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Why are so many people angry about reservations?

Recently, the news has been full of medical and engineering college students protesting against reservations. What's all the fuss and fighting about?

The protests, many of which seem to be turning violent, are against a central government decision to increase 'reservations' for Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government and private higher education institutes. These include what are considered to be the best institutes in India -- the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). It's largely students from these institutes who are protesting.

Reservation is a system in which a number of seats in educational institutes or jobs are 'reserved' for a particular group of people. The group is usually one that has historically suffered discrimination. Many countries, both developed and developing, follow the system of reservations, which is also known as 'affirmative action' or 'positive discrimination'. For example, in the US, seats in universities and government jobs are reserved, in an attempt to correct the effects of racism that, through the years, has kept black people out of jobs and schools. Some job places are allowed to be filled only by people discriminated against; at institutes, entrance marks requirements are reduced for them. Reservation gives people a chance to catch up.

OBCs have been protesting that, unlike the dalits, they do not benefit from reservations. They got reservations in government jobs as recently as 1990.

The idea of reservations is not new in India. In fact, right now, a little more than a fifth of all seats in government-funded educational institutions are already set aside for those who are considered 'low caste'. There are also reserved places in Parliament and in government jobs. Now, with the addition of reservations for OBCs even in the premier institutes of higher education like the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS, a large chunk of the available seats will be reserved.

When the Constitution of India was written during and immediately after India's independence struggle, it stated that 15% of educational and civil service seats were to be reserved for 'scheduled castes', and 7.5% for 'scheduled tribes'.

Originally only supposed to last 10 years, reservations are still going on. Then, in 1963, the Supreme Court of India said that whatever was decided in the future, reservations could not exceed 50%.

In 1978, the government decided to look into the reservations issue again -- because the poorer people who were supposed to be helped were still poor and still kept out of jobs and universities. The next year, the government set up the Mandal Commission to identify the socially or educationally backward and see how best reservations could be made to work for them.

The Mandal Commission used various social, educational and economic criteria in order to identify OBCs. This was not just based on caste, it also included things like whether the community was considered socially backward by others; whether it depended totally on manual labour for livelihoods; whether school attendance was extremely low; even if drinking water sources were too far away, or the people had poor housing. The Mandal Commission came out with a report recommending changes in reservation quotas, increasing them by 27% to 49.5%.

Even then, back in 1980, the move caused the same sort of violent controversy as now and contributed to the then Prime Minister V P Singh's resignation.

There are a number of reasons why so many people are against the idea of reservations. The first stems from the fact that there are a lot of OBCs, yet no one is sure exactly how many -- it could be more than half of India's total population. Giving them extra seats in jobs and universities means they will vote for whoever increased their quota. Now this may not be actually true, but it calls into question the motives of whichever government increases reservations. Are they doing it because they really care about the poor? Or are they doing it because they will get more votes?

This may not be the only reason why so many people are against reservations, but it is the reason why they feel their objections are not being listened to.

One of the biggest fears has to do with the belief that India has become a fast-developing country mainly because of the high quality of its students, especially those in the IIMs, AIIMS and IITs. People who get into these institutes get in because they are good. With reservations, anti-reservationists fear, the quality of these institutions could go down, as people with low marks will also be allowed in if they belong to OBCs. So, many graduates from these institutes will not be up to the mark, bringing down overall standards. Multinational companies that have now set up office in India and hire Indians will be reluctant to do so because of the low standards. The argument here is that if the government really cared, it would make sure that there were more primary schools in areas where the poor and backward lived, so that education levels in India as a whole improve. Then, more students would be able to get into these elite institutions on their own merit rather than because of their caste.

Another reason given by those opposed to reservations is that not everyone from the upper class or castes is rich, and not all OBCs are poor. Often in the lower castes it is the richer and politically well-connected who take advantage of reservations, getting the best job and university seats without trying too hard. This 'creamy layer' will squeeze out the real poor and backward even if they do belong to the same caste or community. Many people against caste-based reservations are not against reservations based on poverty or economic class.

There are three other facts that are often pointed out. The first is that our best educational institutes would lose their independence. These institutions are good in part because the government does not interfere with their management. Second, positive discrimination remains a type of discrimination. Instead of getting rid of the caste system the government is making it stronger through the policy of reservations. Finally, reservations already in place don't seem to have improved the position of the poorer castes, so why would more of the same make a difference?

All this may be true, but the government still must do something to improve the position of the poor who have been kept out of good jobs and higher education only because of their caste, or because of the community they belong to. This is the reason why, in spite of the arguments against it, governments all over the world still push for affirmative action. Another positive benefit is that reservations ensure that there is a wide variety of people in offices and campuses. Such 'social diversity' is a positive thing for society as a whole. Just because life has been made easier for some people does not mean that other people should suffer; reservation for some may not be at the expense of others. Finally, because some people -- the creamy layer -- will take advantage of the system does not mean that other people who will genuinely benefit should be denied their chance to escape poverty and caste restrictions.

In any case, the bill, which was recently approved by the cabinet, needs to clear a few more hurdles before it becomes a law. All that can be said is that whichever way things go, it will still make some people very angry.

-- Manoj Nadkarni

InfoChange News & Features, September 2006

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