Is it time to rethink caste-based reservation quotas?

Should the accident of birth be the sole factor in determining the opportunities available to a person?  Should we persist with the current system of caste-based reservation quotas? Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, these questions are finding their way back to the political centrestage.

First, senior Congress leader Janardhan Dwivedi, and now BJP leader Sanjay Paswan have suggested the need to revisit the existing reservation system. Both leaders argue that in its current format the caste-based reservation system has created vested interests within the community and those most in need of the reservation quota rarely ever get it.

For the Congress, Dwivedi’s suggestion couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment. Barely months away from a crucial general election in which the Congress in unlikely to fare well, it couldn’t afford to alienate the Dalit votebank, especially as it is the dominant Dalit castes that historically align with the Congress. Neither could the Congress afford a split in the Dalit vote, hence Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s long explanatory statement of her party’s position on caste-based reservations.

Paswan’s suggestion that the third generation of quota beneficiary families should not be eligible or that there should be income ceilings in identifying beneficiaries, similar to that for Other Backward Classes, appears to have the backing of his party. The merits of the argument notwithstanding, the BJP support for the idea is not without electoral benefits. In reaching out to the disadvantaged among the Dalits, the BJP is hoping to secure the vote of  those sections that have not gained from the reservation policy of successive governments.

Electoral benefits apart, it brings to focus an important question: has the current system of caste-based reservation delivered on its promise? This leads to another question: are quotas the best instruments for delivering equal opportunities for those who have been historically disadvantaged and marginalized?

The fact that the suggestion has come up within the two principle political parties indicates that the quota system hasn’t delivered to the extent that was expected.

Why hasn’t the reservation quota system delivered? Many argue that the quota system does deliver. After all in the last 64 years many persons belonging to the disadvantaged communities have held high public office, risen to the top echelons of administration and been important community leaders. But even so, a large number still remain disadvantaged, marginalized and too far away from any opportunity to better their lives. What accounts for this disparate achievement rate, even as the state has created and protected avenues for advancement?

To borrow from Robert Shiller and George Akerlof’s assessment of continuing poverty among African-Americans in the United States, the answer perhaps lies in the stories and the notion of fairness. The stories of being deprived, of being left out are powerful instruments that affect the way the disadvantaged groups approach opportunities.

Consider the way the quotas work. A child goes through the first 16 years of his/her life before they can access a quota. The first opportunity comes at 17, when the child is set to enter the higher education system. In a country where only 12 out of 100 make it to college, the numbers who make use of the quota is woefully small. By this time, the child has had to navigate through the psychological and material difficulties of an economic and social system that they did not chose and consider to be unfair. Their “differences” are part of their makeup, the notions of “not getting their rightful fair share” reinforced, the notions of “us” and “them” embedded. Clearly the world doesn’t seem like a fair place. The right to equal opportunity enshrined in the Constitution seems like a distant dream.

In “The Dignity of Working Men”, Michele Lamont finds that African American workers (at the same level as their white counterparts) view their lack of success in a “them” and “us” paradigm. They view their success, achieved under more difficult circumstance than the white co-workers, accomplished in a world that is determined by “them” and their rules.  The Indian situation may not be completely co-terminus with this, but differences of caste and religion continue to inform the worldview and approach in much the same way.

What seems increasingly clear is that any approach that seeks to address the continued deprivation of marginalized groups must take into account that these groups have been dealt with a bad hand when it comes to resources, both at the level individual families and that of communities. It needs to be understood that the story of “us” and “them” is not just a notional; it is the outcome of a story of deprivation. It need not be today’s lived story, but it is definitely part of their received stories, reinforcing the divide between “us” and “them”. Additionally, these groups believe (a belief that is reinforced constantly often by those who claim to be their saviours for their personal gain) that they function in a world that is both unjust and unfair. So how does one break the cycle?

Two institutions can make a difference. The most important is the school. There is a need to recognize that communities that poor in resource resulting from historical circumstances will need special outreach. Even now schools are seen as the path to breaking the cycle of poverty, deprivation and marginalisation.  Resources used to strengthen schools functioning in these communities can make the difference. There has been a considerable reduction in the drop out rate among Scheduled Castes at the class VIII level—from 55.25% in 2005-06 to 43.3% in 2010-11, but much more needs to be done. If more children from these communities make it through school, they will have a better shot at using the much-vaunted quota for higher education and jobs. Larger numbers would exert pressure to ensure that the constitutional provision for ensuring diversity doesn’t become the preserve of a few. 

The other is a watchdog ensuring diversity and equality of opportunity—the Equal Opportunity Commission. The stated claim of reservation quota is to promote diversity and addressing historical wrongdoing.  An equal opportunity commission could ensure that diversity is not restricted to predetermined numbers. Since it is based on the principle that “all things being equal” preference is given to certain groups, it could help counter the arguments of merit that are constantly raised when the issue of quota is raised. Unfortunately, in its haste to collect electoral brownie points, the Congress-led UPA government has approved setting up an Equal Opportunity Commission, which will only deal with minorities, not discrimination and deprivation across the board.

The efficacy of the system of caste-based reservation quota needs to debated and discussed without getting caught in the electoral politics of the question. Till that happens, the Indian version of affirmative action will remain an instrument for creating vote banks.



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