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A fresh look at reservations and quotas

By: B Shantanu
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This has been one of my longest posts in the making…taking almost two months since I first started putting down my thoughts on this issue.

To a large extent this was because I wanted to be able to capture as many viewpoints as possible in writing this post and to get accurate references.

This has been such a “loaded” subject that I hesitated a lot before venturing into it. At the same time, it is not a topic that any seriously concerned citizen can shy away from.

So please consider this as an humble and modest attempt at trying to understand what may be wrong with the current system. Hopefully this will help us to get it right and really achieve what we set out to do - viz. improve the lot of under-privileged and deprived sections of our society.

While doing my background research, I came across a number of articles and blogs on this topic but not enough that had a pro-reservation slant. I did come across a few counterpoints – e.g. Sujai has a series of posts with a pro-reservation slant which make for interesting reading (and no doubt some arguments) and Krish’s blog too has quiet a few posts on the topic (e.g. this one) – but they were few and far between.

So this analysis too may suffer from an intrinsic bias that creeps in after looking at something from only one side of the prism. Back to “reservations” and “quotas”.

This post was precipitated by the recent disruption and agitation in Rajasthan regarding the demand of Gujjars to be categorized as Scheduled Castes from their current status as OBCs.

The demand was an indicator of a fundamental problem with the whole system – it has largely become a system of patronage & dispensing largesse and a way to capture a slice of the “lucrative” government jobs and other benefits.

To an observer who may not be familiar with the reality of caste-based politics and reservations in India, the Gujjar demand may have appeared to be strangely regressive.

If you look at it from a purely rational and logical viewpoint, it appeared absurd. Why would a group wish to reclassify itself as even more backward? – and that too several years after having been the beneficiaries of a system designed to uplift their status?

Was not the condition of all these unfortunate and under-privileged people supposed to have been dramatically improved in all these years?

But that is missing the point.

Whether the condition of all these people has “substantially improved” or not is open to debate but the main point is reservations today have become a potent tool of caste-based politics and quotas and re-classifications of groups is more a function of political calculations rather than genuine developmental needs.

Let us look at some of the issues with the current system of reservations (An important thing to note is that the argument(s) for reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs are not necessarily the same (and neither are the counter-arguments). I have tried to point out where the difference is particularly important or germane).

Issue # 1: Present system does not address(in my view) the fundamental issue of < a href= http://www.youthforequality.in/primary-education.jsp> access to good quality primary education. Not surprisingly, this leads to:

Issue # 2: Unfilled seats across the spectrum – particularly for SCs and STs.

The roots of this issue go down all the way to the pathetic situation at the primary level of education.

Without enough students coming through the early stages of the education system, it is not surprising that year after year, a large proportion of seats reserved for the under-privileged go without being utilised.

For e.g. Parliamentary committee on welfare of SC & ST has been quoted as reporting that in Delhi University, 50% undergraduate level seats for SCs and 66% of undergraduate seats for STs remained unfilled between the years of 1995-2000 (unfortunately, I could not find the exact source of this statistic). The same source also quotes UGC Chairman Thorat as saying:

”…At higher education levels 1.2 lakh seats of reserved category are vacant”.
There are a lot of other statistics on the site but I am not quoting them here since full references are hard to find.

Note though that the situation with regard OBCs is somewhat different.

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has pointed out (in its ’99 report) that 23.5% of all university seats are (were) already with OBC’s, on their own merit – without any quotas.

As Amardeep Singh says in his post, these facts suggest that “…at the very least…there are problems and imbalances in the reservations system” and “OBCs are not necessarily "backward’.”

The lack of adequate representation at the undergraduate and post graduate level eventually results in under-representation at the level of white-collar jobs as well.

Issue # 3: Present system appears to be mis-targeted

Since the current system is unable to make any provision for the exclusion of the “creamy layer”, it results in lopsided benefits and further deepens the divide.

As S S Gill (Secretary to Mandal Commission) said [“Diluting Mandal”, 24th June ’03, The Hindu]:

“And who were the main beneficiaries of this provision? Only the better off among the OBCs - the so-called creamy layer - who already had access to good educational facilities and could outperform their lesser privileged peers at competitive examinations within the reserved quota.”

Worse, this has:

“deepened the divide among the OBCs, as those who were already at the top of their community cornered the plum jobs and those at the bottom were left further behind.”

Navjot Sidhu has proposed an easy filter for the “creamy layer”: Bar students whose families are income tax payers from benefiting from the system. One can argue with the specifics of the idea but there is no doubt that this issue needs to be addressed.

#Issue # 4: The fourth problem with the current system is that it is in danger of becoming self-perpetuating.

