Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An interesting take on reservation

Many people who claim they oppose reservation are not really opposed to reservation per se, but are opposed to the kind of reservation program that uses caste as its basis. They are amenable to a quota program based on economic considerations. For example, they say that poor among the general category also deserve to be included in the quota. And, in particular, they are aghast that a 'creamy layer' end up cornering much of the benefits of the quota program.

Such people may find this Tehelka article appealing. The author, Purushottam Agrawal (who the blurb says teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University), presents a fairly detailed plan that takes into account multiple ways in which one could be disadvantaged. His is effectively an affirmative action plan in which people get 'points' added to, say, their entrance exam score; then, the 'merit list' is prepared. For example, a rural Dalit student from a poor family would get points for all three 'social handicaps': 'rural', 'Dalit' and 'poor family'.

I hereby propose a model of affirmative action that I will call miraa — Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action. As the name suggests, this model will take into account several factors when a candidate is considered for admission or employment.

In the specific situation of our country, miraa will consist of the following indices:
  1. Caste/Tribe
  2. Gender
  3. Economic status of family
  4. Kind of schooling received
  5. Region where candidate spent his/her formative years
  6. Status as a first generation learner/educational achievement in the family

If the points for 'caste/tribe' are different for different castes based on their relative 'social backwardness', this plan would certainly address one of the concerns I raised in this post over at How the Other India Lives: in the present quota program, a large number of castes are lumped together as OBCs, which could allow a few of the top castes to benefit disproportionately from the quotas, leaving behind a large number of really needy groups. So, Agrawal's MIRAA plan might help in converting a blunt tool (our present quota program) into a surgical knife. To that extent, I would support this MIRAA.

Having said that, I don't see it being acceptable to a large number of people, simply because it adds some complexity to the program. If at all it is even taken up for consideration, it will probably be killed by endless discussion on the relative number of points to be assigned to the different 'social handicaps' listed above.

But still, it's an interesting, nuanced perspective.

* * *

Update (18 May 2006): In today's Hindu, A. Vaidyanathan (a development economist and ex-member of the Planning Commission) offers a similar perspective, but a different plan: restrict reservation to only those who don't pay income tax!


  1. Krish said...

    I do agree that his proposal might convert the blunt tool into a surgical knife. However, I don't agree that 3,4,5 and 6 of his plan is needed in our quest for equality. The economic status is clearly not a factor in brigning equality. His argument might be useful in threading a middle path between the two extremes of "Yes to reservations" and "No to reservations". It doesn't serve any other purpose. Studies have clearly shown (using the data in the US context) that economic scenario is not a reason for the inequality. If economic situation is the criteria for a group to stay away from education, what we need is a good scholarship system that will motivate them to take up education. This was proved by MGR's noon meal scheme. After the introduction of this scheme, the percentage of poor kids attending elementary school increased dramatically in Tamilnadu. Also we are trying to level the playing field by reducing social inequality. Genetics clearly shows that all human beings are born equal. So we are trying to fix the man made social inequality by means of reservations. If we extrapolate it to fix inequality in education due to economic situation, then someone else will ask quotas for people with physical disability, etc. (already he has extended to stuff like schooling and region). This approach will open a pandora's box and people will then find thousands of reasons to demand quotas through reservations. This will lead nowhere. Economic situation is not due to oppression by a group with upper hand (if you look outside the communist philosophy). It is due to various factors and oppression may or may not be one of them. However, caste is only due to man made oppression. Equating issues due to caste with issues due to economic situation doesn't make sense. They are two different issues. We need to address poverty too but it is an altogether different inequality and it is not connected to this social inequality. If we address each of these problems separately, we can eventually find a solution. If we put everything together and mix it, there is a high possibility that we might go nowhere.

  2. Krish said...

    I would anyday prefer the reductionist approach to his holistic approach.

  3. pennathur said...

