Just a day after it was cleared by the Union Cabinet, the Lok Sabha Tuesday passed The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill 2019, described as "historic" by the government, to provide 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions to the economically weaker sections in the general category.
The Bill, which was introduced by Union Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot, was passed on the last day of the winter session of the Lower House with 323 votes in favour and just three against.
The Bill will be tabled Wednesday in the Rajya Sabha, where the session has been extended by a day. Sources told The Indian Express that the government is in talks with Opposition members to allow the passage of the Bill in the Upper House.
In the Lok Sabha, the government argued that the Bill addresses the need to bring the economically weaker to the mainstream but the Opposition alleged that it is being pushed through with an eye on the elections this year.
However, almost all parties backed the Bill that aims to amend Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution, which presently allow special provisions only for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and for socially or educationally backward classes (Other Backward Classes or OBCs).
Barring AIMIM's Asaduddin Owaisi and IUML's E T Mohammed Basheer, who spoke against the Bill - P K Kunhalikutty is the other IUML MP in the House - all the other members present extended their support.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi were present in the House during the passage of the Bill.
Modi later posted on his Twitter account that the passage of the Bill "is a landmark moment in our nation's history". "It sets into motion the process to achieve an effective measure that ensures justice for all sections of society," he wrote.
In the Lok Sabha, nearly 30 members spoke on the Bill, with Gehlot describing the government's move as a "historic decision". He argued that there was a need to bring the economically weaker to the mainstream and expressed confidence that the Bill would clear judicial scrutiny if challenged in courts.
Some members, however, pointed out that there is no provision in the Constitution for quotas based on economic criteria and that the Supreme Court has put a ceiling of 50 per cent on reservations.
Responding to the concerns, Gehlot said the government's intent should not be doubted as it was bringing a Constitutional amendment to make the required change, which is also the reason why "the Supreme Court will accept it, if someone goes there".
Asking the Opposition to "welcome it", he said the government's move should not be considered hasty since the idea has been under discussion for decades.
Replying to allegations that the Bill was brought in at the end of this government's tenure, Gehlot said, "We brought it late, but we brought it with good policy and good intent."
The Union Minister said the economically weaker section has largely been excluded from higher educational institutions and public employment on account of its financial incapacity to compete with those who are more privileged.
The main Opposition Congress party pointed out that it had earlier sought reservation on similar lines, but alleged that the government's "way of pushing the Bill" is undemocratic.
"This is butchering Indian democracy. You (Speaker) are the custodian of this House. You should not allow this. We are not opposing the Bill, but opposed to the way the government is doing it. It should be sent to a joint parliamentary committee, which can study it in a month," Congress MP K V Thomas said.
Intervening in the debate, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took a swipe at the Congress and said that "all parties have done this jumla in their manifesto". Jaitley also argued that the Bill is not in violation of the Constitution.
Countering the argument that earlier attempts to exceed the quota cap of 50 per cent had been struck down by the Supreme Court, Jaitley said: "The limit was for caste-based reservation. The Supreme Court has clarified at least three times… the rule of 50 per cent applied only for caste-based reservation."
On the question of timing, Jaitley said the time has come to ensure equal justice for all. He asked the Congress to extend its support to the Bill "wholeheartedly without any grudge" while asking Left MPs not to be "the first Communist party in the world to oppose benefits for the poor".
"I am reminding the Congress, you must walk the talk. It's a test for the Congress, whether it will go beyond its manifesto," Jaitley said.
AIMIM's Owaisi described the move as a "fraud" on the Constitution as it is being pushed without any "empirical" data to back the creation of a new economically weaker section.
On Monday, the Union Cabinet approved the proposal for the introduction of the Bill under which Articles 15 (6) and 16 (6) have been added to existing provisions. A Constitutional amendment requires special majority of two-third of members present for voting in each House, and not less than half the strength in both.
On the question of ratification by at least half of the state legislatures, as pointed out by K V Thomas, Jaitley argued that this may not be needed and referred to a previous amendment that provides for reservation in promotions.
According to the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill, it "provides for reservation for the economically weaker sections of society in higher educational institutions, including private institutions whether aided or unaided by the state other than the minority educational institutions".
This, it stated, will "ensure that economically weaker sections of citizens… get a fair chance of receiving higher education and participation in employment in the services of the state".
A person whose family has a gross annual income below Rs 8 lakh will be identified as a beneficiary. Under the Bill, the family includes "the person who seeks the benefit of reservation, his/ her parents and siblings below the age of 18 years as also his/ her spouse and children below the age of 18 years". Also, income will cover all sources such as salary, agriculture, business, profession, etc.
However, families owning agricultural land above five acre, a house covering more than 1000 square feet, or a 100-yard plot or above in a notified municipal area, or a plot of 200 yards or above in a non-notified municipal area cannot avail the benefit of this reservation.
Outside the House, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury alleged that the Bill was an "electoral ploy" by the government. "This is an effort by the Modi government to try and now combine caste passions along with communal polarisation in order to derive electoral benefits," Yechury said.