People's Democracy

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

Vol. XXX

No. 18

April 30, 2006

Reservations Are Not Against Merit


R Arun Kumar


THE announcement of the Human Resources Development Minister regarding the government’s intention to reserve 27 per cent of the seats for the Other Backward Castes in central educational institutes started an intense debate. Unfortunately vested sections in the media are trying to arouse passions among the students against this supposed move terming it as anti-merit and against national interests. They have also termed it as Mandal II and ‘mandalisation of education’. We are not against the move to allocate reservations for the backward sections of the society, and indeed support it.


The provision of reservations to OBCs is prevalent in many states, while the Union government is trying to introduce reservations now. In a class society education is always considered as a tool to maintain the status quo of the society and ensure the protection of the interests of the ruling classes. They want institutes like IITs and IIMs-the centres of excellence-to remain as their exclusive preserve. Thus the entire capitalist class and their voices in the media are trying hard to bar the entry of common people into the institutes of excellence though they are not bothered about this in admissions to state institutions that are sub-standard. They are not concerned about merit when seats are reserved under NRI quota, but are agitated when they are reserved for OBCs. The real reason for the opposition to reservations is this elitist approach and to further this they are spreading canards and playing with the lives and futures of innocent students by trying to rouse their passions and consciously hiding reality from them. Though the government too is their representative it is forced to concede this right to the backward sections of the society because of the popular struggles from below and the increased influence of the Left, the protector of the interests of the toiling sections.


The central government is trying to implement reservations in the central institutes using the power it has accrued from amending the Constitution (104 Amendment, now known as 93rd Amendment) providing for special provisions for educationally, socially marginalised and other backward sections of the society along with the SCs and STs. The government was forced to amend the Constitution to provide for reservations in self-financing institutions by the militant struggles of the students across the country. The amendment was made after the Supreme Court had ruled that the government does not have any control over the private unaided institutes in a series of its judgements starting from the TMA Pai case in 2002 to the more recent P A Inamdar case. It is the duty of the Union government and all the state governments to enact an enabling legislation to this affect. The purpose of the Constitutional amendment would be defeated if this provision of reservations is not extended to all the self-financing institutions. Pressure has to be mounted on the government for this.


The general argument that is put forward against reservations is that it is against merit and enables all sub-standard students to enter the prestigious and reputed institutes. It is ironical that those people who are crying hoarse over the loss of merit have never bothered to raise their voice when the government was commercialising education and allowing all sub-standard institutes to be set-up across the country. The only criterion for admission in these institutes is money and never merit. There are instances galore across the country where meritorious students are denied admission in many private institutes because of their financial backwardness. In spite of several directions from the Supreme Court that admissions to all the professional institutes should be provided only after getting through a merit-based entrance examination, they are openly violated. Neither the government bothered to rein them, nor the newly self-proclaimed protectors of merit and national interests ever raised their voice.


Merit is a very relative concept. In our country there are entrance examinations for admission to many or almost all the institutes of higher learning. All the students who appear in these entrance examinations are supposed to get through the qualifying examinations too i.e. a student appearing for admission in a IIT should clear his +2 board examinations also. There are many instances where the top ranker of the qualifying examination (+2 here) failed to attain a rank good enough in the entrance examination. Now, can this student be regarded as a meritorious student or not?


It is a known fact that coaching institutes play a big role in preparing students for the entrance examinations. Access to quality education (this does not mean just the institute but also includes the availability of books, academic atmosphere etc) is not available to majority of students staying in rural areas and slums in the urban regions as it comes at a cost. This too plays a big role in the marks that a student secures. Both these conditions are available to a privileged few in our society. Is it right to deny access to higher education just because a child is born in a poor and unprivileged family that does not have the means to provide him the best of education? Is it not the duty of the government to initiate special provisions like reservations for them? After all, it takes lots of polishing even to make a diamond shine from its crude state and the absence of this makes it just as worthy as an ordinary carbon stone. We should not forget that merit is directly linked with the policies of the government and the availability of quality education to all students irrespective of their economic and social conditions. It is to be noted here that the Director of IIT, Kharagpur has said that their institute derives its name from the output and not the input and that reservation does not in any way effect the quality of education imparted in these reputed institutes.


