Friday, June 02, 2006

Anti-Reservation Protests in India

In recent weeks there have been many protests against the system of caste-based system reservations in India – especially reservations in institutes of higher education. I broadly support the principle of caste-based reservations. However I do have certain misgivings about the way this principle is put into practice.

Reservations and Merit

Most people who hold an anti-reservation viewpoint claim that caste-based reservations are inherently opposed to merit. Slogans like “murder of merit” are common in the anti-reservation movement. I disagree with this point of view. After all, what is the definition of “merit” ? In India admission to educational institutions is primarily based on obtaining high scores in designated examinations. Can we seriously claim that these exams are truly accurate mechanisms for measuring merit ? To a certain extent, examinations in India do measure a candidate’s level of education, but to an even larger extent doing well in these exams depends on joining the right coaching classes and learning the appropriate exam-writing techniques. If, by “merit” we mean innate talent or ability, then our exam system fails miserably to measure it accurately.

To those who claim that merit is seriously undermined by reservations I ask: do you believe (as I do) that merit (i.e., innate ability or talent) is randomly distributed in society, and is not the exclusive preserve of certain upper-caste groups. If merit/ability/talent is truly distributed randomly in society and the selection process was fair, surely one would expect all castes to be represented in various professions broadly in the same proportion as their share of the population. Clearly this is not the case by a very wide margin. Although caste data is scarce, studies, as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that the vast majority of elite professionals in India belong to the upper castes. For example, Santosh Goyal studied the caste composition of 3,129 top executives of 1,100 large companies in the Indian corporate sector. He could ascertain the castes of approximately two-thirds of these officers from their names. He found that Brahmins accounted for 41% of the total, even though according to the 1931 census Brahmins comprised only 4.32% of the total population of (undivided ?) India (link). If one rejects the idea that upper castes are in some way genetically superior, one has to accept that the social mechanisms through which innate ability is translated into certifiable skill are inherently biased in favor of the upper castes. In reality these unfair social mechanisms work as a form of reservation in favor of upper castes. I believe that any program of affirmative action that seeks to correct this historic unfairness should actually be seen as a form of de-reservation.

Reservations and Efficiency

One argument of the anti-reservation activists is that reservations reduce the efficient functioning of organizations. To a limited extent, I do agree with this argument, at least for those positions that require a very high level of prior specialized technical training (as opposed to innate ability). For example positions that require super-specialization in say neurosurgery may not be ideal for reservations. However this argument is less and less valid as one goes down the level of training. For entrance into a bachelor’s degree program, one does not need any kind of highly specialized technical training; high school level education is sufficient. Moreover evidence on the ground indicates that reservations may not necessarily harm efficiency. For example, in Southern states such as Tamil Nadu reservations are much more extensive than in Northern states. However, the state administrations as well as the industrial sectors in the Southern states have performed no worse (and in most cases much better) than in the Northern states. Moreover, in the U.S., one can see that some of the most competitive and efficient companies such as GE, IBM, etc. follow affirmative action policies to increase diversity (link and link) without any apparent loss of efficiency or competitiveness.

I do agree that reservations may cause some small reductions in efficiency in certain situations and may impose some costs, but I believe that on the whole the benefits to society are likely to be even larger. For a discussion on the costs and benefits of reservation see this.

Reservations and the Creamy Layer

Another major argument of the anti-reservation activists is that reservations help only the already well-to-do among the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and the “truly deserving” do not benefit in any way. There is an element of truth in this argument. It is true that those who benefit from reservations are likely to be from among the more prosperous and better educated in their caste. However, I believe that in spite of this, reservations and other forms of affirmative action do serve a useful purpose. First of all, regulations already exist to prevent the highly privileged among the OBCs from taking undue advantage of reservations (link). Secondly, it is clear that even in the open (i.e, non-reserved) category, people from the creamy layer among the upper castes, those with access to the best private schools, coaching classes, etc., have a disproportionately high representation. So this phenomenon exists for general category seats as well, not just for reserved seats. But most importantly, it must be remembered that the primary purpose of caste-based reservations is to reduce inter-caste disparities. Nobody claims that reservations will directly reduce disparities among individuals within the same caste. Here is what the Mandal Commission Report says. “When a backward class candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family only. But the psychological spin off of this phenomenon is tremendous; the entire community of that backward class candidate feels socially elevated. Even when no tangible benefits flow to the community at large, the feeling that now it has its ‘own man’ in the ‘corridors of power’ acts as morale booster”. In other words, it is hoped that reservations will help in awakening a new sense of aspiration and a new sense of possibility among those to whom opportunities have long been denied. To a certain extent, this new sense of possibility has indeed become a reality in modern India, and reservations (along with democracy and economic growth) have played a part in this. Author V.S. Naipaul in his book India: A Million Mutinies Now has this to say. “And out of this political frenzy there had come a kind of balance: for the first time in the history of India, perhaps, most people felt that they or their representatives, someone of their group, had a chance of getting to the warm center of power and money.”

