Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reservation: Why the debate must continue ...

First, the government has decided to go with a blanket 27% reservation for OBCs, with no 'creamy layer' exclusion. This was as expected; anything else would have been a political suicide for any of the parties in the parliament.

While the quota opponents put up a strong and vigorous fight (sometimes in insensitive ways), theirs was bound to be a losing battle. First, they didn't have the backing of any of the mainstream political parties. More importantly, they didn't have time on their side; the government (ministers, top bureaucrats, ...) could protract the proceedings, creating an illusion of forward movement, all the while fully expecting the students to give it up and return to classes. The bureaucrats have all the time and nothing to lose, while the opposite is true for the students.

The students' protests have not been in vain. They have achieved several (minor) victories: the implementation has been postponed to next year, and the government has promised to 'protects' the number of general category seats by increasing the overall number of seats by more than 50 percent.

* * *

The media are already going 'uh-oh' about the current plan to increase the number of seats. They are publishing scary stories about how this will ruin our education system. I am not worried, for the following reasons:

  • this increase doesn't kick in all at one time; student population will rise roughly by 12-13 percent every year until they stabilize after 4-5 years.
  • Even the initial spurt of 12-13 percent has been postponed to 2007.
  • Government is committed to funding this increase; it must be held to it.

Institutions must now look for ways of dealing with the increased number of students, and teachers will have to figure out how to handle larger classes. While I admit that the problems are difficult, they are not insurmountable, and the institutions have one full year to work on them.

* * *

Quotas for OBCs have attracted specific criticism: Pratap Bhanu Mehta (who, together with Andre Beteille, resigned from the National Knowledge Commission; read their letters here) is quite blunt:

[...]OBCs have been capitalising on a narrative of injustice which is not theirs, and in the process compounding greater injustice. It is a widely known fact that many OBCs are now akin to what used to be dominant castes. Giving them special access to state offices is, in some cases, working against the interests of SCs/STs. While many of the atrocities against Dalits are perpetuated by high castes, OBC atrocities on Dalits are no less significant. It is a travesty of justice to contrive special measures to reinforce OBC dominance. [...]

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit columnist, has argued that among the OBCs, only the truly oppressed (the Most Backward Classes, or MBCs) deserve special attention, but not the others.

Among bloggers, RealityCheck and Confused have strongly argued against quotas for OBCs (while supporting the existing quotas for SC/STs). As Yogendra Yadav observes, OBCs are a vast group with "substantial differences within different jatis ... from different regions". While I feel that Rreality Check (unduly) focuses on the high end of the OBC spectrum, I also realize the danger that quotas may become dominated by a few castes at the top of the OBC spectrum, leaving a lot of the really needy behind.

This implies that this debate and discussion must continue, through collection and analysis of hard data. The government is unlikely to part with information it finds uncomfortable; but we must extract it using every available means: the Right to Information Act, the courts, and the parliament itself.

* * *

Quotas are a blunt tool for achieving the goal of speedy integration of disadvantaged groups into the mainstream. They don't take into account the different levels of oppression -- and the resulting social disadvantage -- experienced by different groups of people. They also ignore other types of disadvantages: gender, urban-rural divide, for example. An affirmative action program that gives due weightage to these factors (such as the plans -- linked here -- suggested by Purushottam Agrawal, and Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande) would be far more preferable to a crude mechanism like quotas.

Having said that, I must add that these other AA mechanisms open up many more variables that would need to be negotiated politically. Also, given the long history of cream-free quotas for SCs and STs, it would be difficult to push -- politically -- for any other kind of plan for OBCs. While I am all for fine-tuned, wonkish plans that are backed by solid data, I also realize that they are dead on arrival when there's no political backing.

However, the final outcome -- choosing a blunt tool of quotas, without a broader consultation and debate -- is disappointing. Here was an opportunity to take a fresh look at reservation, and do it right. This opportunity appears to have been lost. Not only that, the way the government is going about it indicates that it won't monitor how well its quota program is doing. Thus, some vigilance on the part of NGOs and the press (and bloggers, too!) is essential.

