Rethinking Reservations in India
The Need for a Sensible, Non-Partisan Approach to Affirmative Action
India is known for a number of things- the cheer of its festivals, the spice in its food, diversity of her people and the heterogeneity of terrain. This heterogeneity often obfuscates an important but ugly reality- the hierarchy of the caste structure that is pervasive in Indian society.
As soon as a person is born, he/she is expected to operate within the rigid confines of the caste system. Historically, the Hindus were divided in four varnas, the Brahamans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudhras. Each of these classes had a predefined place in the society and were expected to behave according to this code. At the bottom of this hierarchy were the shudhras, tasked with menial manual labor that the society considered impure. By extension, and over time, this notion of impurity led to the entire varna being ostracized as untouchable. What was a system of economic exploitation turned into a framework of socio-political exploitation and subjugation. Over the years, this rudimentary caste fragmented further and the four varnas split into thousands of jatis, signified usually by surnames. Jatis were a result of several changes that occurred over time. They were often the structure’s response to attempts of subversion by things like intermarriages, geographical variations, etc. By allowing for the proliferation of jatis, some variations could be allowed for while containing them within the larger varna. The jatis associated with the shudra varna ended up suffering the most in the system, with the social tag of untouchability continuing to exist.
The Constitution of India, by virtue of Article 17, abolished untouchability and “its practice in any form”. The Constitution does not define untouchability, leaving courts to address each case on its facts, given the wide manifestations of the practice that range from barring entry into schools and temples to using different tea cups for them. In 1989, the Indian Parliament enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, however, a concept that dates back several centuries has continued to govern modern day socio-economic interactions, define stiff occupational boundaries, and even promote absolute separation of neighborhoods.
In order to address the issue of segregation based on caste lines, the Constitution made provisions for, and the government introduced caste based reservations in educational institutions and government employment across the country. Furthermore, a system of electoral reservations through reserved constituencies was also instituted to address political exclusion. The systematic exclusion of Dalits and its detrimental effects on development objectives resulted in this policy that demarcates a certain number of seats for the disadvantaged sections.
The approach, however, suffers from several infirmities. First, the extent of this reservation for the Dalits needs to be redefined. The government should aim to proportionally reserve seats for the backward classes after taking into consideration the percentages that these sections represent in the total population at the central and the state level. This approach will be better than the status quo of an arbitrary uniform proportions reserved for the backward classes and will better replicate the underlying social formations, at least numerically.
Second, the manner in which the fault lines are defined in the Indian context also needs to be reviewed, and considerable thought should be given to whether disadvantage should be classified in term of caste or economic status. The current affirmative action program is not an anti-poverty scheme, its objective is to address systemic socio-political exclusion. University education in India is a highly coveted possession, the economically (and often, socially) stronger sections alone are able to afford the luxury of education. The cost of education should not only be understood as tuition fees and living expenses, it also includes the opportunity cost for the family as the individual is not able to monetarily contribute to the family during the time. At a time when a majority of this country suffers from illiteracy and poverty, reservation in colleges was meant to promote increased representation of disadvantaged classes in the universities. However, the problem is that the current reservation system is unable to achieve this goal effectively. Wealthy sections of the backward classes, who haven’t experienced disadvantage, often claim benefits of this system. This undercuts the effectiveness of the system for those deserving of its benefits, while at the same time making it extremely unpopular among the rest of the population.
It is important to note, however, that there is a substantial segment of population for which access to these reserved positions is an opportunity to end generations of subjugation and poverty. Even for these candidates, it seems that the reservation system has failed to deliver the desired results as the Dalit applicants face hurdles overcoming disparities resulting from social conditions that they are subjected to during their early education years. Language is the biggest barrier. Most Indian universities have, to ensure high standards, established English based curriculums. For any student from a region where school education is conducted primarily in the regional language (or Hindi), overcoming this barrier is a herculean task. Hence, they find it increasingly difficult to cope with university education, as their pre-college experiences have placed them at a severe disadvantage compared to their upper caste counterparts.
One mechanism to counter this is by mandating reservations in private schools which often have better education infrastructure. The Right to Education, guaranteed under Art. 21A of the Constitution, attempted to achieve a version of this by enacting some reservation for ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS). It is interesting to note that this reservation is not based on caste. However, the system is rot with corruption and an unholy nexus between schools and the rich parents who often attempt to subvert the system to ensure access to the limited ‘big schools’ in the cities. Furthermore, the system fails to address the systemic problem of non-existence of good private schools in rural areas, where most of the lower classes reside. Hence, while the step is a positive one, these infirmities need to be addressed.
Furthermore, when we try to rethink fault lines, we need to understand the fact that advantage or disadvantage is not merely affected by economic status. It is reasonable to assume that in India, wealth is unable to transcend social castes and group identity matters irrespective of the economic health of an individual. The government needs to envisage a system which focuses on both economic status and caste classification. Wealthy sections of backwards classes should be allowed to enter the reservation system as they are disadvantaged, but their threshold for entry should be higher than that for the economically weaker sections, given the latter’s additional disadvantages. Along with this, economically weaker sections of the upper caste should also be given access to affirmative action programs in order to facilitate their upward socio-economic mobility.
There is an urgent need to rethink the reservation policy of India- one which promotes greater inclusion of marginalized sections as opposed to their exclusion.
About The Author
Samridhi Vij is a final year Masters Student at the Delhi School of Economics, India. She is an accomplished research scholar in the domain of socio-economic and developmental issues. She has been associated with UNICEF, during which time she published two papers concerning India's Maternity Benefit Programme and the National Social Assistance Programme. Samridhi has also conducted research and authored parts of a paper published by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, India on rehabilitating juvenile offenders. At Polemics & Pedantics, Samridhi will be providing an analysis of subaltern politics in India.