In an absurd assertion, the Maharashtra government has told the Supreme Court that the 50% ceiling on reservations fixed nearly 30 years ago in the Indra Sawhney case requires reconsideration as 70-80% of the population today belongs to backward classes. The argument may have been designed to push the 12% Maratha quota in state government jobs, but it was poor advertisement for the reservation system itself. Quotas were supposed to be a temporary tool to empower the most downtrodden sections of society. Today, however, reservations have become a casteist project where jobs and education are carved out along caste lines irrespective of the actual status of beneficiaries.

To demand population proportionate reservations – and thereby breach the 50% limit set by the apex court – is to hark back to an old India where communities were ghettoised and wealth and opportunities distributed according to caste. In that sense, unbridled expansion of reservations militates against the very idea of modern India where all communities should have access to the same opportunities, and merit should play a role in selection. Besides, had reservations truly worked, there would be no need to expand them – the need rather would be to taper them down over time to preserve the right to equality.

True, many states today have granted reservations in excess of the 50% ceiling. But that’s because successive governments have failed to generate jobs for youth, which in turn has fuelled the demand for caste quotas. As a result, we are witnessing a bizarre race to the bottom where every caste group wants its guaranteed share of jobs and education. To reverse this downward slide, the Modi government should use its immense political popularity to challenge quota expansions and instead taper it down from the 50% cap. Being ‘Atmanirbhar’ also means boosting economic opportunities for all, rather than relying on quota crutches.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.