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NEW DELHI: India’s cabinet on Monday backed proposals to reserve 10 percent of government jobs for Indians outside the higher income brackets, a plan the main opposition party suggested was an attempt by the government to lure back voters as an election nears.
The initiative is expected to mainly benefit the upper echelons of India’s centuries-old Hindu caste system, which has traditionally been a core voter base for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced plans Monday to set aside a quota of government jobs for poorer members of India’s upper caste, months before what looks set to be a challenging re-election bid.
India already “reserves” jobs for impoverished and disadvantaged lower castes for civil service jobs and college places, but this has caused resentment among other communities, who say it is unfair and freezes them out.
In 2017, the average income in India was $1,939.60, according to the World Bank.
Modi’s plans would help households with an annual income of less than $11,000, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. The change would require a change to the constitution, which caps the number of reserved jobs and college places at 50%.
The plans were approved by Modi’s cabinet on Monday. They require approval from both houses of parliament.
More broadly, Modi has been criticized for failing to deliver jobs for young people and better conditions for farmers.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014, but late last year it suffered painful defeats in three key state elections to the opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress spokesman, said on Twitter that the latest move was an “election gimmick” and “proof positive” of Modi’s “fear” of losing power in the vote, which is due to take place by May.
Caste-based quotas are meant to provide equal opportunities for India’s poorest and most marginalized groups. Nearly one in four Indians still lives on less than $1.25 a day.
Demands for quotas for highly sought-after government jobs and university places have escalated in recent years as unemployment has risen and conditions in rural areas have worsened.
In 2016 at least 10 people were killed when thousands of Patidars, a relatively well-off caste of farmers and traders, took to the streets in the western state of Gujarat to demand they be included in those quotas.
Similar protests by upper caste groups have been witnessed in other states including Maharashtra and Haryana.
Hindus, who account for about four-fifths of India’s 1.3 billion people, were traditionally grouped into thousands of castes, whose membership is determined by birth.
The lower castes have faced various forms of discrimination including segregation and social boycotts.
There have been attempts to reduce caste-related inequality, and the country has had many lower caste leaders, including current president Ram Nath Kovind.
But introducing quotas for lower castes has always been a contentious issue and has led to violent protests, though India’s income levels and expenditure patterns remain largely linked to caste.
The government is expected to submit the quota bill to the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. Modi’s BJP has a majority there, but not in the upper house.