    Look who's talking

    and look who's talking too

    Thanks to Ambedkar 'Constitutionally' India is a nation of individuals (his most important contribution to the document according to the late D.Anjaneyulu of The Hindu/Madras). So Dr.Agarwal's idea does make sense. However when a nation is run from from the top in Delhi (another one of Ambedkar's ideas) it is very difficult to see distinct communities leave alone individuals. According to S.Anand of Outlook; the last Assembly in TN had one 2 MLAs of OPC (one particular community incl. the CM) and 93 of a another PC (particular community to be politically correct) Now how effectively did OPC represent its fellow members of the OPC and how effective were the 93 in representing the interests of class the PC is usually classified as? For instance although SC/ST or BC are considered as a homogeneous groups, not all communities within have been able to benefit from reservations uniformly. The Mandal commission's report recognised this problem 25 years ago. So it is nothing new. I too have belaboured the point. Any program that restricts itself to equalising access to an end point school will sooner or later bring about such a result.

  4. pennathur said...


    The matter has taken a worrying turn -

  5. barbarindian said...

    Having said that, I don't see it being acceptable to a large number of people, simply because it adds some complexity to the program.

    Looting should be easy, isn't it? No hard work, eh? Even in divvying up the loot?

  6. Abi said...

    Krish: I agree that caste has to be given the most important place in any scheme of affirmative action. In principle, under MIRAA, different relative weights can be assigned to different factors, so caste can be given a greater weight than the others.

    Shiva: Have I said anything that goes against your substantial point that OBC is a huge grouping, that might leave behind the really needy? Still, thanks for that info on the TN election results.

    Barbarindian: If you want to hold on to your delusional, fundamentalist and extremist viewpoint that you must fight against anything other than 0% reservation, there is nothing any of us can say to you. So, keep all those snarky comments to your blog, will you?

  7. barbarindian said...

    restrict reservation to only those who don't pay income tax!

    As a matter of fact, at least in theory, the free seats are supposed to go to people who pay little or no income taxes. However, put in this way it forces us to look at tax payer funded institutes in a new light. Question is, whose taxes?

    Abi, when you say 0% reservation, you are actually forgetting that India is a welfare state. 90% of our Government aids and welfare programs are already directed towards you know who.

    These two facts are completely ignored by pro-reservation camps. So, when you talk of social justice, we have already been overdoing it for 60 years now.

  8. Doctor Bruno said...

    Society is like a bullock cart with two bulls.......

    Now if the cart has to run fast, BOTH BULLS are to be good....

    WHat is the use of a cart where one bull is very strong and another bull is weak........ The MAXIMUM speed of the cart CAN BE ONLY THE SPEED of the weakest bull....... So we improve the nutrition of the weak bull even if it leads to starving the STRONG BULL.....

    This is what reservation is exactly.... You give the seats WHICH A STUDENT FROM FORWARD COMMUNITY WOULD HAVE GOT to a student from the weaker community, because ONLY if the weaker community gets a little stronger, the cart can move.............

    Now what criteria to follow who is strong and who is weak.....

    1. Economics........... It is a well known fact that THIS is the easiest factor to cheat.......... If we give reservations based on economics, the students of employeed sector will suffer....... WE very well know that you and me pay more income tax than the leading textile owner in your town who earns 2 to 3 lakhs per month............ Except for salaried class of people, how can you check the TRUE income of other sectors . Another factor is that wealth is not stationery.......... Many persons who had a comfortable life were rendered homeless after Tsunami or earth quake.. A rich person can become poor over night......... Many people earn well by their hard work and a poor person can become rich in few years (if he enters cinema or other art field for example)..... So MONEY is subject to change and can be hidden

    2. Religion... Easy to change....... If you say that there is 20 % of reservation for those following Din-e-Ilahi, every one will embrace that .....And more over I can show you atleast 100 people who do not believe in god........... What religion will you fix to them.......And then there are people who believe that there is ONE God......... What religion can you give them............ and there are few who follow more than one religion (when both their parents are of different religion, for example)...... Other than the fact that Religion can be changed with regard to time, it can be hidden.........

