is as it should be: the outcome respects the “other things equal” clause in the arbitration of competing claims. The grievance with the Scheme II outcome, reviewed earlier, is rectified under Scheme IV: the poor, forward caste person is now selected. We are also now enabled to see that the sense of PFC having been forced to lose out to RBC under Scheme II is a misguided one: it is more meaningful to see PFC as having lost out to RFC, an aberration that is corrected under Scheme IV, which avoids also the aberration, under Scheme III, of having RBC lose out to RFC.

The outcome under Scheme III has the further effect of widening the gulf between the backward and the forward castes. In course of time, the need for preferential treatment to the backward castes would reassert itself with vehemence. When this need is sought to be addressed, a so-called creamy layer of the backward caste may be expected to manifest itself again. If this calls forth a proscription of preferential treatment to the rich among the backward caste, then one would have to fall back once more on a Scheme III mechanism of compensatory discrimination. One can look forward to a perpetual oscillation between Schemes II and III. The need for castebased preferential treatment will then be never-ending. And this would be a consequence of disregarding a dictum (here paraphrased) of Baba Sahib Ambedkar’s: that one has to have preferential treatment in order to annihilate preferential treatment.

It is at least a little ironical that the creamy layer principle is often invoked alongside an impatient demand for a timebound cessation of caste-based preferential treatment, when precisely this principle may be expected to grant preferential treatment an indefinite lease of life. And quite apart from this, one would imagine that an elementary level of social maturity, combined with a sense of proportion, would dictate vastly more urgent deadlines for a

Table: Selected Candidates under Alternative Schemes of Compensatory Discrimination

Scheme of ‘Effective’ ‘Effective’ ‘Effective’ ‘Effective’ Qualifying Selected Compensatory Marks of Poor Marks of Rich Marks of Poor Marks of Rich Mark Candidates Discrimination Backward Backward Forward Forward

Caste (PBC) Caste (RBC) Caste (PFC) Caste (RFC) Candidate Candidate Candidate Candidate

I 70 81 83 85 80 PFC, RFC II 76 87 83 85 80 RBC, RFC III 76 81 83 85 80 PFC, RFC IV 79 87 86 85 80 RBC, PFC

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

cessation of caste atrocities than for a cessation of the phenomenon of reservation.

There is a real and a professed rationale for the creamy layer principle, the former of which has been reviewed above (and found seriously wanting). A professed rationale often held out is based on a concern for a fairer distribution within the backward caste group. This rationale, when it is not insincere, is certainly paternalistic and condescending. First, the issue of group-related preferential treatment is, by its very nature, an issue of social justice addressed to the question of inter-group equality, not intra-group equality. As such, the concern should essentially be with group averages of relevant indicators of well-being, not with questions of how the total is distributed within any group. For, no matter how distributed, if the average for a currently disadvantaged group rises sufficiently over time, then that should be a signal for moving the group out of the ambit of preferential treatment. (Indeed, for the average to rise over time, any presently observed “layer” would have to thicken with time.)

Notice that the discourse is about including groups within, or excluding groups from, the scope of preferential treatment, and not about including or excluding individuals within particular groups. On the other hand, if it is fair to import considerations of within-group inequality into the discourse, then there is a strong case for being even-handed in the matter – indeed, the more so because it is well known that the intra-group distribution of resources is more unequal among the forward than the backward castes. The forward caste concern for inequality within the backward caste group is a fit candidate for the advice: “Physician, heal thyself”. (A less classically restrained injunction would be the American colloquialism: “Mind yer bizness”.)

A large part of the appeal of the creamy layer principle resides in the principle’s nomenclature. The image of overweight, indolent, dishonest, and undeserving elements among the backward castes which the creamy layer appellation conjures up, is one which inhibits the need for a more detailed scrutiny of the principle as an acceptable tenet of social justice. Such a slightly more careful examination suggests that the principle is a misguided one from both logical and sociological perspectives.



[The organisation where the author works is in noway implicated in the views expressed in this article.]

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

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