The Harvard US-India Initiative Conference 2015 was held at the majestic Hotel Shangri-La in New Delhi on January 9th and 10th 2015. It was among the largest youth development conferences to have ever been organised in India and was host to a gathering of 450 students, each of whom was selected on the basis of merit and three essays which, among other things, formed part of the application form.
The conference focused on some of the most pressing issues in India today and the speakers’ roster included names like Piyush Goyal, Jairam Ramesh, Jayant Sinha, Pinky Anand and Manish Sisodia, among many others. For someone like me who is a novice in the world of high profile gatherings where intellectually stimulating topics are discussed and debated upon, it was an experience matched by none.
A month before the conference, the organising committee invited essays on India-specific current, social, economic or political topics from the delegates, the best among which were going to be published in the conference brochure. I chose the topic of “Reservation in India” because according to me, the current reservation system is flawed in more ways than one and needs immediate tweaking. Also, the fact that it is slowly but surely increasing inequality among people belonging to different castes, which sadly, is the exact opposite of the objective that it had set out to attain, in my opinion, warranted a discussion in the conference which boasted of a sizeable representation from the ruling government.
Here’s the complete essay :-
RESERVATION AND REGRESSION: ARE WE REALLY MARCHING FORWARD?
Introduction and Background
Diversity is the essence of Indian culture. There are an estimated 3,000 castes and over 25,000 sub castes in India(1). Mark Twain refers to India as the cradle of the human race and the mother of history. India is one of the world’s oldest and diverse cultures. However amongst all its glory, India has had a history of social discriminatory practices. This is the reason why our society is quick to discriminate and accept discrimination under the convenient veil of ‘tradition’. As much as we may pride ourselves on being called a secular state, a land of equality and a living example of the quote ‘unity in diversity’, we at our roots, still are a nation plagued by deep seated social beliefs which is struggling to give equal opportunities to its needy populace.
The SC’s, ST’s and Dalits in India have suffered massively under the caste based system. Many of these people are denied even the basic needs of sustenance and don’t even have access to proper education, medical and legal aid. Women still cannot enjoy freedom equivalent to their male counterparts in some regions. A girl born in India is still regarded as an ill omen in villages. Being a dalit and a woman further weakens her case in front of the ill-conceived misconceptions and notions that dominate rural India.
Definition and the Initial Objective
To make sure that the dalit woman is given a platform to compete against the society’s cream and the underprivileged also get the benefits designed for the country’s citizens is the responsibility of the government. It is this endeavor to ensure that all the sections of the society are granted equal and just opportunities to contribute towards their own development which has resulted in a need to bring about a system which will enable them to come forward and be on equal footing with the rest. India being a land of varied social castes and sub-castes, was quick to wake up to this reality. The result? The reservation system.
Reservation, in colloquial speech, is a system whereby a certain percentage of the available seats in a department, college, university or an institution are reserved for those sections of the society which, in the opinion of the rule making authority need uplifting, are socially or economically backward or have to be given a push in order to ensure their presence in the said department, college, university or institution. This system aims at uplifting the social and economic lifestyle of the less privileged sections of the society with a view to ensuring their place and voice in the mainstream affairs of the nation.
The Constitution of India states in article 15(4): “Nothing shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”(2). Article 46 of the Constitution states that “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”(2)
It is clear from the above provision that what the reservation system in contemporary India aims at achieving is a level playing field for all sections of the society.
Present-day state and drawbacks
As all the good things in this world, this one too, comes at a price. The system was formulated to help the weaker sections to be on equal footing with the rest of the population. But what it has often been argued to be doing is creating a level finishing line for the people. The reservation system was never intended to help a rich SC kid or a girl living in an upper class locality of a metro get an easy entry into an educational institute. To put in context, what the system essentially is ending up doing is tilting the balance in favour of the so-called underprivileged when the underlying motive behind this entire reservation concept was to ensure equal opportunities for those in genuine need. Of course, there have been subsequent reforms in this system, the most notable being the ‘Creamy layer’ definition given by the Supreme Court of India which forbids the upper class of the society from getting any benefit under the reservation system(3). In spite of this, the current situation is anything but desirable.
The Indian reservation system in recent times has more been abused than used. Some people are touting it as unfair mainly because it ignores merit. Entry into the top level institutions such as the IIT’s and the IIM’s demands an above average level of intellect complemented by hard work and this has got nothing to do with a person’s caste or gender. The reservation system can be said to have stereotyped the underprivileged people and branded them as ‘less capable’. Another argument against this system is this – the society is not as caste conscious as it was some 50 years ago. Discrimination has not entirely stopped, but then it’s not as severe a problem now as it was a few decades ago.
Another caveat in this is the fact that people have started taking undue advantage of this system. Even children from well-to-do families are given the ‘privilege’ of getting admitted under the ‘reserved quota’. This system ensures admission in top tier institutions and jobs to students with low grades. It refuses to recognize fair competition and leads to frustration among students who really deserved the seat. This in turn, lowers the quality of the country’s graduates coming out from top level institutes.
Now, in order to find out solutions to this problem, it would be wise to understand this system at the granular level. While it may be true that the system has benefited many people and that it acts as a medium through which minority groups and other underprivileged people get an opportunity to stand on the same footing as the rest of the populace and compete evenly, the dissent in the minds of the people regarding this system’s imperfections and somewhat discriminatory nature is growing by the day. While it may be true that the makers of this system intended it to stay in place for not more than 10 years(4) and to benefit the sections in genuine need thereby aiming at strengthening the democracy of this country, it continues to be somewhat parti pris in its present day state.
The solutions to the above problems and flaws will naturally revolve around two things – attempting to reduce its adverse impact on the people who come under the ‘open category’ in India and; to minimize abuse and make the existing provisions more stringent so as to ensure that the objective for which the system had initially been conceived is achieved.
The following solutions can be proposed –
- There should be a limit as to how many times a person can get benefits under this system in his lifetime. For example, if a person gets into a top college through a reservation quota, he should be denied a chance to use the quota system to his advantage while applying for a government job.
- Also, benefits under this system should be granted by considering income as a parameter. Also, the appointment of a qualified neutral third party would be pertinent in this case. It would be the duty and responsibility of the third party to ensure that the advantages under this system flow only to those in genuine need.
- There should be a confluence of merit and need. For example, if a person has to be admitted to a particular college under the reservation quota, he/she would need to score a particular number of marks. This would make the system merit friendly, a parameter which it is said to have ignored since the very inception.
- The percentage which is set aside for students coming through the reservation quota should not be disproportionate. The ideal number would be anywhere between 15 to 25 percent of the seats. The fight for the rest of the seats would be an open one and purely merit based.
- Reservations should exist mainly in the primary and secondary education stage. There is limited need of this system in the arena of tertiary education. Also, benefits should be in the nature of reduced fees and not reduced cut-off marks.
- Finally, the decisions regarding the extent to which this system should be implemented should rest with individual states. The Centre should give due independence to the State Governments so that a more efficient, strict, customized and need based system is put in place in every state after taking into consideration the demography, economic and social condition and the infrastructural developments in each district of the state.
To conclude, it must be remembered that the system was not meant to continue forever. It should be dispensed with eventually. It is a sign of a nation’s developing stage. But since we are into the 68th year of independence, this system can be said to have lived past its expiry date. Social and economic growth, inter alia, are the parameters upon which the development index of a nation is measured and the fact that we still need such a system is a disgraceful thing. Still, for a nation to move forward, collective progress in all sectors is essential. The reservation system, if implemented effectively would guarantee just that.