The opponents of reservations are arguing that the government should improve the conditions of the government schools first and then think about reservations. Interestingly when V P Singh decided for providing job reservations, these people have argued that reservations have to be first provided in education. Now when the government is thinking of providing reservations in education they are opposing it and suggesting the improvement of school education first. All this shows that basically these people are against the welfare of the unprivileged sections of our country. It is true that the government has to put its lot in improving the quality of school education. To argue against reservations till this is done is erroneous. Both these things have to be done simultaneously and not like the philosophical question of which is first-egg or hen. For this the government has to increase its budgetary allocations on education and reach the promised level of at least 6 per cent of the GDP.


Quality of education took a dive to abyss once the government started abdicating its social responsibility and started starving education and social sectors of resources. This has adversely affected the quality right from the primary to the university level. Most of the private institutes that have entered into the space vacated by the government have failed to ensure quality in education as their prime motive is earning ‘returns’ for their ‘investment’. It is no wonder that many of the private institutions do not adhere to the prescribed norms of the certifying agencies like AICTE, UGC, MCI, NCTE, etc. The state of various private universities and deemed universities is a worthy example (Tamilnadu a recent addition to the list) to be remembered here. Thousands of students are graduating from these institutes with poor quality and none of today’s messiahs of merit and quality bothered to voice concern. Hiding all these facts and just stating that reservations will lead to graduation of sub-standard engineers and doctors, adversely affecting the national interest is dubious. This shows their casteist bias and denigration of the efforts put up by the OBCs, SCs and STs. An important fact is that there are many brilliant professionals from dalit, tribal and other backward caste communities who have graduated after availing the reservations and are contributing to the national development. Outlook, the weekly news magazine has carried out interviews of few of these people and it can be confidently stated that there are many of their ilk.  Thus the argument that providing for reservations in the central institutes would compromise quality is faulty and does not have any credence.     


Moreover all the central institutes have prescribed minimum qualifications required for gaining eligibility for admission. Students are given admission under reservation only after they prove themselves to be over and above the prescribed eligibility criteria. It is the duty of the society and the institute to prepare the students to face the rigorous course work both before and after they enter the institute. Remedial classes should be organised. Special attention has to be given to them. Scholarships have to be provided to all the needy students so that they can concentrate on their studies rather than be burdened about the means to raise resources for the continuation of their study. A recent survey carried out by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) brought to light the various hardships faced by the students studying in the university because of their financial status and how this is affecting their study.


The periodic increase in the fee collected from the students is also one of the impediments for the students desiring to pursue higher education. Recent studies suggest that India is one of the few countries where higher education is available at a premium. The student fee accounts for more than 20 per cent of the costs incurred and this is more than the average in most of the developed countries, not to speak about the developing countries. Looking at the fees that is charged in the IIMs, irrespective of what the student might earn after getting employment- is enough to discourage students from the lower middle class and poor families from opting for them. This is all the more true for the students coming from SC, ST, OBC and rural backgrounds. It is the duty of the government to ensure that along with reservations, scholarships too are provided and the fee is brought to a level that does not deny access to education.


People who are against reservations are spreading panic among the students that they will lose seats in the education institutes. It is sad that these people instead of demanding the government to increase the number of seats available in the reputed institutes and establish many such reputed institutes are silent on the issue or are against these moves. These are the very people who want the government to move away from its social responsibility of imparting higher education.


