The Equal Opportunities Commission Bill, which will be tabled in the upcoming budget session, is the attenuated outcome of one of the UPA's big promises. Instead of heralding a new approach to social equality and mobility, as initially conceived, it will confine itself to countering discrimination against religious minorities. Though triggered in response to the Sachar committee's recommendations addressing the deprivations of Muslims, it was imagined as a more expansive plan — one that would consider disadvantage on the basis of religion, caste, gender and other axes. This was meant to take the debate beyond reservations, bringing questions of diversity and anti-discrimination into a single approach, as is the practice in countries including the US, South Africa, Canada, and also in the EU. The commission, ideally, should counter institutional bias, whether on the basis of age, gender, caste, ethnicity, linguistic identity or sexual orientation.
That plan foundered, apparently, because of the apprehension of turf battles. Which ministry would pilot the bill, and then, how would this proposed body affect the existing identity-based commissions on minorities, on women, on SC-STs? These should not have been unmanageable hurdles. For instance, as the UK experience of 2007 illustrated, existing commissions could have been merged into the EOC, either in one go, or gradually. If this was too much trouble, as it requires constitutional amendment, there could have been an institutional demarcation of duties between the commissions. However, in 2010, a group of ministers settled the issue — the Equal Opportunities Commission would only deal with equal opportunities for religious minorities. Given that keeping aggrieved constituencies separate and identity-based is politically useful, or can demonstrate government benevolence in a way that a single, competent equality commission would not, this turn of events was perhaps only to be expected. The private sector has also been kept out of the redrafted equal opportunities bill, though it plans to incentivise diversity in private employment. Of course, discrimination against minorities is not just a matter of employment — it pervades areas like housing, for instance. The bill leaves these aspects well alone.
The bill's reduced ambit is a cop-out. It may still be a worthwhile way of checking the bias faced by religious minorities, but it is far from being a genuine equal opportunities legislation.