‘Means’ test and ‘creamy layer’

‘Means test’ in this discussion signifies imposition of an income limit, for the purpose of excluding persons (from the backward class) whose income is above the said limit. This submission is very often referred to as “the creamy layer” argument.

The very concept of a class denotes a number of persons having certain common traits which distinguish them from the others. In a backward class under Clause (4) of Article 16, if the connecting link is the social backwardness, it should broadly be the same in a given class. If some of the members are far too advanced socially (which in the context, necessarily means economically and, may also mean educationally) the connecting thread between them and the remaining class snaps. They would be misfits in the class. After excluding them alone, would the class be a compact class.

In fact, such exclusion benefits the truly backward. Difficulty, however, really lies in drawing the line – how and where to draw the line? For, while drawing the line, it should be ensured that it does not result in taking away with one hand what is given by the other. The basis of exclusion should not merely be economic, unless, of course, the economic advancement is so high that it necessarily means social advancement.

Let us illustrate the point. A member of backward class, say a member of carpenter caste, goes to Middle East and works there as a carpenter. If you take his annual income in rupees, it would be fairly high from the Indian standard. Is he to be excluded from the Backward Class? Are his children in India to be deprived of the benefit of Article 16(4)? Situation may, however, be different, if he rises so high economically as to become – say a factory owner himself. In such a situation, his social status also rises. He himself would be in a position to provide employment to others. In such a case, his income is merely a measure of his social status. Even otherwise there are several practical difficulties too in imposing an income ceiling.

For example, annual income of Rs. 36,000 may not count for much in a city like Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta whereas it may be a handsome income in rural India anywhere. The line to be drawn must be a realistic one. Another question would be, should such a line be uniform for the entire country or a given State or should it differ from rural to urban areas and so on. Further, income from agriculture may be difficult to assess and, therefore, in the case of agriculturists, the line may have to be drawn with reference to the extent of holding. While the income of a person can be taken as a measure of his social advancement, the limit to be prescribed should not be such as to result in taking away with one hand what is given with the other.

The income limit must be such as to mean and signify social advancement. At the same time, it must be recognised that there are certain positions, the occupants of which can be treated as socially advanced without any further enquiry. For example, if a member of a designated backward class becomes a member of I.A.S. or I.P.S. or any other All India Service, his status in society (social status) rises; he is no longer socially disadvantaged. His children get full opportunity to realise their potential. They are in no way handicapped in the race of life. His salary is also such that he is above want. It is but logical that in such a situation, his children are not given the benefit of reservation.

For by giving them the benefit of reservation, other disadvantaged members of that backward class may be deprived of that benefit. It is then argued for the Respondents that ‘one swallow doesn’t make the summer’, and that merely because a few members of a caste or class become socially advanced, the class/caste as such does not cease to be backward. It is pointed out that Clause (4) or Article 16 aims at group backwardness and not individual backwardness.

While we agree that Clause (4) aims at group backwardness, we feel that exclusion of such socially advanced members will make the ‘class’ a truly backward class and would more appropriately serve the purpose and object of Clause (4). (This discussion is confined to Other Backward Classes only and has no relevance in the case of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes).

Keeping in mind all these considerations, we direct the Government of India to specify the basis of exclusion – whether on the basis of income, extent of holding or otherwise – of ‘creamy layer’.


An edited excerpt from Indira Sawhney Case