Aarakshan: A Hard-Headed View on Reservation System

One of the most hotly debated themes of contemporary Indian society is the Reservation System with the beneficiaries indignantly in support of the policy while the non-beneficiaries ferociously against the idea. In this piece, I have tried my level best to detach myself from any of these standpoints and dissect the issue to its core with relevant facts/figures, logic, and coherence as tools. Indian society is divided among radically opposite views and if we choose to opt for one of these views coming from the society, we are entering into a process of biased assimilation and selective avoidance which does not let a healthy discourse take place. An appropriate approach involves objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality in the process of opinion building, which I have tried with special emphasis in this piece.

Fundamentally, the reservation system attempts to give some extra privileges in matters of education, employment, health, and political representation to the sections of society which are socio-economically deprived of opportunities and resources given by the state. An impetuous understanding based on this theme would imply a violation of the right to equality which belongs to part 3 (Fundamental Rights) of our constitution. However, a reasoned perusal of the theme would bring us to the conclusion that the reservation system to all intents and purposes reinforces equality in society through equity. Equity and equality are two different concepts. To understand let us take an example – suppose there are two children A and B, born and brought up in a contrastingly different settings. Child A was born into a highly qualified family with obviously higher annual income, always a resident in a metropolitan city, and got quality English medium education with plenty of people to provide worthy guidance. On the contrary, Child B was born in a rurally based farmer family with illiterate parents, income just sufficient to hold them alive, no quality education, no exposure, and no guidance available. Do You Think both children are on a level playing field when applying for employment? Even with Equality of opportunity, it is as plain as a pikestaff that Child A will outperform Child B. So, does give some extra benefits to Child B amount to creating a level playing field or goes against equality? Will torchbearers of ‘Absolute Equality’ say that both children are starting the race from the same point?

In another example, why do we have different U-16, and U-18 teams in sports? Are we discriminating based on age or are we giving a level playing field to all?

The concept of positive equality involves reasonable protective discrimination done to ensure equity which is a necessity in a heterogenous society like India which even has a long history of exploitation, discrimination, and untouchability. It is a well-established observation that a nation first achieves ‘Absolute Equality’ or the ‘Negative Equality’ which ends exploitative discrimination completely and gradually achieves ‘Positive Equality’ or ‘Equity’ which finally provides for ‘Reasonable Discrimination’ in order to protect the vulnerable. The same is the concept of the Reservation System.

Now the substantial question is, has Indian society attained complete social justice or still, social discrimination exists? It is beyond doubt that we have still a long journey left to be covered. Examples like the death of Nangeli in Travancore (1924), the death sentence for covering their upper bodies to 2 women of Nadar Caste (1859), widespread untouchability, discriminatory ‘Chaturvarna’ or the caste system, stereotyping and discrimination against women, last known incident of Sati in India (Roop Kanwar 1987) is not even five decades old, we cannot claim social justice as a feature of our society. Since we are still in the process of being an egalitarian society, we need to give extra privileges to the ones left behind in the race to streamline them in the mainstream.

As per census 2011 data, the Scheduled Caste Population is 19%, Scheduled Tribes are 10% and the Economically Weaker Section is 20%. Since the last caste census was in 1931, we do not have exact data for the OBC population but based on 2006 NSSO data, the OBC population is around 41%. Therefore, the general or the unreserved category tends to be at 10% of which 5% are women. So effectively the population not eligible to claim any reservation benefit is just 5%. So, in a way, we are currently giving 50% reservation to 95% population. This is a point to ponder.

The SC (15%), ST (7.5%), OBC (27%) and EWS (20%) are given a vertical reservation of 59.5% and the remaining 40% is ‘UNRESERVED’ which implies that these seats can be claimed by people coming from SC, ST, OBC, EWS also but purely based on merit. On the other hand, Women and Persons with Benchmark Disabilities are given horizontal reservations wherein the ‘UNRESERVED’ are called ‘GENERAL’ and GENERAL QUOTA is reserved for GENERAL only. This is an undue advantage to males since the merit of women is also being counted under reservation.

