May 04, 2006

The Quagmire of Caste Reservations

SAAG Paper 1787, 04.05.06

On April 28th, human resources development minister Arjun Singh apologised to the students who were protesting outside his office in New Delhi, and were manhandled by the security officers there. However, he refused to offer any assurance that he would seriously reconsider his proposal which he has submitted to the union cabinet of reserving 27% of seats in premier educational institutions across India for the caste sub–groups labelled as ‘other backward castes’.

Mr Singh has been under pressure off late, with students protesting across the country, intellectuals slamming his proposal as compartmentalisation of India, and the Election Commission accusing him of violating the “model code” by announcing such populist measures right before assembly elections were due in five states across India. But with the OBCs comprising of 52% of India’s electorate, none of the main political parties can vociferously oppose the scheme.

The concept of caste–baste reservations for government jobs and places in educational institutions have been around ever since India gained independence in 1947. The Mandal Commission– whose report forms the basis of the current proposal– identified 3,743 castes and sub–castes as OBC in its report in 1980. Needless to say, there is an argument that such crude categorisation is both unjust and arbitrary. But vote–bank politics has always prevented a serious questioning of the entire push towards reservations.

Aside from the 27% proposed reservation for the OBCs, there is already a 22.5% reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (SC/ST) groups in these educational institutions. Mr Singh’s proposal would raise the reservation percentage for SC/ST/OBCs to 49.5%. This applies to all premier institutions in India, including the Indian Institute of Technologies, Indian Institute of Managements and the 20 central universities.

Mr Singh wants to go further. Last December he tabled the 104th amendment to the constitution to ensure that reservations were also extended to private unaided educational institutions. Job quotas in the private sector– it is often said– is only a matter of time.

Predictably, the reaction of the industry has been hostile. Azim Premji– CEO of Wipro– recently spoke publicly against the proposal. He is one among many entrepreneurs who have expressed their dissatisfaction over the proposals. However, industrial bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) are already preparing themselves for the consequences. A “caste headcount” has been launched among the national workforce of these companies in order to gauge how the various castes are represented.

The theoretical arguments around this issue are complex, and academic debates surrounding the American system of affirmative action and reverse discrimination have been around since the 1970s. Much of that debate applies to the situation currently prevalent in India.

First, the major argument in favour of the reservations is that of historic injustice being dished out to the subaltern classes. However, the notion of inter–generational guilt is somewhat disturbing to our intuitions. Why should someone suffer today because his ancestors might have wronged another individual?

Second, it is also argued that reservations ensure a route to upward social mobility for the downtrodden and it gives them self–respect and dignity as citizens. However, it is extremely doubtful how far the dignity of the individual is being preserved by leapfrogging him into a position for which a better qualified candidate already exists. It helps breed a mentality that people from backward castes can only get a job with the help of quotas, and it is humiliating to well–qualified candidates from such communities. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently rapped the states for not collecting data on individuals from SC/ST/OBC background who secure jobs and educational seats through the ‘general’ category and not their respective caste category.

Third, educational institutions such as the IITs and IIMs have been at the forefront of the changing face of India under globalisation. They produce much of the skilled workforce for top Indian and multinational corporations. Merit– rather than caste/religious background– should be the sole criteria of selection in such institutions, so as not to promote mediocrity.

Fourth, it is argued that we must look at the ‘genesis of merit’ rather than take it at face value. The argument is that the backward castes never got adequate access to public services such as education, health, etc. to develop their intellect and compete in a truly meritocratic society. This appears intuitively attractive, but it leaves a big question unanswered.

After all, there are poor people in India who are from the ‘general’ caste category. On the contrary, there are well–off people from the backward castes. These might be the exception to the norm, but their existence cannot be denied. By implementing caste–based reservations, all we achieve is to discriminate against the poor–but–upper caste candidate and benefit the “creamy layer” amongst the rich–but–lower caste candidate.

It has been suggested that reservations should be made on the economic class of the candidate– a criteria that cuts across caste boundaries when making a decision. However, even this system is not adequate. Given India’s high rate of corruption and poor administrative setup, ‘faking poverty’ could indeed be rife. In any case, this also compromises meritocracy.

The solution that I propose is two–tier. First, we must identify the crux of the problem– continuing caste discrimination. The government should focus on implementing the laws for equal opportunity and access to public services in the remote villages in India’s heartlands. Second, the selection criteria for institutions must be based on a subjective criterion which takes into account economic condition of the applicant’s family, his merit and the implications of his/her particular caste background, etc.