Once established, it becomes difficult to reassess and begins to be considered as a “right” for all time to come.

M Rama Jois has quoted a Supreme Court decision in her article “One answer to 5 tricky questions” (Indian Express, 2nd Jun ’06) that is relevant here:

“the Supreme Court had said in Peria Karuppan as early as in 1971: “Government should not proceed on the basis that once a class is considered as a backward class it should continue to be backward class for all times…Reservation of seats should not be allowed to become a vested interest”.

Another site mentions that the number of OBCs has been steadily rising over the years from 2399 in 1953 (Kaka Kalelkar Commission) to 3743 in 1989 (Mandal Commission) to 4418 in 2005.

More importantly, not a single caste has been removed from the list so far (Source: National Commission of Backward Classes – NCBC site, and Hindustan Times article on Sunday 28 th May, 2006).

The more serious problem is that in the longer term it may actually be making the system even more rigid and unchangeable rather than helping to overcome it.

In this context, this quote from a letter written by PM Nehru in 1961 to the Chief Ministers is sobering :

”But if we go in for reservations on communal or caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second rate or third rate. I am grived to learn how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations.

”It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal or caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let us help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second rate people.”

Issue # 5: The fifth issue with the current system is that it may fail to create a longer term positive impact.

Reservations per se can be a useful and powerful tool to correct grievous imbalances in the socio-economic condition of various groups within a society. And there is no doubt that current policies have benefited large sections within the SC and ST communities and dramatically improved their lot over the last 50+ years.

Certain groups and a large number of people are today in a position that they may not otherwise have been, thanks to these policies.

And yet, affirmative action research in the United States has shown that results have been mixed and the system has not always had the intended effect on the self-confidence or performance of beneficiaries. E.g. see “Does Affirmative Action Work?” by Francine D. Blau and Anne E. Winkler.

I don’t think enough research has been done in India on this aspect yet. If readers are aware of additional studies/data that proves/disproves the hypothesis, please mention it under the comments section.

Issue # 6: The final point – and this is particularly more relevant to the reservations under OBCs category - is the suspicious data on which it is based.

In most cases, data that has been used is either too old, not validated, inconsistent or simply missing.
As Rajiv Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha on Sept 6 ’90 (reacting to the decision by the government to implement the Mandal report):

“It is incredible that the government has no comment at all on this report other than saying we will implement it in toto. Why has the government not thought about the lack of scientific input in the data, about the lack of scientific analysis of that data because there were no sociologists involved? Why has the government not spoken about the heavily conditioned inputs that the commission has got?”

[Source: “Once upon a time, Rajiv Gandhi asked same questions as SC”, Varghese K George, May 30, 2006]

Karan Thapar, on his programme, The Devil’s Avdocate (May 21 ’06), posed this question starkly (to Shri Arjun Singh):

“…lets ask a few basic questions. We are talking about the reservations for the OBCs in particular. Do you know what percentage of the Indian population is OBC? Mandal puts it at 52 per cent, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at 32 per cent, the National Family and Health Survey at 29.8 per cent, which is the correct figure?”

An excellent analysis of the lack of data (particularly re. OBCs) and its consequences can be found in various posts on RealityCheck’s blog.

As a sample, have a look at: OBC quota - Data or Confrontation?, Stop picking on Raje, its much bigger than her and The quest for data - I.

To SUMMARISE, here are the key issues:
1. The current system does not address the fundamental problem of lack of good quality primary education
2. That there continue to be unfilled seats suggest it may not be working as it should
3. It appears to be mis-targeted and imbalanced
4. It is in danger of becoming self-perpetuating
5. It may fail to create a longer term positive impact and finally,
6. It may be based on faulty, missing, un-validated and inconsistent inputs.

As I mentioned at the beginning, counter-views to these arguments are hard to find and I am particularly interested in opinions or views that challenge this line of thinking, unearth new facts or offer fresh perspectives.

The question is not whether the laws/system did well or served their purpose, the REAL QUESTION is are they STILL the best way to ensure upliftment of the most deprived sections of the society?

Should there be fresh thinking on the criteria? Are there other creative approaches that can be tried to solve this problem?

As Shekhar Gupta has said in one of his editorials in the Indian Express, the (reservation) system “is the last — but perhaps the most destructive — relic of the licence quota raj“.

Rather than a measure to improve the lot of millions of those who toil in misery, it has today become a political tool driven by electoral calculations and perceived vote banks.

Is this (the current system) really the best we can come up with to solve the challenge of centuries of under-development and deprivation?

P.S. This article has borrowed from a very wide range of sources and while I have been scrupulous in acknowledging or linking the source articles, if I have missed something, or someone, please let me know.

B Shantanu

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