    3. Caste..... Because this system is routed deeply in our culture, WE CANNOT CHANGE our caste..... hence this was based as the criteria for reservation........ because of the various criteria we can consider this DOES NOT CHANGE WITH TIME

  9. rc said...

    Nice idea, but the current ideas are nice too. I dont think there is a shortage of good intentioned people with fine ideas straight from the heart.

    The real problem is one of implementation, that is where the rubber meets the road. Did you know the criteria for excluding or including a OBC component is pretty foolproof and includes all the parameters you mentioned ? (Link from my blog). They are actually supposed to evaluate each component every 10 years to see if they still qualify. It has not happened (for obvious political reasons) - yet it invites no automatic judicial censure.

    The problem is our political setup. The current quota *law* does not have any built in checks. That is where we Indians are a grand failure in almost all areas of self governance - the lack of adequate checks and balances and legal blocks. The absence of these enable any vested interest with sufficient muscle and vote power to hijack the agenda.

    A case in point is the monitoring requirement. The only statistic we have about the performance of the system is a totally accidental leaking of statistics during counselling for medical seats last year and the year before. I will blog about this - but believe it or not, that is all we have. It did provide a glimpse behind the iron curtain and what we saw surprised many.

    We need more transparency. We need the SC and the central government to come down heavily on states that do not exclude the creamy layer. Why should the OBC from TN be exempt from the creamy layer requirments while OBCs from KA/KL/AP and all other states dutifully implement the law ? We need all state universities to release statistics of individual OBC components (applied,admitted) as far back as they have records. It is a shame that *no* and I mean "none whatsoever" statistics or social studies have been conducted on what is the biggest case of preferential treatment system in human history. Yes, we have good statistics for SC/STs (very good actually) but none for OBCs.

    Therein lies the root cause of the problem. The truth will always set you free. We should try to extract the truth from the government. Does it have anything to hide ?

  10. rc said...


    .. So we improve the nutrition of the weak bull even if it leads to starving the STRONG BULL..

    Yes, that is fine, but you have to monitor the feeding closely and ascertain which is the strong and which is the weak bull.

    You also owe it to the strong bull (whom you are starving) to provide a system that is carefully and deeply monitored so that there is a sense of fairness and data is publicly made available about the progress being made by the weak bull.

    You also cannot carry the animal analogy too far. It is only appropriate for SC/STs and not for OBCs. I dont think most dominant OBCs would consider themselves to be a weak bull.

  11. Doctor Bruno said...

    //Yes, that is fine, but you have to monitor the feeding closely and ascertain which is the strong and which is the weak bull.//

    Only after you start "differential feeding" you can "monitor"

    Of course the example here is very simplified..... In practise we have a lot of Strong bulls and a lot of weak bull and in truth a few of the bulls in the weaker section are in fact stronger than few of the bulls in the stronger section. But that is only few

    In Tamil there is a saying ... "Water to paddy will trickle to weeds" Similarly when you give reservation for SC/OBC, the benefits will go to the genuine canddiates (Paddy) and also to the sons/daughters of IAS Officers / Doctors etc (weeds)

    The ideal situation is to REMOVE THE WEEDS and not to cut the water supply (as being currently argued). If you don't water (reservations), then paddy(genuine poor candidates) will suffer and not the weeds(sons of doctors)

    And contrary to what you think, OBC certifcate is not blindly given. There are a lot of criteria like
    1. District of DOmicile
    2. Taluk
    3. Religion
    4. Income

  12. Nimish said...

    Another intersting take on the reservation issue is in Richa Burman's article in recent Tehelka which the authour had blamed the upper castes for resisting others and exploiting their collective identities to gain power. must read... A tale of lies and forgetting.