Reservations in Higher Education or Better Primary Education

One more argument put forth by anti-reservation activists is that rather than having reservation of seats in institutions of higher education, it would be much better if the govt. were to concentrate on improving the quality of primary and secondary education. On this issue I broadly agree with the anti-reservation activists. I do believe that improving the quality and accessibility of basic education is critically important. The whole idea behind affirmative action and reservations is to provide improved opportunities to those groups that have historically been suppressed. The idea should never be to guarantee specific outcomes for certain chosen individuals. In other words we should try to give lower caste individuals a fair opportunity to become engineers or doctors, not somehow arbitrarily designate them as engineers/doctors. Guaranteeing outcomes is a sure way to discourage individual initiative, and suck the dynamism and vigor out of any society. The best way to guarantee equality of opportunity is to provide good quality primary and secondary education for all. The higher up the education ladder we go with reservations, the more and more we tend to guarantee outcomes rather than opportunity. Affirmative action at the primary and secondary school level is entirely about guaranteeing opportunity, not outcome. At the college level, affirmative action is a mix of guaranteeing opportunity and guaranteeing outcome, and at the post-doctoral or super-specialization level, it is almost entirely about guaranteeing outcome rather than opportunity. Unfortunately the current state of primary and secondary education in India is such that we are far far away from guaranteeing equality of opportunity for all. In this scenario reservations at a higher education level – at least at the college entry level – are absolutely necessary.

While I do agree with anti-reservation activists that basic education is of utmost importance, I have a feeling that their concern they express regarding this issue is not entirely genuine. I feel that they are using the matter of primary and secondary education mainly as an excuse to justify their anti-reservation stance without appearing to be openly unsympathetic towards the weaker sections of society. In recent years the govt. has indeed become somewhat active (at least compared to earlier) regarding basic education. In 2002 Parliament passed the 86th Constitutional Amendment making education a fundamental right (link). The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program (link) has greatly increased funding available for basic education. The Right to Education Bill is currently in the process of being drafted (link). These are important basic education related issues and, if implemented right, can seriously improve the state of basic education in India. Unfortunately I find that many among the educated upper castes who are anti-reservation and claim to be in favor of basic education do not appear to show any great interest in these issues. For example, in the initial drafts of the Right to Education Bill there was a provision for reserving 25% of seats in all private primary/secondary schools for underprivileged children. In my view this would have been a step in the right direction. Unfortunately under pressure from the private school lobby this provision was discarded (link). Would anti-reservation activists – supposedly pro-basic-education-for-all – be willing to fight to preserve this 25% reservation for underprivileged children in private elementary schools ?

Reservations Based on Economic Criteria

Anti-reservation activists sometimes claim that they are not opposed to reservations per-se, only caste-based reservations. Had reservations been made based on economic criteria they would have fully supportive of the policy. I agree with them that low caste status is not the only disadvantage in India. Economic deprivation, rural upbringing, lack good schools in the vicinity, etc. are all important disadvantages for those desirous of getting the most coveted jobs in our modern economic and administrative system. I do believe that that low-caste status is possibly the most important disadvantage, and in any case, caste disadvantage usually coincides with other disadvantages. In other words, people belonging to low castes tend to be otherwise disadvantaged as well; they tend to be poor, lack access to good schools, etc. Various commissions and committees in India have found that most criteria of social backwardness come down to one common denominator: belonging to a low caste (see here). Even the Supreme Court of India has declared “A caste can be and quite often is a social class in India” (link).

