People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 17

April 23, 2006

Reservation Is A Must In Higher Education

Jayati Ghosh


THE latest frenzy that is being whipped up in the media, especially in the English language press and on television, relates to the proposal mooted by the ministry of human resource development to provide quotas for backward castes in all institutions of higher learning funded by the central government. 
The resulting storm of protest has brought back all the now familiar arguments that became so prominent at the time of the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the V P Singh government more than 15 years ago. Incredibly, it seems that little has changed since then either in social realities or in public prejudices, especially among the middle classes and elite groups.

The empirical evidence points squarely to the strong and still pervasive persistence of social discrimination (which can be related to, but is not the same as, economic disparity) in India. So extensive is this, that few would deny the reality of continued discrimination and exclusion. It is also widely accepted across the world that diversity makes educational institutions not only more interesting, but intellectually richer, more effective and therefore of better quality overall. So the debate is really about the precise form that affirmative action should take. 
The most common criticism of a reservation policy is that it militates against the promotion of merit. It is worth considering this in more detail. There is no question that there is huge excess demand for higher education in India, and quality education is extremely under-provided. Therefore, there is severe rationing in operation for places, especially in the best institutions. The question is therefore not one of whether we should have rationing or not, but, which form of rationing would be best in the prevailing social circumstances. 
It is currently believed that the current system is based on "merit," that is, ranking of performance in all-India entrance examinations or similar such criteria. Yet any teacher or administrator at some of these top institutions (such as IITs or IIMs) will agree that there are typically several hundred candidates of equally good quality at the top, and they are able to admit only a small fraction of them, so that there is a large element of luck and randomness in the process of selection. 
It is also well known, incidentally, that these entrance tests typically test not intelligence or ability in the subject per se, but a certain aptitude for answering such tests, which itself is a skill that can be learnt, and for which there now exist training institutes all over the country. Such training in turn costs time and money, which effectively excludes most potential candidates. 
What is notable in this apparently "socially neutral" process, however, is that still in India, our institutions of higher learning are dominated by students from upper castes traditionally associated with more education. This points to an undercurrent of discrimination running through the system, such that the student population in higher education is far too socially homogenous, generally representing social groups that make up about 20 per cent of the population as a whole. 
If we accept that intelligence and talent are not the monopoly of any particular social group but are normally distributed across society, then this means that the current system is being inefficient since it is effectively picking up candidates from only a small section of society instead of the whole population. It is elementary logic that this would give sub-optimal results for society. This is an argument on social efficiency grounds, which is quite separate from other arguments about creating a more democratic and inclusive education process in general. 
Those who oppose the policy of reservation operate primarily with the following arguments. First, that it generates perceptions of "victimhood" and encourages democratically undesirable identity politics. Second, that there are inequalities within the specified communities, which allow a "creamy layer" to take advantage of the reservations and benefit unduly while depriving the rest of the community. Third, that the rigid and inflexible nature of the instrument of reservation does not allow for more creative modes of affirmative action which would actually bring in a wider range of excluded people. Fourth, that it leads to privileging of some caste-based discrimination while ignoring other and possibly more undesirable forms of exclusion. Fifth, that it compresses the notion of social justice into only reservation, instead of encompassing broader socio-economic policies such as land reform and other asset redistribution, strategies of income generation, etc. 
There is certainly some relevance to each of these points, and no one would deny that the system that has operated in India thus far has been inadequate not only in addressing these issues, but even in achieving the goals set in terms of filling the allocated quotas even in public education and employment. This is also partly because there has been no institutional mechanism of incentives and disincentives to ensure effective affirmative action. There are "legal" requirements for filling certain quotas, but there are no penalties for public institutions that do not fill them, or rewards for those that more than fulfil them. 

However, while reservations have been inadequate and relatively rigid instruments of affirmative action, they do have certain advantages which explain why they are still preferred. They are transparent, inexpensive to implement and monitor and therefore easily enforceable. Any other system of affirmative action must have these attributes in order to be practical. The problem with other systems that are being proposed such as those based on periodic audit of institutions to check on their "diversity" is that they do not have equal transparency and enforceability.
That is why we still need reservations for different groups in higher education not because they are the perfect instrument to rectify long-standing discrimination, but because they are still the most workable method to move in this direction. And most of all, because the nature of Indian society ensures that without such measures, social discrimination and exclusion will only persist and be strengthened.