* * *

Now that the shortage of educational opportunities is in stark display, this is probably the best time to push strongly for reforms in higher education. See Satya's blog (and, specifically, this post, and the links in it) for great ideas on many differnt reform measurres: private sector participation, strong regulation that demands voluntary disclosure of all relevant information by institutions, accreditation by independent rating agencies, the works.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Perfectly fair...though the little bit in the end had me worried for a moment - private sector participation. How independent are these independent rating agencies likely to be?

  2. Anonymous said...

    The doctors can't stop treating patients, the poor and sick at government hospitals.
    They are breaking the Hippocratic Oath. That's unfair. You fight but don't hold society to ransom.

  3. Anonymous said...

    I will continue to participate in the debate and I am glad that you are at least open to discussions.

    However, I do not endorse any form of reservation.

    I understand the compassion you feel towards the needy to some extent. But I have never seen anyone who has some talent(*) fail to make it to a reasonable degree. The Darwinist argument seems harsh but not so in reality. Here we have 500 mils officially below the poverty line. We also have 90% of our budget go towards the needy. If we destroy socialism and communism, we will no longer require this discussion.

    (*) We still believe in it.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the cite.

    One fine point. I have not argued against extending reservations to OBC, I have argued against Arjun Singh' proposal of extending reservations.

    A fine distinction but a very important one.

    Will try to continue the debate though I am not sure it has much meaning left. I hope RTI can really empower us.

  5. Anonymous said...

    However, the final outcome -- choosing a blunt tool of quotas, without a broader consultation and debate -- is disappointing.
    Shouldn't you, more than anyone else in the world oppose this current move? By this single use of the "blunt tool" Arjun Singh has completely thrown out possibility of any other measure to address this issue.

    They are publishing scary stories about how this will ruin our education system. I am not worried
    But I am worried. I graduated from UDCT. The teaching load is about 4-5 courses per year. I am interested in teaching, but not more than 2 (may be 3) courses per year; not more than 50 students per class (at junior and senior levels).

    Shouldn't government provide guidelines and leave it up to the individual institutes to come up with ways to increase their seats.

    Also, if the government sets a target for IITs/Univs: have student population more representative of the general population distribution by 2015, don't you think these univs will be better equipped to meet the goals than the "blunt tool" used by UPA?

    You are an academic yourself. Don't you think the decision to increase the intake at IISc should be left to you instead of being mandated by the government. Don't you feel govt is treating you as toddlers who can't figure out a way to meet government's goals (eg, increase strengths of IITs from 5000 to 10000 in 5 years). How you do it should be left to you, don't you think?

    The biggest loser is not the so-called open category students, but academic freedom. In my view, academic freedom not only involves freedom to decide on the courses and lecture material, but also on how to administer and run your organization. [sarcasm]If you don't stand up now, what will you do if the next government mandates teaching astrology or tantrik shastra or feng shui as a BE course in IIT?[/sarcasm]

  6. Anonymous said...

    Well said Niket. I am really surprised on nanopolitan's "happy go lucky" on the absoloute increase in seats.
    Does increasing seats by 50 percent take only an year. Then more IITs should have been made every previous year. Why scrutnise the so called aspiring IITs through all the rigors. Get the infrastructure within a year. Make every Tom, Dick and Harry an IITian.
    I don't understand how nanopolitan could so grandly welcome the government's decision to increase the seats wihout any thought, discussion or review. Shouldnt the IIS be asked if they are in a position to increase seats instead.?

