The Union Health Ministry recently announced that more than half the seats in the all India quota will be reserved for open category student. This will effectively place a cap on the number of seats available for those belonging to Other Backward Class (OBC), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST). Many analysts are hailing this as a welcome step towards resolving the contentious issue of ‘affirmative action’ or reservation in India. However, this step is deficient in any earnest policy revisions.
Article 46 of the Indian Constitution made provisions for reservation for ST and SC to facilitate their educational and economic growth. Many felt that such a measure was needed given their lack of governmental representation and centuries of discrimination in British-India. The Mandal commission report of 1980 doubled the existing reservation when it declared 1,257 communities as OBC.
Reservation was initially successful in achieving its objectives. The literacy rate and share of administrative jobs among Dalits increased, but soon it became a political tool to mobilise people into electoral blocs. This current measure of reserving seats for the general category is nothing but an extension of such an ideology.
It is evident that the provisions of reservation have become redundant due to a lack of any major revision. The reservation policy was drafted keeping in the mind the then social hierarchy of the country, which has now significantly changed in terms of demography and economic conditions. Without adopting any definite measure to address this issue, India would see many more agitations similar to Patel and Jat unrest of 2016.
Analysts argue that successive governments neglected the issue due to its immense political implication. Reservation caters to the caste and community distinction of the Indian society, which is an important medium of self-identification in the country. So any major political party is wary of hurting the sentiments of a complete ‘voter bloc’. However, India would not be the first country to face a problem with aging affirmative action policies.
In the United States, affirmative action refers to the admission preferences given along racial and gender lines. It was enacted around 1961 after it was found that people belonging to certain races and gender faced discrimination in terms of educational and employment opportunities. But no major revisions were subsequently enacted to the policy after its initiation to accommodate the changing economic demography in a particular race. The immediate disadvantage observed is that it started favouring the rich and affluent people of the races rather than helping the actual ‘needy’ ones. There have been many judicial hearings that addressed the issue, but a definite course is yet to be charted.
The policy of reservation has always been a balancing act between ‘diversity’ and ‘fairness’. The initial policy was enacted due to the debilitating effects of centuries of discrimination against the Dalits, Shudras and other underprivileged sections of the society. Proponents of the reservation system argue that it is more likely that people counted under SC, ST or OBC live in poverty, suffer from health issues etc, and are entitled for a little boost at the expense of the general citizen. However, the more practical aspects of the reservation policy are that who should receive them, who should implement them and what should be the extent of the policy. These are questions which are making the current reservation policy in India archaic and moot.
It is very important to know who is disadvantaged for a successful application of the reservation policy, and this is the most ignored aspect in the reservation policy. The external conditions which motivated the reservation policy have changed. It is very common to find extremely affluent people in certain castes and tribes whereas there will be an extremely poor family barely making a living in general category, and thus, caste and tribe cannot be the sole factor guiding the reservation policy. This calls for developing a new reservation policy based on statistics which explicitly targets the disadvantaged people irrespective of caste, creed, tribe or religion.
The most important point to be kept in mind is that it is not desirable to completely eliminate reservation. It is highly likely that eliminating reservation would exacerbate the economic and social despair. However, steps could be adopted to revise it to make it more inclusive in nature.
Accurate data is a must for reviewing such a contentious policy and thus the first step would be to obtain coherent data which explicitly identify backward classes. This data collection should include caste, employments statistics, economic figures and other family related data. It should be also noted that the relationship between caste and jobs have blurred since India’s Independence and it is very common to find a person from the general category mending shoes, and a person from the reserved section running multi-million worth industries. Thus, the caste factor should not have more importance than required. The economic notions attached with many jobs have changed considerably and the new policy should clearly reflect this. A simple comprehensive survey of the already existing classifications (below poverty line or antyodyaya anna yojana) can be used to identify new sections for reservation based on economic conditions, employment history, gender, education level, caste and tribe.
Reservation certification can be linked with the Aadhaar card to make sure that benefits of reservation is not limited to only the upper echelon of any particular caste . Such a step would help the government monitor the number of individuals benefitting from reservation certification and make necessary adjustments so that the benefits are available to a wide section of society. It is highly discriminatory when an individual utilises reservation to get college admission followed by government jobs, which again is followed by promotion. Some form of limitation on the utilisation of reservation certificate can also be worked out.
New data collected can be organised into new indexes similar to University of Colorado boulder. The university developed two indexes called ‘disadvantage index’ and ‘overachievement index’, which considers applicants’ educational grades and socio-economic conditions. The ‘disadvantage index’ indicates the probability of an applicant to join college due to external conditions whereas ‘overachievement index’ shows whether an applicant has some undue advantage over other applicants subject to same economic condition. These indexes make sure that the benefits of affirmative action are distributed as fairly as possible.
In the Indian scenario, new indexes can be used to verify whether a particular candidate in a particular tribe has some economic or social advantage over other candidates in that tribe (or caste). This would make sure that the benefits are equally distributed among the people in a particular caste or tribe. Many analysts argue that quantifying qualitative data such as economic data or social hierarchy is very difficult given India’s huge population and diverse demography. However, educated estimates can be made utilising the data collected. Also, provision should be made to ensure that the current policies of reservation are reviewed every two decades or so by a panel of non-partisan education experts.
Current reservation policy promotes a ‘catch-all’ policy which is aimed at benefitting a certain demographic group in an incoherent manner. Statistically modified reservation policy as proposed in this article will ensure that the benefits of reservation reach the truly ‘dis-advantaged’ people.
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