Debating India


Countering social discrimination

Friday 2 June 2006, by HASAN*Zoya

The exclusion of the creamy layer is of the essence as it provides a way out of purely group-based categories of reservation. It is the most effective way of meeting the demands of social justice and inclusive education by giving benefits to the most deserving.

HIGHER EDUCATION has grown enormously since Independence - from 25 to 348 universities and 700 to 17,625 colleges. From the 1970s onwards, there has been an escalating demand for higher education, professional and technical education in particular, especially for engineering and medical colleges, and management schools. But ironically in sharp contrast to the spiralling growth and demand, six decades after Independence the opportunities for admission to these institutions are still largely monopolised by a small privileged section of society. This points to the persistence of social discrimination. Students from middle classes and forward castes traditionally associated with more education - making up about 20 per cent of the population - dominate higher education.

The effectiveness of reservation as an instrument to rectify this imbalance might be a matter of debate. But there is no denying that the Government is well within its rights to provide reservation up to 50 per cent of the total number of seats in government and aided institutions. The Constitution provides for additional reservation for the socially and educationally backward groups. The reservation for Other Backward Classes, much like the reservation policy for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, is premised on the understanding that in a regime of formal equality and open competition, members of a previously victimised group burdened by accumulated disabilities and disadvantages, will not be able to compete, and will, in fact, fall further behind. Preferential treatment can remedy these inequities. This is the rationale behind the concept of reservation for backward classes. The Supreme Court has also categorically upheld this upper limit of 50 per cent for reservation, in Indira Sawhney vs. the Union of India.

Though there is a deliberate effort to target Union Minister for Human Resource Development Arjun Singh, suggesting that he was behind the pushing of quotas solely for the political benefit of the Congress party, we need to keep in mind that the decision was taken by the political class as a whole and the 103rd constitutional amendment was unanimously passed. Besides, a decision of such significance could only have been possible with the knowledge and support of the Congress leadership and the United Progressive Alliance.

As it has turned out, the UPA Coordination Committee has rightly decided to go ahead with its inclination to widen the scope of the reservation policy, despite the pressure of the agitations and protests. It has now announced that it will implement the 27 per cent OBC reservation in Central educational institutions in 2007. In implementing and working out the modalities of the quota scheme, we need to address three critical issues that form the crux of the argument against reservation. The first issue is a basic question as to whether reservation is indeed the best way of rectifying inequities. The second is the issue of whether quotas and academic excellence are fundamentally incompatible, as is suggested in some quarters. Finally, the point as to whether the OBCs are affluent and therefore do not deserve reservation.

Almost everybody who is opposed to quotas claims to favour affirmative action. Starting from different vantage points, quotas and affirmative action converge strikingly in many ways, both are mechanisms of preferential treatment to facilitate inclusion of disadvantaged groups. The principal difference is that quotas are constitutionally mandated, while affirmative action may not be. Given the persistence of social discrimination, the question that must be posed should not be confined to the limited point as to whether preferential treatment must be in the form of quotas or affirmative action of a broader scope. Rather, the question should be: would alternative measures produce the same outcomes that mandatory quotas produce?

While reservation might not be the best or the only method of correcting longstanding discrimination, however, it is one of the more workable and feasible mechanisms for increasing access of disadvantaged groups to higher education; chiefly because it is transparent, enforceable, and easy to monitor. In the hysteria generated by the protests, we must not forget that the Indian reservation policy has been quite effective and has produced positive outcomes. For example, the proportion of Scheduled Caste students in the seven Indian Institutes of Technology (2003-02 to 2003-04) is about 9 per cent, which is below their allocated quota of 15 per cent but even this would have been hard to achieve in the absence of quotas. The proportion of OBC graduates, on the other hand, is a mere 8.6 per cent. So far, with the exception of a few institutions, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has designed an admission policy that gives additional points for social and regional backwardness helping to increase the OBC student intake to roughly 20 per cent of the student population, there is very little evidence of voluntary schemes of affirmative action in other institutions of higher learning. The fact that very few institutions have introduced voluntary measures of affirmative action for the disadvantaged sections and the continuation of the anti-quota protests despite the announcement of an increase in the number of seats in Central educational institutions leads one to the conclusion that the real issue is not affirmative action per se but hostility to any policy intervention that sets out to empower the underprivileged and dilute the monopoly of the privileged in education. That is why we need reservation for different groups in higher education because the nature of Indian society ensures that without such measures, social discrimination and exclusion will persist and be strengthened.

The second argument is that quotas militate against academic excellence and will lead to further deterioration of academic standards. This flawed theory is contradicted by the experience of American universities and the south Indian experience. As has been pointed out in the ongoing debate, the experience of affirmative action in American universities has been extremely positive with no dilution of academic standards. Likewise, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala have had high levels of quotas for decades with no evident decline in standards as compared to north Indian universities. In fact, it is widely accepted throughout the world that diversity makes educational institutions more interesting, and, therefore, adds quality to education.

The third point that troubles the anti-reservationists is the issue of economic status and determining who is eligible for reservation. Given the political momentum behind the policy of reservation for the OBCs, a shift to an economic criterion is unlikely; yet, the current controversy over OBC reservation placed the economic criteria on the political centre stage once again. There are two factors here. One is the social composition of the OBCs and, the second, the definition of the creamy layer. As distinct from the SCs and the STs, we must recognise that there is internal differentiation and intra-group inequality among the OBCs. The Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney vs. the Union of India case addressed how economic factors should figure in the definition of backwardness, which means that the government must find ways to disqualify the more advantaged individuals in these classes and help the truly backward.

Although reservation for the OBCs is necessary, the Government should ensure that it does not reproduce inequalities within groups that reservation seeks to remedy between groups. The creamy layer rules presume that there are individuals within the group who have the economic and political clout to overcome discrimination and hence it is important to exclude them. But the rules should allow for a situation in which a group continues to be an OBC but individuals within that group are excluded. In India, both economic and caste criteria are difficult to apply because of the large informal economy, and the obfuscation of the economic criteria on account of corruption. But whatever the difficulties, we need to evolve criteria that should exclude the affluent in the OBC communities who have access to jobs and higher education. Creamy layer rules should be more complex than a simple economic cut-off; it should include a wide variety of considerations relating to employment, property, jobs, schooling, and access to higher education.

Two major conclusions emerge: The application of creamy layer rules although complicated and contentious permits the Government to consider a combination of factors, both group and individual, both caste and class, in the definition of backwardness. Secondly, the exclusion of the creamy layer is of the essence as it provides a way out of purely group-based categories of reservation. It is the most effective way of meeting the demands of social justice and inclusive education by giving benefits to the most deserving. To allow the undeserving to benefit from reservation is to deny protection to those who deserve to be protected.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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