  7. Anonymous said...

    New Definition of Merit by Delhi Doctors
    The ugly side of few perverted minds in Delhi
    For nearly two weeks few guys in the capital were shouting that Merit is going to be compromised due to reservations. All the while, there had clear cut evidence as to show that Merit will be NO WAY affected due to reservations and that reservations are going to uplift the society as a whole.
    Now the cat is out of the bag.
    As per Rediff a guy called Armaan, who is a doctor leading the antireservation agitation says
    “ We prefer reservation for people who deserve it. It’s not that we don’t have a conscience. We do care for the poor, those who really need help. We should have reservation on the basis of economy.”
    So, at last as we have been telling all these days, these depraved guys never bothered about Merit. Merit was just an excuse for Apartheid. I would like to know the reaction of all those who were crying in the name of Merit (including two self-centered caste-centered nepotistic chaps who resigned from the knowledge commission in the name of merit) as to the new shift in demand by the Doctors that they are ready for Quota based on Economy, but not for quota based on Caste.
    For those who do not know the difference, let me explain
    Now if seats are reserved on the basis of caste, let us assume that a Student from FC will get the seat if he scores 297 out of 300 where as a student from SC will get the seat even if he scores 291 out of 300 (these are the cut off values from MBBS Admission in Tamil Nadu in 2005)
    So far the apartheid guys were shouting loud that merit will be affected. There were even remarks from few of those “intelligent” chaps that a guy who scored 292 (SC guy who has got seat) is less talented (or less meritorious – let me repeat the word play) than the forward caste guy who scored 296 (and there fore cannot get the seat as the OC cut off is 297)
    But now they WANT QUOTA ON ECONOMY. So they have no problem when a poor guy with mark 292 gets the seat while a rich guy with mark 296 does not get the seat. And strangely, in this case, (according to these doctors and also a person called Narayana moorthy, for whom I had great regard, until he too advised economy based quota) the merit is not affected when quota is based on economy.
    Now I am not able to understand this……
    If the earlier claim that merit is going to be affected by reservation based on caste is true, then merit is going to be affected if the quota is based on economy or for that matter any other reason like the state of domicile (Delhi – 100 percent reservation for Delhi Undergraduates) , Religion (eg Andhra Pradesh) , college graduated (eg JIPMER)
    So a person whose primary aim is preservation of merit should NOT ALLOW ANY QUOTA.
    But See the Delhi Doctors.
    They have gone on Mass CL today. They do not want a SC student getting 292 marks get MBBS. But they were silent when Private colleges were started that made any person, even those who passed 12th after 3 attempts get MBBS. What were they doing when the private colleges were opened? They did not even give a sign of protest. Do those AIIMS guys think that we all are fools to believe that they are crusading for merit at present? What were they doing for those sponsored seats and NRI quotas
    They have no problem when some one gets MBBS from Private College even though he gets 50 marks in 12th. They never fought. It was Tamil Nadu students who had always fought against the private medical colleges
    They have no problem of a student getting low marks in PG entrance in AIIMS, but getting MD Gen just because he studied MBBS there. At that juncture they never represented to PM or President
    And as per the latest statement, they have no problem if a poor guy who gets 292 marks become a doctor while a rich guy who gets 296 has to watch
    BUT THEY ARE WORRIED when a SC Guy (or a OBC Guy) who takes 292 marks get admission instead of a Forward Community guy who gets 296.
    SO in effect, all these hullabaloo over the past two weeks were not against reservations. It is in fact against the students from the reserved community.
    They were not fighting for merit as they were claiming (we already knew that merit is a mask) They fight to maintain apartheid
    And see this report in Economic times by Urmi Goswamy from Delhi
    (as per that sums up the issue
    PRIVATE schools and parents worried about their children studying along side children belonging to weaker sections can breathe easy. The government proposes to let them off the reservation hook. The model Right to Education Bill proposes that private schools that receive no funds from the government will not be required to take children from weaker sections. The Model Bill will form the basis of states’ legislation to enable the fundamental right of education.
    SO there are guys in Delhi who cannot breathe easy when a student from weaker society studies along with his children. Their main worry seems to be the community of the student who studies along with them and not the marks of the students who studies in the college. God Save India !!!

  8. Anonymous said...


    I hope you are reading the newspapers. The single point demand of the agitating doctors for the past week has been for the government to conduct a statistically valid review of the quota system for OBCs. The government can pick the panel so there is no room for complaint.

    Most OBC politicians and some OBCs in TN are extremely uncomfortable at what such a study might reveal.