To get a global perspective let’s take the case of the USA first. From 1954 onwards the civil rights movement gained considerable momentum which demanded the rights of equality for all (especially for the so-called blacks). President John F. Kennedy initiated Preference System as part of ‘Affirmative Action in the USA to ensure social justice. The reservation system as a system of fixation of quota was not allowed in the USA although every state has different laws owing to the fact that it is a truly federal nation. The model of affirmative action in the USA was followed by its implementation in countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. While countries with a socialist tilt like India, Pakistan, China, Canada, and Russia went ahead with the quota-based reservation system. So, it is visceral to conclude that quota-based reservation is unique to India.

In India, reservation in politics is granted under Article 330 – 334 (this is the only time-bound reservation in India), and reservation in public employment and education are part of fundamental rights under Articles 16 and 15 of our constitution. Apart from these, the establishment of the SC ST commission, women’s commission, women-centric laws, prevention of atrocities to SC, ST etc are all steps towards ensuring social justice and ebbing social discrimination.

One of the most common arguments against the concept of reservation is that it stifles merit and abates the development trajectory. To a minor extent, it is justified since when a nation aspires to be a superpower it must compete globally and we cannot compromise merit. But majorly this argument fails to satisfy the rationalistic idea. Merit to all intents and purposes is a social product comprised of genetic inheritance and the social environment. So, a person with actual merit basically got a superior genetic inheritance and a good social environment which kept his curiosity and cravings to learn in place. Now the interesting thing to note is, that neither the genetic inheritance nor the social environment is a conscious decision of the person who appears to be of merit today. So, in a way, a person’s merit is a coincidence and he himself has a very minute role to play, however, there are exceptions, but on a broader view, this idea seems to be logical enough. So, merit is a product of society and how can the person of merit alone claim all the associated benefits? Is it not against the concept of an egalitarian society?

Another coherent idea is that merit is a vicious circle like poverty. Merit breeds merit and non-merit breeds non-merit. A meritorious individual will have better economic opportunities and resources and the social environment at his disposal for his offspring will be higher which in turn will strongly attempt to develop merit in the offspring as well but exactly the reverse is the case with the down trodden and left behind sections of the society. Hence people with less merit are not guilty of it so why they should bear the punishment for it? 

Another common visceral argument given by the opposers of the reservation system is that the burden of discrimination committed by the ancestors should not be borne by future generations so the reservation system is itself a bad idea. But this argument even is not justified enough. We are not responsible and answerable for the criminal acts done by our ancestors is completely justified but when it comes to civil acts, the test of justification declares it a failure. When we rightfully inherit the property and wealth of our ancestors, it is our responsibility to accept the social evils prevalent in our past and take steps to mainstream the oppressed and the suppressed.

So the crux of the discussion is that reservation, as a concept, is a cornerstone of social justice, especially in a society like India which is teeming with the ordeals of suppressed. It is a strong attempt towards vandalizing institutions of discrimination and majoritarianism offering equal opportunities for social inclusion in the true sense. It augurs well with the democratic spirit of inclusiveness and adequate representation. Bestows faith in the state and contributes towards the process of nation-building. The nation is by the people, not the boundaries. 

Albeit the fact that the concept is pure, the implementation in India is still susceptible to unauthorized advantages and flouting of the very idea of the concept. A plethora of examples are available in the public domain when well-off individuals who were in principle equal with the general category got the advantage of reservation. This is an unfair advantage and discriminatory for the people not claiming reservation. This is the point from where ire against the system initiates. Deserving people from getting a reservation is an acceptable concept but when the reverse starts to take place, it is hard to embrace. The crux is that we need to strike a fine balance between merit and social justice, being the extremes will not work. We as a society need to embrace the system given the fact that the resources of the state are at stake which even has alternative uses. So undoubtedly reforms in an implementation like Limit on the reservation, OBC Creamy Layer, Private Sector Reservation etc are indispensable but the reservation as a concept in India seems to be justified on a hard-headed dissection.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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