Oppn parties fret as Patnaik govt launches OBC survey

Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government’s decision to launch a survey to assess the socio-economic status of OBCs in the state, has irked the opposition parties who have alleged that the exercise is being undertaken with an eye on 2024 General Elections, writes Aravind Mohapatra

Politics in Odisha has heated up with the Naveen Patnaik government launching a survey to assess the socio-economic status of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in the state. Odisha is the second state in the country after Bihar to undertake this survey but opposition parties are already seeing red. Opposition parties like BJP and Congress have questioned the timing and intention of the government behind the survey. They have accused the government of trying to hoodwink the OBCs to win their support in the 2024 elections. The government, however, insists that the survey was necessary to obtain the exact data on the OBCs so that steps can be taken to ensure their welfare.

“The timing of the survey makes the exercise suspect. They are not bothered about the welfare of OBCs. They never were.  Now that the general elections are only a year away, they have launched this exercise as they want to create an impression that they actually care for this class.  They are playing the caste card as they are desperate to win the elections but they will not succeed,” said a senior Congress leader.

Some other opposition leaders like former union minister Srikant Jena have demanded that the government should first grant the OBCs their constitutional rights. As long as that does not happen, people won’t have faith in the government’s exercise.

The survey that began on May 1 will conclude on May 27. Being conducted by the Odisha State Commission for Backward Classes in both online and offline modes, it will cover OBCs residing in 314 blocks and 114 urban local body (ULB) areas of the state. It will cover a number of backwardness indicators including educational qualification, occupation of the person, livelihood sources, access to hospitals and schools and the kind of houses the persons live in.

The Commission has opened centres for submission of filled up survey forms in all Anganwadi Kendras and even public distribution system (PDS) outlets. The families under survey would be required to provide details of their ration cards and Aadhar cards or voter I cards. The survey will cover 210 OBC communities in the state.

What makes the survey politically important is the fact that OBCs account for 54 percent of Odisha’s population and constitute a huge vote- bank. Though unlike UP and Bihar, politics in Odisha has never been dominated by the caste factor there is no denying the political clout of the OBCs. Political parties have been trying to cultivate them for several decades.

Minister for SC & ST, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare Jagannath Saraka dismisses the allegations of the opposition as politically motivated. “The opposition may say anything but there is no politics in this. This is an attempt to assess the socio-economic status of the OBCs,” he asserted.

The fact is that no formal census including the caste details of the population has been carried out in the state since 1931. The state, thus, lacks reliable data on OBCs who currently enjoy only 11.25 percent reservation in government jobs. This, however, is considered completely disproportionate to their population in the state. The government has not been able to raise this quota because of a cap of 50 percent on reservations mandated by courts.

However, the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal(BJD) has been demanding removal of the 50 percent cap on reservation for quite some time. In 2021, the party not only reiterated this demand but also demanded a caste-based census. The ruling party leaders say they want the cap to be removed so that the government can provide 27 percent reservation to OBCs, who constitute the largest chunk of the state’s population. “Our demand for removal of the cap on reservations stands. At the same time, now we have launched a survey to collect authentic data on OBCs. There is no politics in this. This concerns the welfare of the OBCs. We have a duty towards them,” said a senior BJD leader.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had himself approached the Centre in the past demanding a socio-economic caste survey to be conducted simultaneously with the proposed general census in 2021. When the Centre did not concede the demand, the state government decided to conduct its own survey and the state assembly passed a unanimous resolution to amend the Odisha State Commission for Backward Classes Act 1993 to enable the government to undertake a survey on social and educational conditions of OBCs.

However, opposition leaders are not convinced about the real intentions of the government behind carrying out this survey since it is being undertaken at a time when major parties in the state are busy preparing for 2024 elections. The opposition leaders feel that the entire exercise is being undertaken with an eye on elections. “If they are sincere they should conduct a door to door survey and collect authentic data,” said State BJP OBC Morcha president Surath Biswal, who described the survey as a farce.

However, members of the OBC community are happy and have hailed the government move. “Better late than never. They are at least doing it now. We now hope to get our long overdue benefits,” said Seemantini Jena, a member of the OBC community, from Bhubaneswar.