    It is also possible to have reservations taking into account factors other than caste. So I dont see your point. The agitating students are saying "if you must have reservations, let it not just be blindly based on caste alone".

    I think you are taking too much offense to the "merit gets affected" argument.

    Diluting merit is only a part of the debate. The entire basis for OBC quotas including which castes make up the OBC components, how they progressed in the past 40 years, what is their economic and social status today. Those are the factors that must be studied.

    It is not just about merit. You can move 15 other castes to the open competition and still merit will not be compromised.

    The real issue is : what % of the beneficiaries of OBC quotas really deserve their gain and do the students who are losing out deserve their loss.

    Only a scientific study can answer the above questions. Exactly, the kind of study most OBC politicians do not want.

    Did u get my mail ?

  9. Anonymous said...

    So a person whose primary aim is preservation of merit should NOT ALLOW ANY QUOTA.

    Exactly. That's the stand we take, NO QUOTA. A rickshaw puller's son made it to IIT last year, WITHOUT reservations. A poor farmer's son did it too, sans quota. A poor tea-stall owner's (monthly income Rs. 1500 ~ $33) son was ranked 34th in this year's civil services.

    The only reason doctors are demanding review of quota and changing the basis of quota to economic status is because they are misguided. Besides they have no choice.

    Indian entrance exams as they stand are the greatest levellers. Clearly the propaganda from the pro-quota section about lack of access does not stand (see above examples).

    Quotas are immoral, period.

  10. Anonymous said...

    By the way Bruno, TN exams, where the last students admitted (with or without quota) get about 98% of marks are a joke. This is what is expected to happen to IIT-JEE eventually. Out of 3 lakh candidates, perhaps 1 lakh will score 100%. Then they will do a lottery. This is how the "problem" of merit was solved in TN.

  11. Anonymous said...

  12. Abi said...

    First of all, thank you all for your comments.

    WillOfTheWisp: I am not against private sector participation in higher education; in fact, I agree with Satya that we must get more private players to start -- not just colleges -- but universities, too. As for rating and accrediting agencies, our government is good at enforcing rules when it regulates private players; only when its own players are involved (oil, telecom), the regulators don't perform as well (though insurance is an exception).

    And, thanks for those links about Affirmative Action!

    Indscribe: I am not sure about the ethics of the strike by the doctors, so I would refrain from commenting on it.

    Confused: Thanks for the clarification: you are against Arjun Singh's proposal for OBC reservation.

    The striking students are holding out on their last demand: Judicial Commission. If such a Commission is set up, the kind of data we have all been asking for may actually collected.

    Niket: Strong words!

    Even if it is a blunt tool, I belong to the camp that prefers this tool over the status quo.

    As for academic institutions choosing their own path for Affirmative Action (AA), we all know what they have done so far, don't we? Their being so totally out of touch with the political reality is the main reason why there is a near-complete absence of any AA (with JNU being an honourable exception). If the academics had been more pro-active, such sub-optimal solutions as blanket quotas wouldn't have been thrust down their throats.

    Also, academic freedom is about freedom of thought, expression; it's not about administrative things how large your classes are going to be. If anything, our teacher/student ratio is far larger than the state universities in the US. IMHO, 50% increase in the student population is *not* a catastrophe.

    Your sarcasm is misplaced. Imposing astrology as a part of BE curriculum impinges directly on academic freedom, which certainly doesn't confer any right on the academic to restrict the class size, or who, specifically, gets to be in the class. One simply has to teach the class that's given to him/her by administrators who, presumably, follow the guidelines designed by the academics; except in this case, the government has come in with a 'correction'.

    Dr. Bruno: Your point is valid: if one is against reservation, one should be against all kinds of reservation. Some people have taken that view (Barbarindian, for example). I agree that there are those who mix up things.

    But, could you post a link to your posts, rather than giving here the entire content of your posts? Thanks.

    RC, Barbarindian: Thanks for clarifying your views.

