Debating India


The reservation impasse

Thursday 18 May 2006, by VAIDHYANATHAN*A.

A way needs to be found to relate eligibility for reservation to economic status but with provision for preferential treatment for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Other Backward Classes.

THE CENTRAL plank of the current agitation against reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes in admissions to higher education is that it discriminates against merit and will result in further deterioration of quality. It is significant that the agitation at this time is spearheaded mainly by the medical students and doctors with some support from their cohorts in IITs and IIMs. Their concern for merit as the primary criterion for access is touching. But success in entrance tests for professional colleges is far from a reliable indicator of `merit’.

It is well known that most of the youth who are in higher education institutions, or aspiring to join them, belong to the top 5 or 10 per cent of households. Aspirants for higher-level professional courses are even more concentrated in this class. They come from families that can afford to send them to better, often private, schools; spend substantial amounts on private coaching both for secondary school examinations and much, much larger amounts for preparation for entrance tests.

On all these counts the rest of the population, and especially the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Other Backward Classes, is at a serious disadvantage. They do not have the means to keep their children in school beyond the middle stage, and the small minority that manages to do so can only send them to government schools. None can afford private coaching. Despite these handicaps, a sizeable number - much larger than is recognised - of children from these groups manage to do well, and some very well, in public exams. But their family means do not even allow them the luxury of even thinking of higher education.

Irrefutable rationale

It is only fair that a society committed to democracy, social justice, and equality of opportunity must take special measures to at least mitigate this disadvantage. This is the basic and irrefutable rationale for reservation.

This does not mean that reservation as practised so far or the proposed extension of its scope to professional education is the correct strategy. It has not significantly reduced the disparities in access to education both in schools and at higher levels. Moreover, reservation in higher education as a whole and in professional courses in particular has focussed exclusively on caste as the criterion of backwardness and created strong pressures for widening the scope of the OBCs. This has led to the cornering of the benefits of reservation by the better off segments, the so-called creamy layer, of these castes.

There is, therefore, a strong case for addressing these anomalies and restructuring reservation. There can be no compromise on the basic principle that public policy should take purposive and effective measures to help the socially and economically disadvantaged segments in accessing quality education. But caste, and only certain categories at that, should not be the sole criterion for affirmative action and reservation.

A way needs to be found to relate eligibility under the quota to the economic status of the aspirant’s family but with provision for special and preferential treatment for the SCs, the STs, and the OBCs. This should be combined with measures to increase their opportunity to access and pursue higher education.

A simple and straightforward way of taking economic status into account would be to limit eligibility to students from families that are not liable to income tax. By doing so the pressure for expanding the list of OBCs will be automatically dampened. All students from the categories eligible for reservation who perform above a well defined standard but cannot afford higher education deserve to be given the opportunity and special coaching facilities at public expense to compete in entrance tests for higher education, including professional education. And those who perform satisfactorily in the entrance tests should be enabled to join and complete the courses by giving them financial assistance from public funds to meet the costs.

It is important to recognise that a sizable number of students from other social categories who perform quite well in high school examinations cannot afford higher studies. Extending these facilities and assistance to students from the non-scheduled castes who perform well in school leaving and entrance exams would make the scheme more broad based and caste/community neutral.

The above approach offers a practical and transparent way of widening access to higher education for students, combining social and economic disadvantage, who perform well in schools. Working out the details of the scheme will of course have to address issues like (a) basis for fixing performance standards for eligibility; (b) whether they should be uniform between scheduled and non-scheduled categories and within the former; (c) whether specific admission quotas should be fixed for scheduled categories collectively or individually. But these are not insuperable problems. What is important is to ensure clear and transparent criteria along with credible monitoring mechanisms to see that they are observed.

The basic problem

This does not, of course, address the more basic problem of inadequate and poor quality of teaching and facilities and equipment of the public school system on which most children of socially and economically disadvantaged groups depend. A serious and sustained effort is essential to correct these deficiencies.

Of course this calls for larger allocations of public funds for public schools, perhaps combined with a review of public funding of private schools. But larger funding will not be of much avail unless the quality of teachers and teaching in public schools improves significantly. That calls for thorough reform of the way the public school system is organised and managed.

These reforms do not figure high on the state agenda. Nor are the new elite and the middle classes particularly interested in pressing for such reform. They are far more concerned in mobilising political pressure to abandon or at least dilute the reservation system so that their class can take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities at home and abroad.

(Professor A. Vaidyanathan is a development economist and a former member of the Planning Commission.)

See online : The Hindu

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0