Caste, therefore, must be one of the factors under consideration, and only in so far as it actually did have an impact on the concerned individual’s life. Such a tailor–made criterion will look at every person individually and will not blindly follow a rule that may not be neutral or fair at all. It discourages precedence–based judgements being made.

Therefore, there will be no need for quotas in any state–based institutions whatsoever. As far as private sector reservations is concerned, the rights of the individuals who invested their private assets to build a company will be grossly infringed upon, were they forced to hire someone based on the state’s criterion and not their own choice. It is, therefore, a classical oxymoron.

There is a consequentialist argument for caste–based quotas. It argues that we must wait for a generation to operate under the system for results to be evident. However, that misses the entire point. The counter–argument is not that quotas will not work, but that it is inherently unjust.

The author is based at the University of Warwick, England


- 6 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Alok Sharma

    I strongly believe that the time has come to review the existing system of caste based reservation policy in India. The Congress government is just thinking about her votes. The political leaders in the Congress are not at all worried about the growth of the country. This government will try hard to break the strike of medicos. In my opinion everybody must join these medico friends. It is now or never. If we relent now, this government is certainly going to push the idea of reservation in the private sector. If that happens, that will be the greatest disaster for the booming economy of India. MNCs will start pulling out money from India and money and jobs will go to some other third world country.

    Rather than caste based, the reservation in India should be based on the economic condition of the people. Give scholarships to the students from the weaker sections. Provide them free nutritious food and medical support. This way only the deserving students will come up and that will be fair. In today system of reservation only the children and grand children of those who received life long advantage of reservation, are reaping benefits. This is not fair.
    Alok

    21 May 2006, 18:35

  2. I am not comfortable about caste based reservations at all, but the issue is a little more complex than it appears. We need to remember that both merit as well as economic class are exclusive criteria which discriminate against a certain type of students. Moreover, it is the 'genesis of merit' rather than merit on face value that needs to be kept in mind. Therefore, I would vouch for a subjective admission criteria which is more sophisticated than either a simple merit based or caste based system. It would look at the economic situation of the student, the marks obtained, and any disadvantages the family may have encountered due to its caste background. At the same time, the actual problem of caste based social discrimination must be more seriously tackled through education and better implementation of human rights legislation.

    22 May 2006, 07:55

  3. M Pandit

    Dear Aruni,
    Arjun Singh and their cronies are simly looking at the situation 5 years from now when privatisation will have increased further.
    In 1991 when Mandal 1 came there was a big hue and cry which had coled down somewhat since by the year 2006 most of the meritorious did not want 10000 Rs per month jobs with promotions being given in favour of caste.They wanted 60000 Rs per mth jobs which were available in the private sector which could only be had if you had merit( regardless of caste). This is what these politicians have realised.That pie is what they are trying to divide now.
    Arjun Singh has signalled the death of the UPA Govt in the future elections by bringing this issue up. The middle class which never used to vote will be forced to do so now.
    Having said this , there is one issue which no one talks about. The fact in India stands that if somebody in the public even though they may belong to SC/ST/OBC, knows that you have come through on a quota, especially where it matters, will not come to you for treatment or otherwise.

    22 May 2006, 13:13

  4. Quotas in private sector go against individual liberty of the people that built the institution from their own funds. I don't think the companies in Bangalore, or traditional business houses of the Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, etc. can be persuaded to hire on any other criteria barring merit.

    I think the populist politician may already have a trick to divide the middle class to neutralise the disillusioned voters' anti incumbent tendency. They will simply come up with more caste sub categories and provide reservations for each.

    I take your point about poor perception of professionals who benefitted under the quotas. While people should appreciate that someone from a disadvantaged background succeeded in meeting the cut off point, no parent will take their kid to a doctor who qualified because of a quota, unless they have no better alternative.

    This is not to say that backward caste doctors are poorly qualified, but just to assert that caste in fact further compartmentalises society by assigning merit and mediocrity to caste backgrounds of individuals, regardless of their performance.

    22 May 2006, 13:59

  5. RAKESH

    can any on explain me the income/wealth test decided fro the Creamy layer which says persons having groos national in come of 2.5 lakh or persons having wealth above exemption limits prescribed in wealtn tax act.”I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS THE “EXEMPTION LIMIT OF WEALTHTHAT IS PRESCRIBED IN THE WEALTH TAX ACT OF INDIA

    09 Aug 2006, 11:03

  6. I am no expert, but this page is helpful-

    http://in.rediff.com/getahead/2005/nov/22tax.htm

    09 Aug 2006, 16:05


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