  13. Anonymous said...

    If the academics had been more pro-active, such sub-optimal solutions as blanket quotas wouldn't have been thrust down their throats.

    Is that so? I would argue that even if the academicians did adopt some sort of AA (which we vehemently oppose by the way), the current quota would be enforced. This is because if you look at it as a system, it is clear that the current situation is stable in form. The 76% group wants to remain united and there is a distinct benefit to them in remaining united. Therefore, no sane arguments can prevail. I would not be surprised if they overthrow the 50% cap imposed by the supreme court pretty soon as they have done in TN anyway.

    If anything, our teacher/student ratio is far larger than the state universities in the US. IMHO, 50% increase in the student population is *not* a catastrophe.

    Uhm, it's like, your opinion man.

  14. Anonymous said...


    Dr. Bruno calls two unimpeachable people, Andre Beteille and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, both of whom have been critical of Hindu society, as nepotists and you let that pass? For the likes of Dr. Bruno, like any typical Dravidian fascist (yes, dont invoke Godwin's law), the moment anything remotely threatening to their world view is presented, they are branded as casteist, nepotists, what not. Like they used to brand anyone speaking anything remotely incovenienet as capitalist roaders.

    One more thing, the TN merit BS. As BarbarIndian said, TN exams are a joke ( i have seen people scoring 599/600 in MPC and come to IIt and flunk a handful of courses in the first semester). If indeed, the merit question has been resolved in TN, why not do away with reservations? I see no clamor for doing away with it? Besides, if equal merit has been achieved why do i see so few OBCs in IITM (my alma mater)? DOnt tell me that the IIT exams are nepotistic.

    BTW, I was luckily not the victim of TN caste discrimination. I grew up in Calcutta and I am thankful for that. Even if I had not made it to IIT, my path to a decent engg college in West Bengal was not blocked by 98% quota.

    Let me also say this. In Calcutta, caste is almost never an issue of discussion. I grew without having any distinct caste identity. I landed in TN (my native place) and caste was ubiquitous. Yet for the most part I was impervious. And I remember strongly defending the SC/ST reservation against many others in IIT. YEt I cannot stand for the utterly crass majorittarian grab that this latest OBC reservation presents. It is a national manifestation of the ugliness that used to be confined to TN.

  15. Abi said...

    Barbarindian: Uhm, it's like, your opinion man. Indeed!

    Anon: Thanks for pointing out the bit about Beteille and Mehta in Dr. Bruno's comment; I missed it. I certainly hope he will desist from making such statements.

    But, with your comment, you haven't covered your anonymous self in glory, either. So, cut out this sanctimonious tone ("you let that pass"), will you?

  16. Anonymous said...


    I dont have a blogger id for one. Nor do I think showing my identity is matter of bravery. In any case, the point is not about my identity but the "merit" of my argument. How have I "covered myself in glory" in my comments? If calling the Dravdianists fascists hurts you, it is no different from calling the BJP fascists.

    In contrast, Dr. Bruno threw the nepotist term on Beteille and Mehta, individuals who have no known track record having done or condoned anything remotely nepotist.

    I am going to let your comment on my "sanctimoniouness" pass. It pales in comparison to what your fellow bloggers at OTher Half do. But funny that santimony from the "this half" hurts so much.

    Cowardly anonymous

  17. Anonymous said...

    > "Quotas are immoral, period."

    May be. But you (BarbaraIndian) are certainly immoral. Fullstop, period, comma, the whole thing.

