Post Mortem

Redesigning India’s reservation system

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 3/13/2021 1:11:53 PM IST

 In a political sense, India’s system of caste reservation is in robust health. Caste quotas have strong popular support — one 2018 survey in Uttar Pradesh found that 69% of adults approved of them, including a majority of forward castes. The new 10% quota for the economically weaker sections of the forward castes appears similarly popular, as do sub-quotas for the Extremely Backward Castes. The enthusiasm for reservation extends to relatively prosperous peasant groups — Jats, Patels and Marathas, among others — whose demands for quotas have led to confrontations either with groups with existing quotas or challenging the Supreme Court’s 50% limit on reservation.

Meanwhile, the social scientific evidence for the positive effects of reservation is strong and getting stronger. Caste discrimination remains common in rural India, and even after nearly a century of quotas, caste is highly predictive of socioeconomic outcomes even after accounting for other factors such as parental occupation and education.

Moreover, the imposition of quotas leads to broadly distributed welfare gains for the targeted groups. In a recent article, I found that the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the 1990s increased the educational attainment of the average Other Backward Classes (OBC) adults by a year and their probability of holding a government job by six percentage points, with the largest gains coming among those with modestly educated fathers. Similarly, concerns that reservations lead to a decline in institutional efficiency appear overblown. For instance, in a recent article, I found that lower caste Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers perform better than others in implementing anti-poverty programmes.

However, there is no denying that there is widespread cynicism about the reservation system among working politicians and within the Indian middle-class. They see reservation as a political “goodie’’ rather than an idealistic effort to create a more just society. The concerns can be grouped under two main headings.

That the reservation system is “divisive” and that it is “unfair.” While both terms can be used as coded ways of dismissing all low-caste activism, both have some basis in fact. Reservation has probably encouraged that tendency of Indian political debate to focus on the entitlements of groups rather than individuals, and on the distribution of existing opportunities rather than the creation of more opportunities.

Moreover, the nearly exclusive focus on a single ascriptive trait, caste, necessarily creates situations where the system does not promote the broad principles of fairness. There are many individuals from non-listed groups (some of whom are members of religious minorities) who have access to only limited social and educational opportunities, while there are many others who are able to produce caste and non-creamy layer certificates despite having access to very extensive social and educational opportunities. A few such “anomalies” are inevitable in any system of social entitlements, but when they proliferate, they threaten the legitimacy of the system in a fundamental way.

In the mid-1990s, the system of racial preferences in the United States went through a similar crisis of legitimacy, with many arguing that it should fade away after 25 years. President Bill Clinton, in a nationally televised speech, famously suggested that the system should be reformed rather than abolished —“mend it, don’t end it”.

Many dismissed this as a typical piece of obfuscatory political rhetoric, but it captured a fundamental truth — that positive discrimination can lead to important advances in societies with deep-seated social inequalities, but that such systems must be periodically examined and redesigned.

As the various challenges to the 50% ceiling and specific caste listings make their way through the courts, India has a chance to rebuild the link between reservation and social justice. The most obvious reform would be to reduce the number of relatively wealthy beneficiaries. This could be done both by enhancing enforcement of the existing creamy layer system (widely thought to be defective) and by refusing to grant reservations to relatively prosperous castes on purely political grounds.

A more ambitious reform would be to abolish the artificial distinction between “merit” and “quota”, and access each application holistically.

The current system is indifferent to the level of social disadvantage of those who are not members of a quota category and assumes that the disadvantages of those within each category are the same. At the same time, the system is also indifferent to the qualifications of quota candidates (except relative to each other), as long as they clear a low minimum.

Alternatively, one could define a “disadvantage factor” for every candidate, incorporating both family background and income and the social challenges faced by their community. This disadvantage factor would then be added to the “merit factor”, derived from exams to give an overall score.

Such a system would allow for fine-grained adjustments based on the latest social scientific evidence about the socioeconomic status of particular communities and the relative role of group or individual factors. It would also change conversations around reservation from binary demands at the group level (“we are disadvantaged”) to questions of scaling at the individual level (“how disadvantaged is this person relative to other people?”).

Such a system would enable the reservation system to return to its original purpose of making India a more just society. Whether politicians will give up a potent way to reward vote-banks, is, of course, another question.

Alexander Lee

Associate professor of political science, 

University of Rochester

(The views expressed are personal)

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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