Fixing a flawed quota systemThe solution to the loopholes is not discontinuation but evidence-based revision.
Despite the constitutional provisions of the Civil Service Act that aim to make Nepal’s public sector more inclusive, the quota system, introduced by the Public Service Commission, has failed to represent marginalised communities. The failure stems from formal structural inequities as well as informal exclusionary practices such as favouritism, corruption and nepotism. The over-representation of the Khas-Arya community and the under-representation of women and other disadvantaged groups remain major challenges to an inclusive bureaucracy. The failure of the quota system has led many to call for its discontinuation. Notwithstanding its apparent flaws, though, is its discontinuation a viable solution to the problem of underrepresentation?
The National Inclusion Commission, a constitutional commission aimed at safeguarding the rights of women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, marginalised groups, disabled people, economically poor, farmers and people from backward regions, published an assessment report titled Impact of Reservation on Existing Government Services in August this year. Of the several reasons the report says reflect the flaw of the reservation system, two stand out. First, it highlights that reservation undermines the concept of equality among all people on the lines of gender and ethnicity/caste, and therefore might not be aligned with Nepal’s constitutional right to equality for all. Second, the reserved seats and services have been "hijacked" by the creamy layer of each of the cluster groups. The report underlines that the reservation system has encouraged incompetence and tokenism in Nepal’s bureaucracy, leading to an illusion of inclusion.
At first glance, the points raised by this report seem agreeable. That Nepal's reservation policies need amendments and oversight is generally accepted. However, it is premature to argue for its discontinuation based on the claim that reservations in existing government services are merely creating an illusion of inclusion. It is equally important to acknowledge and credit the reservation system for the major strides Nepal's bureaucracy has taken at least towards gender parity, which denotes equal and active participation of women at all levels.
The effectiveness of the quotas towards gender parity is reflected by an increase in the total share of women civil servants over the past 15 years, which has increased steadily from 8 percent in 2003 to 15 percent in 2010; and from 18 percent in 2015 to 23 percent in 2018. From 2003 to 2016, the number of women civil servants increased from 1 to 7 percent at secretary or joint-secretary level; 4 to 5 percent at under-secretary level; and 6 to 12 percent at section officer level. The increase, especially among section officers, shows the positive impact of reservation when it comes to women’s representation at the entry points to Nepal’s decision-making positions. As such, equating the commission’s emphasis on revising the currently flawed reservation system to deeming it a complete failure would be a fallacy.
The flip side of the narrative is the inability of the reservation system to promote proportional representation. The fact remains that less than a quarter of the civil servants are women. Disproportionate ethnic representation is reflected by the fact that Khas-Arya women occupy about 76 percent of total seats reserved for women at all levels of the civil service. In the higher decision-making positions, 88 percent women secretaries and joint secretaries (seven out of eight), 90 percent under-secretaries (28 out of 31), and 80 percent women section officers (2029 out of 2,459) are Khas-Arya. Likewise, the fact that Nepal’s public service is not proportionately representative is also reflected by the drastic disproportionate ethnic composition of the service. On the one hand, there is severe under-representation of certain disadvantaged identities and minority groups. For example, only 0.6 percent Muslim and 2.5 percent Dalit population are represented in the civil service, when the actual population of Nepal comprises 4.4 percent Muslim and 12.6 percent Dalit.
And on the other hand, there is a drastic over-representation of certain privileged ethnicities. For instance, Khas-Arya hold 88 percent of positions at undersecretary level and above, even though they comprise only 31.2 percent of the total population. There is a significantly disproportionate representation even within Khas-Arya, whereby the Khas (including Chettri, Thakuri and Sanyasi that make up 19 percent of the total population) comprise 16 percent of the special and gazetted class positions while Arya (Hill Brahmin) hold a massive 72 percent of the seats, even though their total population is 12.2 percent, which is even less than that of Dalit.
There certainly are loopholes in the current reservation system, but the solution to these loopholes is not its discontinuation but an evidence-based revision. To do so, the revision needs to address the issues of inclusion through an intersectional approach. Intersectionality is a framework used to discuss the interconnectedness of intersecting structural identities of race, class, ethnicity, caste, religion, gender, sexuality and the intertwined layers of discrimination or disadvantage through the interlocking system of power and oppression.
No category in the reservation system is homogenous. Intersectionality allows for reflection on the inequities within each category of the quota system and highlights the need to recognise intersectional complexities to revise and form more nuanced categories based on actual ground-realities. For instance, women are not a homogenous category, and treating them as one entity is an inherent systemic flaw. Likewise, treating other complex structural identities like caste or ethnicity as a homogenous identity is also problematic.
The problematic assumption of homogeneity manifests through the flawed quota system that has allowed certain ethnic clusters to reap the benefit of the reserved seats. For instance, Rajput, Kayastha, Yadav and Brahmin-Tarai from the Madheshi cluster, and Newar from the Adivasi-Janajati clusters are currently over-represented. This trend indicates the complexity within each cluster that must be better understood so that quotas given to such large and often diverse clusters are addressed equitably. Furthermore, other representation issues such as double or even triple-marginalisation, for instance Madheshi Dalit, Muslim women, or minorities with disabilities from rural settings, must be addressed to strengthen the existing reservation policy.
In a diverse, fundamentally pluralistic but unequal society like Nepal, reservation can serve as a powerful tool for redistribution of power and access. Reservation is a positive first step towards representation; but typically, it is not designed to be continued eternally. The ability of an institution to successfully exit the reservation system is an indication of its preparedness to be meaningfully representative. In this regard, Nepal should strive to do away with reservations eventually. However, the country is not ready to even consider debates on discontinuation as yet. It would be of grave concern to misunderstand the National Inclusion Commission’s eagerness to exit the reservation system as Nepal’s preparedness to do so. At the same time, it also cannot afford to continue the flawed quota system without a serious, culturally sensitive and nuanced revision. An intersectional revision of the existing provision is what is crucial to make quotas more effective in ensuring systemic representation and inclusion in Nepal.