Sunday, 21 June 2009

Caste based reserved quotas in education and jobs

A policy that has failed and needs reform.

Ever since Independence India has had a system of reservations for Dalits and people from other backward castes and classes.

This policy has failed abysmally to help the vast majority of backward caste people. On the other hand it has led to widespread corruption and a culture of dependency and entitlement that has not only allowed but actually encouraged the continued neglect of the truly downtrodden.

Compelling arguments were put forward in favour of reservations when the Constitution of India was drafted. Centuries of oppression of a large group of citizens of a free India by the majority on the basis that they belonged to a so-called lower caste had to be overturned. Caste discrimination was reprehensible, corrupt, scientifically unjustified and morally repugnant. The people at the bottom of the heap had to be given a leg up.

Now, however, 60 years later, that policy, well-meaning though it may have been in concept, is in need of review and overhaul.

Consider the following arguments.

Firstly, the reservations policy has failed miserably. If the original objective was to speed up the emancipation of Dalit people, then one can hardly claim that this objective has been met. There are still many millions of people (much more than in 1947) in India’s villages and smaller towns who suffer unspeakable indignities. Reserved quotas may have placed a few Dalits in well-paying jobs but it can hardly be argued that the benefits have trickled down to the vast majority of Dalits. Segregation and discrimination is a sad reality for the vast majority of Dalits and for tribespeople .

This is hardly surprising. Even if 50 or 60% of jobs are reserved that would still leave vast numbers of dowtrodden groups exactly where they were, for the simple reason that there can only be so many jobs available in the public sector. It is a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers of people who need help.

Secondly, the system has allowed corruption to thrive. It is easier for a politician now to campaign for a caste or a tribe to be granted a quota than to fight for policies that genuinely seek to emancipate such downtrodden groups. No party and no politician can afford to turn down a demand for categorisation of a group as an ‘OBC’ – the new badge of honour. And so instead of helping themselves, people from ‘lower’ castes and tribes, and their so-called leaders are devoting their time and energies not to social activism but to self-defeating campaigns to be counted as a lower caste. Reformist zeal has been replaced by a culture of dependency.

Thirdly, quotas erode standards. Its one thing to suggest that jobs requiring few skills are reserved for people from lower social classes, or for quotas in entry level jobs. It is quite something else to reserve even high paying jobs and positions requiring great skill, knowledge and educational attainment for a so-called lower caste without regard to ability. Maybe politicians who advocate caste based reservations should be treated care only by doctors who qualified or won their positions on the basis of their reserved status!

Finally, the most telling argument against continuing the reservations policy is the pernicious effect it has had on developmental policies in general. By supporting caste quotas, politicians of all hues have successfully presented themselves as pro-poor; it has allowed them to avoid the real task of devising and implementing policies that have a chance of truly helping the down trodden. There is no pressure therefore to enforce the law against caste discrimination; or ensure the availability of high quality primary school education to every child regardless of caste; or provide additional help and support to children from Dalit families so that they can truly overcome the ill-effects of societal discrimination and compete on their own merits and win places in universities and jobs on the basis of their ability rather than the badge of caste.

By looking only to short term political expediency politicians have taken the easy route: opting for a policy that appears to help Dalits and OBCs, while in reality it helps no one, and even harms the long term prospects of most Dalits. Paradoxically, the few Dalits Scheduled Tribes and OBCs who benefit from caste quotas need the majority to remain downtrodden to justify the dubious advantages they enjoy. Dalits and OBCs are seen as little more than vote banks to be exploited cynically by politicians, electoral fodder for populist policies that benefit a tiny few and disadvantage the vast majority.

Reform must start by the Government’s Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry announcing a policy of phased withdrawal and ultimately a time table for the end of reservations, starting at the upper end of jobs and education.

Such a policy would be politically unacceptable. It needs therefore to be accompanied by constituional guarantees of tough targets with a clear time table for true emancipation of dalits. Governments both at the Centre and in the States must enforce existing laws on discrimination, guarantee land rights, ensure access to well run schools that provide a quality education to all but especially to the poor, the Dalits and other backwards castes, enforce existing laws for the protection of women, punish discrimination of all kinds but especially that based on caste. There may also be a case for direct financial help for the most needy.

For too long, Dalits, tribespeoples and other backward classes have been taken for a ride. Politicians have thrown them a crumb of a quota here and a reservation promise there and in return have demanded their electoral allegiance. Quotas are too weak a tool to emancipate a people downtrodden for centuries but they are damaging enough to harm civil society.

India needs a more enlightened policy. A policy that works, one that’s fair, and something that helps the majority.


  1. Well thought out and reasoned blog. Enjoyed it! Rajan

  2. Well written and accurate. Thanks, MDM