More Important Than You Think: Quota For Economically Weak And 25 Per Cent Increase In Educational Seats

More Important Than You Think: Quota For Economically Weak And 25 Per Cent Increase In Educational SeatsIndian college students. (Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • The 10 per cent EWS quota and the 25 per cent hike in college seats is a far-reaching reform that serves as the first step towards achieving an overall improvement in India’s education system.

The recently-announced 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category (GC) and the 25 per cent hike in college and university intakes will have far reaching consequences. They are educational reforms of great magnitude.

These changes have led to the 103rd amendment to the Indian Constitution. The fact that even when Parliament and the country are as bitterly polarised as they are today, both houses have voted nearly unanimously for the quota, underlining the seriousness of the move. This is no election gimmick.

It is in order for us to distance ourselves from the rhetoric, politics, and emotionalism of the caste issues. No one contests the need for reservations for socially deprived and discriminated sections of society. All of us know that Dr B R Ambedkar recommended a 10-year limit only for political quotas and not for educational quotas, and that having a quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs) and later Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in educational institutions is only the first step towards a more egalitarian society with regard to social mores and standards, indeed for a more humane India.

At the same time, and considering that our parliamentarians have spoken unanimously, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will strike down the amendment as being unconstitutional, even considering the ‘Indra Sawhney & others Vs Union of India’ judgement.

Undoubtedly, all the major political parties have taken legal advice before they voted. Their vote was not merely political but also pragmatic. You cannot stop a thing whose time has come. Our parliamentarians know this. The Constitution is not written in letters of stone. It has been successfully amended 102 times already. One can hold that the court may now opine only on whether or not this particular amendment violates the spirit of the Constitution, and fundamental rights of the citizens, nothing more.

Specious is the argument made by some politicians like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi, that economic distress can be addressed in other ways and that the 10 per cent EWS quota is not required. No one wants a dole, not even the SC/SC and OBC communities. It is a matter of self-respect.

A quota opens up the way to an educational opportunity, which in turn brings long-term benefits not only to the individual but also to society at large. In my experience as an educator for 40 years, I have observed that on the rare occasions when an SC/ST or more often an OBC student qualifies for admission in the general category, (s)he will almost always avail of the general category admission.

At the same time, an economically-backward student in the general category is unable to advance in the present dispensation for two crushing reasons: (s)he cannot get admission because s(he) belongs to the general category; even if (s)he gets admission, (s)he cannot afford the education. So, merely giving a dole is insufficient. Of what use is money if one cannot secure admission?

The matter of caste reservations in academic institutions has been such a volatile topic politically speaking, and so intimately connected to election outcomes, that politicians have never dared to address it directly since the days of the Mandal Commission. In this regard, the actions of the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government are laudable. No discussion on education in India will be complete unless a disinterested debate on this matter is initiated.

The present amendment to the Constitution has begun such a debate. Caste reservations are essential, but they are only a part, and one form of affirmative action in a deeply divided and unfair country. Disparities in educational attainments are related to caste and social groups, but they are also strongly related to other indicators such as income, gender, region, religion and place of residence.

The main reason that caste reservations have become so controversial is because there is now a strong feeling among groups (upper castes), who are not covered by these reservations that they are being deprived of educational opportunities because of these very reservations. Nobody would disapprove of reservations to SC/ST and OBC/Most Backward Class communities if their own fates were unaffected.

It is when one is asked to sacrifice something as valuable as a university seat so that someone from another community may be benefited because of real and imagined sins committed at a time in the past which is now well before one’s memory span and awareness that the trouble begins. The question rightly asked is, “why should I suffer for something that my ancestors might or might not have done in the past?”

The Prime Minister (when he was the chief minister of Gujarat) has correctly said that the ill effects of our caste reservation policies are a consequence of a scarcity economy. When one does not have enough, one has to carve out the pie in ways that do not suit everyone. The present situation (that is, before the 103rd amendment) was not satisfactory.

In the end, no one was happy. The truly underprivileged still have a long way to go and have not fully enjoyed the benefits of reservation while the so-called advantaged classes have felt totally excluded and even discriminated against.

A backlash from them would lead to civil unrest of the type that former prime minister V P Singh unleashed — and this is the last thing we need in an economically aspirational country. The India of 2019 is not the India of 1990. We can and must bring in economic factors when we try to improve the levels of inequality in our country.

Social reforms must graduate to socio-economic reforms because beyond a point it is impossible to distinguish these phenomena. By addressing the economic issues, one is not necessarily downgrading social issues and this is something that all right thinking people must disseminate before our manipulative politicians try to spread the canard.

