Reservations in Higher Education – Why I think they’re required

We hear a lot of passionate debate against reservations based on caste in higher education in India. However, there must be some logic to reservations except vote-bank politics. Here is my attempt at listing a few of those reasons, and why I believe such reservations are necessary in our country.

Why reservations based on caste, and not other forms of affirmative action, especially, reservations based on economic status?

Simply because implementing and maintaining any other forms of affirmative action are way too expensive and would require too many formalities, paperwork, administration, etc, something that is impossible given India’s size and population. And these other forms of affirmative action come with their own intrinsic drawbacks. So in the present case, reservations based on caste are the most effective, cost-efficient form of affirmative action available to India.

As for reservations based on economic status, there are many problems here, a few of which are:

  1. To implement a successful reservation policy based on economic status, the government will have to come up with that very important annual or monthly income (lets call it point x), which would demarcate the economically backward and the economically well off. If point x is too high, it would include way too many people, and those at the bottom will lose out. If point x is too low, a lot many people will be left out and this also can lead to widespread resentment. Also, many of the downtrodden are daily wage earners. Which means they have no regular annual, monthly or even weekly income .So deciding upon point x itself is a difficult task which requires considerable beforehand study.
  2. Now lets suppose that point x has been agreed upon. The number of people who will hide their incomes to get their earnings down to point x, would reduce to nothing the governments efforts at curbing non payment of income tax.
  3. Another issue that arises out of this particular situation is that not many of the down trodden will be able to complete the formalities and acquire the documents to prove their disadvantaged economic status. Very few in India’s vast hinterlands have the know-how to complete complex government forms, specially those relating to incomes and expenditure. Such a predicament would be an open invitation to touts and other unscrupulous elements, opening avenues for them to swoop in and take money from already poor families, just to make sure they qualify as economically backward.
  4. Studies have shown that slightly increased monetary resources do not guarantee the stop of discriminatory behaviour against a backward caste individual. This is especially true for scheduled castes. The maladies affecting our society have their roots in hundreds of years of constant discrimination and denial of resources, and these cannot be tackled so easily. So in this case also, the Government of India (GoI) will have to decide that income after which discrimination stops.

The fallacies of ‘Reservations undermine Merit’.

Most opponents of the reservations policy believe that it cuts down merit and propagates mediocrity, as it passes over those who have scored higher in an examination, for the reserved category who have scored lower. The problem here is that the anti-reservationists mistakenly equate the number of marks scored, to the level of merit.

Simply put, the examination system prevalent in our country in no way measures merit. It is only a screening tool which is used since it would be impossible to administer any other form of screening given the size of the students applying. And because of that it is endorsed by the society and the government as being legitimate. It is also well known that entrance tests do not test intelligence or ability in the subject, but only an aptitude for a certain type of questions.

  1. In a pool of applicants, the number of meritorious can never be pre-determined or pre-decided. But in all institutions today, that is exactly what is happening. For instance say the IITs have 14000 seats. Which means, according to the IITs, there are only 14000 students meritorious enough to occupy these seats, from the almost 3 lakh who apply for the JEE. Most educators, professors, etc. agree that the top 20,000 to 30,000 will have the know-how to suitably understand and apply what is taught in the IITs, but they can’t make it, sometimes purely due to luck.
  2. Common sense dictates that drawing upon a wider social base increases the diversity and the quality of institutions of higher studies. Having students from a small section of society results in a “frogs in a pond” situation. Recognizing this fact, the worlds best universities like Cambridge, Oxford and Stanford strive to introduce as much diversity as possible on their campuses by actively encouraging foreign students.

Mark Galanter, in his book “Competing Equalities: Law and Backward Classes in India” spoke of three kinds of resources to produce results in competitive exams:

  1. economic resources (for prior education, training, materials, freedom from work, etc)
  2. social and cultural resources (network of contacts, confidence, guidance and advice, information, etc)
  3. inbuilt ability and hardwork

When anti-reservationists say that merit alone should be the criteria for admission to institutions of higher education, they mean that economic and cultural resources are not important, but it is differences in ability that has resulted in Hindu Upper Caste students dominating the higher education campuses of our country. The biggest counter to this argument is that these same upper caste students decide to enroll for ‘coaching’, instead relying solely on their ‘merit’, ability and hardwork to get through the examination.