  18. Anonymous said...

    //If indeed, the merit question has been resolved in TN, why not do away with reservations? //
    Good Question... Read my blog.. I have examined this view in detail

    //Besides, if equal merit has been achieved why do i see so few OBCs in IITM (my alma mater)? DOnt tell me that the IIT exams are nepotistic.//
    IIT exams are not at all nepotistic. I never said. But "few" faculty in IIT are nepotists

    About so few OBCs in IIT-M

    1. The truth is that many people do not prepare for that. Class room coaching for IIT-JEE is available in cities only. And many people are not even aware that there is something called IIT (They don't differentiate IIT from ITI)

    2. There are a lot of people who get selected in Both IIT JEE and MBBS in Tamil Nadu, and prefer MBBS. One of my MBBS Batchmates, was forced by his parents into Medicine, inspite of getting 200 odd rank in JEE

    Now if you wonder whether some one will prefer MBBS for IIT, then you are on One side of the world and do not want to acknowledge that the other side exists. Children's education are decided by parents or even relatives in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Though it is not correct, the MBBS degree is regarded well above other degrees in Tamil Nadu and parents think of social status rather than the child's interest.

    This is what the Prathap Banu Mehta says "As an academic I find it to be an appalling spectacle when a group of ministers is empowered to come up with admissions policies, seat formulas for institutions across the country."

    This is what the other guy says "We can either move forward and create centres of academic excellence or go along with the demands of identity politics based on caste and community, but we cannot do both."

    Why I accused them (and I still accuse them) of nepotism is very simple.

    In the former case, the gentle man finds it appalling spectacle when a group of ministers is empowered to come up with admission policies (tha enable a SC guy get a medical seat). But this gentleman did not do anything when politicians set up private colleges and enabled RICH guys get medical seat. He did not resign when there are Institute Quotas. He did not resign when there is a NRI Seat....

    About Andre Beteille, either move forward and create centres of academic excellence or go along with the demands of identity politics based on caste and community, but we cannot do both.

    But when we going along with demands of identity politics based on money and college of graduation (as it has been for years of Institute Quotas and Payment seats, Mr.Andre, perhaps has a way of moving forward and create centres of academic excellence

    The charge of Nepotism is very simple : He was silent when MONEY was used as a factor and so far he did not have any problems about centres of academic excellence , but when there is an issue of caste, he is worried about centres of academic excellence

    What word can you use... Double Standard.. Perhaps...

  19. Anonymous said...

    //my path to a decent engg college in West Bengal was not blocked by 98% quota.//

    I always wonder how some one who claims to be from IIT shall be so shameless in giving such wrong figures.

    Accuracy is must for any engineer... I pity the company this guy works for (if he is really an engineer) or the customers of the company.

    And needless to say, if you can pass IIT with such levels of factual errors, then obviouslt TN lacks merit.

  20. Anonymous said...

    Just quoting Yadav's letter to Pratap Bhanu Mehta "Here we have a protest led and sponsored by a small but powerful urban professional elite and lionized by the media (both of which are disproportionately dominated by the upper caste) that uses rather crude arguments and even more crass symbolism to stall a scheme threatening their privileges. Your silence on this matter, not just in this letter but through your many interventions in the last few weeks, has worried me. You know that I have seen you as one of the intellectual leaders of this country; you can understand my agony when I see you being portrayed as the intellectual mascot for this agitation.
    Let me propose a hypothesis to you: this shrill and powerful campaign against the very idea of social justice is one of the reasons why there is so little space left for thinking about social justice in a new paradigm.

  21. Anonymous said...

    It will continue, but I'm not sure it'll be a debate. It was a very sophisticated display of derailment earlier (in 1990 for instance and before that) and hindsight suggests that since nothing has been approved, signed or sealed until now nothing has ended. There would be trials, in courts, media, academia, political parties much more frenetic than the lay observer can imagine. What would be the final shape of this 'scheme'?
    In my view, the students in Delhi have already secured a lot from the government and before the rains hit the capital, there are so many other well-wishers (in political circles and other places) who'd be negotiating much more behind the scenes for them..

    No, there wouldn't be any debate. Because there wasn't one earlier.

  22. Anonymous said...

    Your concerns are very valid. Though I am a strong proponent of reservations-based-on-caste, I am a bit reluctant to support OBC reservations with full gung-ho. I support reservations for OBCs because there are many castes which were discriminated and were forcefully kept out of mainstream. But at the same time, some castes have climbed up the ladder and have actually meted out discrimination to Dalits. It would be a sheer mockery if such castes (who were oppressors) get reservations.