On the whole I agree that economic criteria should be considered in affirmative action programs, but I do not believe that caste criteria should be discarded. Ideally a combination of caste, economic and other criteria should be used. In this regard I think that the new mechanism of affirmative action proposed by sociologists Satish Deshpande and Yogendra Yadav makes a lot of sense. The basic idea is that instead of reservations, candidates would be given points based on their social and individual disadvantages. For college admissions these “disadvantage points” would be considered, in addition to marks scored in the exams. A weightage of 80% for exam points and 20% for “disadvantage points” is proposed. This system of selection has already been used in a limited manner, and a similar system has been used at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. More details of this scheme are available here.

Crying Need for Better Policy and Better Data

If one is interested in learning more about the caste-based reservation system – or more generally about current state of the caste system – one is faced with an extremely frustrating situation. There is an almost complete lack of macro-level statistics and data (small scale village-level studies are available, which provide some micro-level data). Just consider: the most recent detailed macro-level data one can get about caste in India is from the 1931 census. After independence the govt. of India reasoned that collecting caste information in the census would only reinforce divisive caste identities and lead to unnecessary controversies, and stopped collecting caste data (except for SC/STs). While the govt’s intentions seem to have been good, surely some reasonable way can be found to collect caste data in the census in a judicious manner. Census questions should be designed in a sensitive manner, and maybe questions about caste should have options such as ‘inter-caste’, ‘unknown’, etc. As things stand today, it is impossible to find even basic information such as ‘what is the literacy-level of caste xyz’, or ‘what is the life-expectancy of caste xyz’, etc. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) has made a commendable start by collecting some limited macro-level caste-based data in the 55th round survey in 1999-2000. For discussion on the NSSO data see this and this. Hopefully something will be done soon to generate more comprehensive and better quality macro-level data on caste.

It is obvious that the govt. policy on caste-based reservations leaves much to be desired. Caste-based quotas have often been carved out by politicians seeking to curry favor with politically powerful castes – based purely on electoral calculations. In general, one often gets the impression that reservation policies are implemented without adequate preparation or study. For example, the OBC category is so huge – covering half the Indian population. Does it not make sense to separate this huge category into smaller segments, such as Lower Backward Classes (LBCs), Most Backward Classes (MBCs), etc., so that the benefits are spread among many castes, and the most dominant among the OBC castes do not corner all the benefits ? Moreover, politicians don’t seem to be making any attempt whatsoever to provide explanations to the anti-reservation activists and to win their confidence. After all, the medical students who are protesting against the reservation policy are not inherently evil. They may not be overly concerned about ensuring equal opportunity for lower-caste students, but they are simply worried about their careers. In their position, who wouldn't be ? I fail to understand why more – many more – seats cannot be made available in engineering, medical and management institutes. If lack of money is the issue, surely fees can be increased, and along with it some form of improved student loan system can be made available. Graduates of such institutions usually move on to lucrative careers, and paying back student loans should not be a big problem.

All in all, though I support affirmative action and reservations as a matter of principle, I feel that there is much much more that the govt. can and should do in the way it determines reservation policy, and in the way it collects caste-related data, which measures the impact of these policies.

A Final Word

The most precious commodity that any society possesses is its human resources. For any society to flourish it must strive to utilize its human resources to the fullest extent possible, which means it must strive to provide as many citizens as possible opportunities to develop and utilize their talents and abilities. I believe that a society like Saudi Arabia that systematically denies opportunities to its women, thereby forfeiting fully 50% of its available national talent, can never progress very far. Something similar happened in India over the course of history. As Dalit economist Narendra Jadhav has pointed out, one of the main reasons that Indian civilization – once one of the World’s most advanced – fell behind was that the talents and energies of the vast majority of our population was kept suppressed by the caste-system. Over the last 150 years much has improved and the unleashing of talent and energy long kept suppressed has allowed India to move forward. However, there is still much more talent and energy in India waiting to be released. In order to do this, effective and well thought out affirmative action policies such as reservations are essential.

Here is a link to Yogendra Yadav's illuminating FAQ on this issue.

Do also read this excellent piece by Siddharth Varadarajan, where he describes caste bias in the Indian media. Here's another one on the same topic by Dilip D'Souza. And another one by Albert at

A civilized exchange of letters between Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Yogendra Yadav (anti- and pro-reservationists, respectively) makes for interesting reading. Here is Dilip D'Souza discussing this.