In relation to the above paragraph, I’d like to present a situation that misses most of us, in spite of being right in our face. The student groups of the IITs and IIMs of our country show a strong regional bias towards urban areas with lots of “coaching institutes.” This fact is also evident from the ads that the coaching institutes place in the papers trumpeting the number of their ‘successes.’ The coaching institutes try to provide the first two resources required to enter these institutions viz. economic and social:

a) Economic – By providing study materials, coaching and training. Also, many IIT-JEE training institutes have tie ups with nearby schools, by which the students can enroll with the school but are not required to attend classes, as the school knows that these students are bound to do well in the +2 exams. This takes care of the ‘freedom from work’ point.

b) Social – If one goes through the coaching institute ads appearing on national dailies, it will be apparent  that even the faculty with their MSc and BTech. degrees from IITs and other top engineering colleges are being used as an advertising tool. Why? Because through their degrees and qualifications, the institute is promising the social resources viz. the instructor’s network of contacts, guidance, experience, advice and information.

Now, to acquire this kind of help and guidance, one requires money. Money that the majority of the backward class don’t have.

So, the situation in brief is, to get into an institution I need 3 very important resources (lets call them a, b and c). This institution is funded to a large extent by the tax payer, which includes the backward castes.  Two of these three resources (a and b) have nothing to do with ‘merit’ or ability. I take care of resource c myself, and I go out and buy resources a and b. The government recognizes that the backward castes have been discriminated against for a long period of time, and consequently are not in a position to buy or acquire resources a and b. To counter this, it provides the backward castes with positive discriminatory action.

That is when I rail against these government measures, calling them unfair and saying that the only resource needed to gain admission is resource c (hardwork and ability). By this I imply that the backward castes could not secure admission because they do not possess resource c, en masse, and it is the Hindu UC, a mere 35% (approximate) of the population, who possess this ability and ‘merit’.

As is clear from the above paragraphs, the argument, ‘reservations undermine merit’, has no factual standing at all.

The ‘Creamy Layer’ Issue

The Creamy Layer don’t deserve any form of affirmative action whatsoever. Everyone knows that they have benefitted enough from the reservations policy, and through their continued presence, are now usurping much needed seats/resources, which were originally earmarked for the really backward sections of their own castes.

Here I shall try to explain the reason behind the GoI’s continued decision to include the creamy layer in the reservations policy. Like I had written in one of the earlier points, it has been found that social discrimination does not stop against a backward caste individual even when he/she acquires wealth and resources. That’s why it is difficult for the GoI to come up with a rigid framework or set of rules which identifies when a backward caste person belongs to the creamy layer of that caste.

This problem in urban areas is not so great. Social discrimination here is not so rampant, in fact, its very subdued. Consequently, its very easy to identify a ‘creamy layer’ person. But in the rural areas of India, the situation is not so simple. Discrimination is still rampant, with the latest example being a lower caste mother and daughter who were paraded naked, raped and then murdered in cold blood, by an upper caste mob. Reports said that this was because of a land dispute.

For the GoI, not including the creamy layer can turn out to be a very dangerous issue itself, and including them is seen as the easy way out by any political party in power.

Reservations and politics

Any party which successfully promotes the reservations policy as its own, will score a virtual home run in terms of vote counts. And no opposition will let that happen. Take the current situation for example. The BJP doesn’t openly and vociferously oppose Arjun Singh’s and the Congress’s moves. But, it is a well known fact that protests such as the AIIMS protest need an influential managing force or power organising it. A power that can guarantee these protesting students their safety from the police and other law enforcement authorities, in spite of the disruptions that they were causing.

In the same manner, the last BJP government, through Murli Manohar Joshi, wanted to introduce more seats in the IIMs. Though this step should have been taken for all institutes of higher education, targeting the IIMs focused media attention on it. Even though the Congress and other parties never openly opposed the move, yet the amount of coverage, protests, etc. could not have been random, unrelated happenings.

The use of the reservation policy by the politicians, has unfortunately, made it stink in the eyes of the urban middle class, just as anything that is associated with politicians. So much so, that reservations are just seen as a vote gathering stunt, all at the cost of the general category.

(I had written this long ago in June 2008 at my old blog. Reposting because I think it’s still relevant.)

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About Siddharth Deswal

Psychology. Analytics. Experimentation. Story Telling. Otherwise, I do marketing at Visual Website Optimizer.

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