A crucial bill to provide constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes was passed unanimously by the Lok Sabha on Thursday with over two-third majority.
The House passed the Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill 2017, superseding the amendments by the Rajya Sabha, with all 406 present voting in favour after an almost five-hour debate in which 32 members participated.
The passage of this major legislation comes ahead of the general election due early next year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present during the voting, congratulated Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot for successfully piloting the bill.
During the debate on the Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill 2017, several members demanded a census to ascertain the population of other backward classes while some others pressed for making public the socio-economic survey of 2014.
Over two-thirds majority voted in favour of the bill, which is a necessity for amending the Constitution. The amendments moved by Biju Janata Dal's Bhratruhari Mahtab were however rejected by 302 voting against it and 84 in favour.
Replying to the debate, Gehlot said the government was committed to the upliftment of the downtrodden and backward classes of the society.
He said the Union Cabinet had on Wednesday decided to amend the SC/ST Act to further strengthen the law to protect their rights.
Citing various other steps taken by the government in this regard, he said a committee under Justice G Rohini has been set up to examine sub-categorisation of other backward classes.
He said that while framing the rules, the government will ensure that one of the members of the commission is a women.
Gehlot said that states will have their own list of OBCs and can incorporate any caste into the OBC list.
However, he added that they will have to approach the union government for inclusion in the central list.
The Lok Sabha had on April 10 last year passed the legislation and sent it to the Rajya Sabha.
On July 31 last year, the Upper House passed the bill after incorporating certain amendments moved by the Opposition and returned it to the Lok Sabha for ratification of the amendments.
The bill provides for granting of constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes on par with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
It states that the president may specify the socially and educationally backward classes in the various states and union territories. He may do this in consultation with the governor of the concerned state.
The duties of the NCBC include investigating and monitoring how safeguards provided to the backward classes under the Constitution and other laws are being implemented and probe specific complaints regarding violation of rights.
Under this measure, the NCBC will have the powers of a civil court while probing any complaint.
Participating in the debate, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda said the House needed to explore the possibility of whether the government can provide reservation exceeding the ceiling of 50 per cent to all backward
communities including SCs, STs and OBCs.
Taking a dig at the Congress, Lok Janshakti Party MP Ram Vilas Pawan questioned the silence of Rahul Gandhi on the dilution in the provisions of SC/ST Atrocities Act, which was countered by the opposition members.
Trinamool Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee supported the measure and said the chairman and the vice chairman of the National Commission for Backward Classes should be apppoinred from OBC category.
"The commission should function in true spirit for betterment of OBCs who deserve help and assistance," he said, adding that the number of scholarships given to OBC students had gone down in the recent times and should be increased.
Bhartruhari Mahtab of the BJD said initially when the bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, the government with its "brute majority" trampled all the amendments moved by the opposition.
But in the Rajya Sabha, the government had to accept the amendments and hence the Bill has come up for discussion again in the Lok Sabha.
He said the government has accepted two of the amendments moved by him, including appointing one woman member in the NCBC and giving power to state governments to frame policies for betterment of the OBCs.
Revolutionary Socialist Party MP N K Premchandran said this was the first time in the legislative history that the Lok Sabha is amending an amended bill passed by the Rajya Sabha.
Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant asked the Centre to intervene in the Maratha quota stir in Maharashtra, saying the state government had not acted on its promise.
Telugu Desam Party MP Ram Mohan Naidu Kinjarapu said even after 70 years of independence, "we still don't have idea of how much is OBC population in the country."
He also demanded that caste based census should be done right now.
"Unless you can fill 27 per cent posts of OBCs in jobs, creamy layer among the OBCs should not be excluded from taking benefit of reservation," the TDP MP said while asking the government to establish a separate ministry for OBC welfare.
BJP MP Nityanand Rai lamented that while 27 per cent seats in government jobs was reserved for OBCs, "we are still not able to fill more than 11 per cent posts reserved for OBCs."
YSR Congress MP K Geeta said those belonging to creamy layers in OBC community were a hurdle to their own community.
BJP's Prahlad Singh Patel wondered when we are not able to fill 27 per cent post reserved for OBCs, "why are we talking about creamy layer."
Samajwadi Party MP Dharmendra Yadav questioned the number of people from the OBC communities appointed as chief ministers and governors by the BJP. He also raised questions about the low number of bureaucrats from SC/ST communities in higher ranks of bureucracy.
Nationalist Congress Party MP Madhukar Kukde demanded that the creamy layer cap for OBC reservation should be done away with. He said the Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra and Jats in north India should be given reservation without affecting the existing system.
RJD's Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav said no one should be added to the existing list of 27 per cent OBC quota, while Prem Singh Chandumajra (Shiromani Akali Dal) termed the legislation as historic.
Anupriya Patel (Apna Dal), Minister for State in the Health and Famil Welfare Ministry, slammed the opposition for stalling the bill in the Rajya Sabha, while Dushyant Chautala (INLD) welcomed the legislation, but added that the government has no data on castes.