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Opportunity lost | The Indian Express

Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry dared the reader to look reality in the eye. It also offered a redemptive vision. An equal opportunities commission solely for religious minorities misses the point. Now that the Lok Sabha election is only months away, the UPA is working hard to fulfil an old promise. The minority affairs ministry has moved a cabinet note to put in place an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), but one that confines itself to the limited concerns of religious minorities. The EOC was indeed born out of a recommendation by the Sachar committee, which mapped the realities of Muslim social and economic deprivation and suggested that a commission be formed to combat discrimination against all disadvantaged groups, to make sure that education, employment, housing and other domains reflected the diversity of our population. The EOC, as conceived by the Sachar committee, was intended as a body to uphold social equality and mobility, to fold together the concerns of anti-discrimination and diversity in a single mechanism, as is the practice in other countries like the US, South Africa, Canada and the EU. It was meant to counter institutional bias, whether on the basis of age, gender, caste, ethnicity, linguistic identity or sexual orientation. That plan was undercut by ministerial turf wars, with the minority affairs ministry finally taking it over. Then, given that India already has several group-specific commissions for women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, minorities etc, it was feared the EOC would displace these bodies, or overlap with their functions. Of course, this could have been resolved in one of several ways. India could have replicated the UK’s experience in 2007, when existing commissions were merged into the EOC — a route that would call for a constitutional amendment. Or it could have allowed the EOC to work alongside the commissions, with a wider mandate, and work out a system of institutional collaboration. Or existing commissions could have been allowed to fade away after an allotted period, and their functions could be absorbed by the new EOC. But instead of demarcating their duties and making sure the EOC remained true to its spirit, a group of ministers decided, in 2010, to limit its ambit to religious minorities. Perhaps it was perceived as politically useful to keep aggrieved constituencies separate, and to foreground identity issues, than to serve them all with a competent and focused equality commission. Given that a minorities commission already exists, this new body seems superfluous. The EOC as conceived by the UPA betrays the felt need for an equal opportunities legislation, one that will provide legal deterrence against discrimination for every citizen. It also gives the opposition a handy tool to oppose the very concept, and deny the real systemic injustice experienced by these groups.
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