One of the burning issues in India today is reservation quotas – essentially, positions are reserved for sections of the population that are designated as “scheduled castes/tribes,” or “other backward castes.” Additionally, there are reservations for military personnel, employees of the central government, descendants of freedom fighters, and a few other categories. The guidelines for these reservations are followed in all government positions as well as educational institutions.The most highlighted case of reservations has been in educational institutions.

Students not belonging to any of the reservation categories are under tremendous pressure to gain admission to colleges and programs of their choice. Although the percentage of seats reserved varies from state to state depending upon demographics, state-level politicians seem to be involved in a game of one-upmanship with each other, each state vying to secure the highest number of reserved seats in its universities. Tamil Nadu, for example, has reservation figures running close to the 90% mark. Neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, not to be outdone, recently classified Muslims as backward, and allotted them a 5% share in the reservation system. This was despite the State High Court’s pronouncement that such a move would be unconstitutional. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh was singularly responsible for exacerbating the debate with his Mandal Commission in 1989.

In August 2005, the Supreme Court of India declared that the Indian Government (Central or State) had no right to impose reservation quotas on private institutions. This announcement, although met with a sigh of relief from many students (and perhaps from industry) has caused a minor verbal battle between the Lok Sabha and the Supreme Court. Members of Parliament belonging to the Left and the Congress (I) have now passed a bill that would amend the constitution to allow the government to enforce reservation policy even in private institutions – as a result, IITians (Indian Institute of Technology) and doctors at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have been on strike over the past ten days. Furthermore, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalitha, has threatened to nationalize all private educational institutions in the state if her petition to the Supreme Court asking for rights to determine quotas in private institutions is not accepted.

All of this might have been mitigated if the people receiving the benefits of these policies were stellar individuals with impeccable credentials. Unfortunately, even the qualifications for university admission vary depending upon the caste or community one belongs to. For example, according to the Directorate of Indian medicine, backward communities need to secure at least 55% in the Std. XII examinations to be eligible for seats in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. However, if you belong to a scheduled caste or tribe, 40% is adequate (LINK HERE). To put these in perspective, when I finished high school in 1995, classmates who had scored as high as 85% and were not a part of the privileged communities could not get seats to colleges of their choice. The message the Indian government seems to be sending is clear – merit does not matter, as long as you belong to a politically charged group.

Of course, there is no denying that lower sections of the community must be lifted, and there should be at least some degree of social justice for all. However, the manner in which reservation policies are carried out cannot but make an observer skeptical. “Vote bank politics” is often heard among detractors of the reservation system. Aid should be given based on financial need rather than caste considerations, they claim, and the eligibility for positions should be the same to all. After all, if the aim of the government is to foster social cohesiveness, it would be unwise to start with differentiating between sections of society. Privileging one over the other only makes the privileged a target of the unprivileged.

Yet I am willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. I am willing to accept that their policies will promote social unity and economic and social progress in India. However, this should be done initially on a smaller scale. Let the government designate a few states (perhaps those whose chief ministers seem anxious for quotas) as experimental states. Let us say for the sake of argument that these would be Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand, and West Bengal. These states should be allowed 100% reservation for the backward castes and communities while other state policies are purely merit-oriented. SC/STs and OBCs may, of course, come to other states, but they will enjoy no special privileges as they would in their designated areas. Furthermore, aid from the Union Government should be increased by 25% (from present levels, and then increased only to match inflation and GDP growth) to these states for twenty years – the time period for them to show results of their social experiment. After twenty years, these states should be evaluated along with other states and see how well they have done for themselves with their policies. In the mean time, all government servants will be obligated to go only to doctors, engineers, and others who have been benefactors of the reservation system as a sign of their faith in their own policies.

Is there any politician out there willing to put his money where his mouth is?

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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