The government has now correctly increased the intake of the number of students that too by 25 per cent. This needs to be done when quotas are increased to avoid any disturbance of the existing numbers and this is what was done when the 27 per cent quota for OBCs was introduced many years ago.

It is instructive to look at real numbers. I have not seen that actual act or notifications from the Human Resources and Development Ministry, the University Grants Commission or the All India Council for Technical Education, but a simple understanding of what is easily obtained from the public domain leads me to conclude that in the just concluded dispensation, a class of 100 students would have the following breakdown: 15 (SC); 7.5 (ST); 27 (OBC); 50.5 (GC).

In the new dispensation, a class of 125 students would have this breakdown: 19 (SC); 9 (ST); 34 (OBC); 13 (GC reserved); 50 (GC unreserved). There would be 63 GC students in a class of 125, which is near 50.5 per cent, as it must be, so that Indra Sawhney judgement is not violated, at least with regard to this particular provision.

It is appropriate to compare the 13 GC reserved category students only with the 50 GC unreserved category students in our prototypical class of 125, and not with the 62 lower caste category students. The new quota does not alter the fate of these latter SC/ST or OBC students. Within the GC category, it gives a preference to the EWS category.

What exactly does this mean?

The real significance of this quota is that it helps poor students, and Owaisi could be told that it would help Muslims in particular because they are generally at the lower income end of the general category. Indeed, it places economically forward students, who are also in the general category, at a slight disadvantage. This is why the number of seats has been increased.

Looking at it, not entirely accurately, we had 50 students in the general category in our erstwhile class of 100 and we also now have 50 GC students — but who are also economically stable — in the new class of 125. Assuming that the demand for seats from the economically forward section of the upper castes is constant (not a very good assumption, and this is why this line of thinking is slightly inaccurate), this is not a bad compromise for the time being.

In general, the move helps all meritorious students across all categories because the number of seats has been increased by 25 per cent. For example, there will now be 19 SC students in our prototypical class of 125 as opposed to 15 in the earlier class of 100. Critics already want to know why the increase is only 25 per cent and not say 50 per cent or even 100 per cent. The answer is simple. We don’t have the funding or infrastructure for huge increase in the numbers of seats but the government has already stated that an amount of Rs 1,241 crore has been earmarked for this purpose.

This is a statement of confidence in our overall economic condition and the public will do well to be aware of this. An indirect (and possibly intended) effect is that IITs and other institutions, which have a large number of unfilled faculty positions will now energise themselves and fill these positions. They must.

This essay will not be complete without a mention, however brief, of a strange outlier called Tamil Nadu.

It is not lost on anyone that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have either walked out of Parliament or voted against the EWS quota in both houses. The history of the backward-class movement in Tamil Nadu goes as far back as 1870. In keeping with the federal structure of our Union, the reservation policies of Tamil Nadu have been facilitated by our courts so that quotas there are quite different from the rest of the country.

For example, our prototypical class of 100 students would actually have 119 students if it were located in Tamil Nadu and the breakdown would be: 18, SC; 1, ST; 30, OBC; 20, MBC; 31 GC; 19 supernumerary. It is anyone’s guess what these numbers would become in the new dispensation: almost a research topic in itself. This state needs to introspect, and seriously.

If one is so far away from the rest of the country in an aspect as important as educational reform and progress, one should be absolutely sure that one is on the right track. Social upliftment is meaningless without economic advancement. Indeed, social status is practically meaningless in a system which is economically very advanced.

In 2007, the Tamil Nadu government has told the Supreme Court that “it is now the turn of the upper castes to suffer” and this begs the question as to whether the policy of that government is upliftment of the lower castes or more the deprivation of educational opportunities to Brahmins.

The present 10 per cent and 25 per cent hikes bring this question straight to the doorstep of the Tamil Nadu government and to quote the Bible, it appears that there will be much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Madras!

As mentioned above, the caste argument has become so polarised in India because there are simply not enough places for aspiring students. It is truly a scarcity issue as the Prime Minister has said. If massive amounts of money are infused into undergraduate education, so that basically anyone who wants to study is given a place to study close to his or her home, much of the heartburn would go away, and the politicians would also get their votes.

Problems that can be solved with money are often the easiest problems to solve, and with the rising prosperity levels of the country, I am hopeful that the entire issue of caste based and other reservations will rapidly become a ghost of times past. Most young people in this country do not want to join an IIT. All they want is a decent basic education, which leads to gainful and decent employment close to their homes.

The present initiatives of the government are the first steps towards achieving an overall improvement of the educational system of India, and with this an overall advancement of the nation itself


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