There is a big demand for higher education in our country and this is going to increase in the coming days, as there is a demographic shift towards youth in our country. More than half of our population is under-20 years of age. Only 7-9 per cent of the students are in higher education in the relevant age group. The Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) report on the financing of higher education states that many of the developed countries have more than 20 per cent of the youth in the relevant age group in higher education. Though this is not the reason for their present developed state, nobody can deny the fact that for a country to become a super power it needs many qualified personnel. Only widening the net of our higher education system can achieve this and this can be done only by the government and not by private players. This has been the experience worldwide. Government has to come forward in a big way and start many new institutes, improve the conditions of the institutes run by it and ensure access to quality education for all. Instead of this, the government is keeping silent on the demands for increasing the number of IITs and IIMs. The IIM managements too are not thinking of starting a new centre in India but are more interested in starting their centres in Singapore, Dubai and other foreign lands. These moves give rise to a question regarding their interests. Is it not profit that is driving their decisions than national interests and social responsibility?   

Indian industrial houses that have immensely benefited from the reservations provided to them in the name of protection by the government are arguing against reservations now. They do not think twice when demanding incentives and tax holidays in their competition with foreign players in the ‘market’ even in this era of ‘globalisation’. For them this is the level playing field, but the same is not true for the unprivileged sections in our society who genuinely need reservations and government support. Irony can never get better.


In the appeal issued to the students during the anti and pro reservation stir earlier, SFI has stated: “we all know that the real solution to the burning problems of the people, including SC/STs and OBCs, lies in the reversal of policies-industrial, economic and educational-which led to the overwhelming destitution of the people, as well as in radical land and other reforms. Unless these are achieved reservation has a definite but limited role to play”. Till such a socio-economic change is ushered in, reservations should continue as a minimum support to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward castes.


Reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes must continue without any qualification as they form the bulk of the rural poor and have been suffering for centuries not only from economic exploitation but also from social oppression at the hands of the landlords and other rural exploiters who mainly belong to the upper castes. This is absolutely necessary to give them a minimum level of protection without which they cannot hope to compete with others.


Some sections of the OBCs like the barbers, washer men etc too are discriminated socially though of varying degree. This is a practice that is continuing from ages (a fact hidden from the innocent city-bred students unaware of the Indian realities) followed by the very people who are vociferous against reservations. There should be reservations for the OBCs on the basis of an agreed upon economic criterion as in certain areas they belong to the land owning classes, even though they may remain educationally and culturally backward. The use of economic criterion is a must to judiciously administer a policy of reservations and to periodically review their positions for this purpose. Some reservations to the economically backward people not covered by any reservations also should be provided.


Some people do argue that reservations have benefited only a small section of the people. At the level of facts, this is true. But instead of pointing to the futility of reservations it only points to an important fact-that unless democratic movement becomes strong enough to get the provision of reservations effectively implemented, unless the old feudal structure in the villages is dismantled and social oppression done away with, this limitation will continue and cannot be avoided.


It is natural that these questions are raised when educational opportunities and employment avenues are dwindling. The opposition to reservation also arises from those sections that include a large number of the economically deprived. Actually, both the votaries and opponents of reservations seem to consider admission into the limited number of seats and recruitment to the limited number of jobs available as the crucial question for their economic progress.  Reservations are one of the important issues raised by the national movement to uplift the socially oppressed sections of our society. Though they were intended as a temporary measure, the failure of the successive governments in ensuring equitable and speedy economic development led to their continuation and made them a contentious issue.


We must understand that it is not the policy of reservation that lies at the root of the problem but it is the limited number of employment and educational opportunities that is the root cause. In today’s world where the public sector is being systematically dismantled, government is going back from its social responsibilities this is even more important. Living in the times where the private sector is accorded a key role in the economy, we have to demand for reservations even in private sector. United, we should all fight for education for all and jobs for all and not against reservations. We must also remember the fact that the solution to the problems of access to education, unemployment, social disparities, injustice, requires the united endeavour of all sections and communities for a basic change in the socio-economic structure of our society.