Daily Editorials for UPSC IAS Exam Preparation

Reservation debate


Recently, the Union government has embarked on reconstituting National Commission for Backward Classes by graduating it to the levels of National Commissions for SCs and STs as a constitutional body.

This lay open the faultlines in the reservation policy and how it underlies a political current which sometimes burst in the form of reservation demands by affluent communities like Jats and Patels.

Affirmative Action

  • In principle, affirmative action is generally approved of as it implies that measures shouldbe taken to ensure that all individuals are equal and to prevent or to counteract traditionaland ingrained prejudicial practices by instituting positive discriminations.
  • It attempts reconstruction of the societythrough the elimination of culturally sanctioned strategies that defend communitysuperiority and pride of position with the assumption that discrimination continues to dominate caste and community relations even today in a preconscious or unconscious fashion.
  • Affirmative action isany measure, policy or law used to increase diversity or rectify discrimination so that qualified individuals have equal access to employment, education, business, andcontracting opportunities.
  • According to Aristotle, equality means that things that are alike should be treated alikeand things that are unalike should be treated unalike.
  • Since inequalitiesof birth are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. John Rawls, thus, in order to treat all persons equally and to provide genuine equality ofopportunity, society must give more attention to those born into or placed in less favourablesocial positions.
  • India has been practicing affirmative action in its essence, longer and more aggressively
    than any other place in the world.
  • Quotas have been applied widely in the educational and theemployment arena since the 1950s for deprived members of the caste system, such asthe untouchables. For example, in India’s parliament, the ‘outcaste’ and other indigenoustribes are guaranteed a number of seats numerically proportional to their demographic
  • The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution were aware of the prevailing miserableand appalling conditions of backward groups who had remained far behind and segregatedfrom the national and social mainstream and had continued to be socially oppressed andeconomically exploited for centuries due to various types of disabilities. These handicaps,resulting from societal arrangements such as caste structures and group suppressions,constitutionally authorised preferences and protective discrimination, created a lot ofconfusion and conflicts leading to heated debates, court cases, street violence and social
  • India, the biggest democratic system of the world, with a thousand million plus populationand a mind-boggling variety, a system which boasts of more than 5000 years of historyand continued civilization and a hoary past, has been experimenting with protectivediscrimination programmes on an unprecedented variety.
  • Reservations in jobs, educationalinstitutions, legislatures and in Panchayati Raj institutions for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and now women has been a grand experiment by any standard.
  • It may also be noted that scheduledcastes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes are a whole cluster of thousandsof castes spread over the length and breadth of the country.


Critique of the concept

  • Merit argument
  1. Merit assures best justice in so far as it allocates the rewards or goods on the basis of an objective criterion having nothing to do with such personal characteristics of an individual such as his birth, race, colour, sex, caste etc.
  2. The notion of merit itself however, is subjective. Merit has no fixed or definite meaning free from variations. It is nothing but a criterion to achieve some pre-determined social objective or value or to satisfy a certain perceived social need. It does not control the objective value or need, but is controlled by them.
  3. In the words of Justice Krishna Aiyar of the Indian Supreme Court, “The very orientation of our selection process is distorted and those like the candidates from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who, from their birth, have a traumatic understanding of India have, in one sense, more capability than those who have lived under affluent circumstances and are callous to the human lot of the sorrowing masses. Elitists, whose sympathies with the masses have dried up, are from the standards of the Indian people least suitable to run government and least meritorious to handle state business, if we envision a service state in which the millions are the consumers… Sensitised heart and a vibrant head, tuned to the tears of the people, will speedily quicken the development needs of the country and a sincere dedication and intellectual integrity….not degrees of Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard or Standford or similar Indian institutions are the major components of merit or suitability.”
  • Rights Argument
  1. Affirmative action in favour of one group is discriminatory against others who are denied the same benefits, and this is itself a denial of equality, which is the right of every individual as an individual and not as a member of any group and therefore, cannot be denied to him simply because he is labelled as a member of an advanced group etc. because another individual is labelled as belonging to a backward group.
  2. At a deeper level however, the caste system has changed fundamentally. The moral claims of castes over their individual members have weakened at all levels of society, and especially in the urban middle class where the battle over benign discrimination is being fought. It will be safe to say that no caste today has the moral authority to enforce on its middle class members any of its traditional sanctions. Having freed themselves from the moral authority of their caste, such individuals are now able to use it instrumentally for economic and political advantages.
  3. The continued existence of caste is one thing; its legitimacy is a different thing altogether. The attempt to invest the caste system with legitimacy by claiming that its constituent units have rights and entitlements is bound to be defeated in the end; but in the meantime it can cause enormous harm to society and its institutions. The persistent use of the language of rights in public debates for and against reservations is bound to lead to an increase in the consciousness of caste, and in that way to defeat the basic objective of affirmative action which is to reduce and not increase caste consciousness.
  • Efficiency Argument
  1. It is implicit in the idea of positive discrimination that a less meritorious person is preferred to another who is more meritorious. It is argued that if for redressing grievances of the past, we undermine the efficiency of public institutions; we would be doing unimaginable harm to the generations to come.
  2. However, segregating a few sections from public space could do more harm than the quest for efficiency, which they seek to achieve at the cost of social fragmentation.
  • Balkanisation Argument
  1. As noted above that positive discrimination underlines class, caste and race differences and enhances social divisions, which are already acute in the Indian socio-political system and in the United States of America. Affirmative programmes tend to consolidate a caste ridden and racially conscious society already divided into racial and ethnic groups, each entitled as a group to some proportionate share of resources, careers or opportunities.
  2. The proponents of positive discrimination respond that failure on the implementation front should not be the reason to discard the policy itself.


Way forward

  • The reservation policy for the disadvantaged groups, in principle, is just given the historically scraped lines of discrimination which make indelible impact on the individuals of those groups availing opportunity.
  • The recent agitations by Jats and Patels for reservation signifies the problems inherent in the economic systems, as they being land-owning castes failed to appropriate much from agriculture. Hence there is an urgent need to rework on the linkage between agriculture and industry so that the absorption of their youth in the economic activities becomes smooth.
  • The constitution has recognised three basic parameters to be satisfied simultaneously by a group to avail reservation – social, economic and educational backwardness. This principle should not be dented as that will amplify the structure of reservation badly.
  • Lastly, as some suggest, a fair line should be drawn for all categories of reservation so that it is not used by one family for generations or after a certain threshold of wealth. It will lend the opportunities to those more disadvantaged within the communities.

 Practice Questions

  1. What is your viewpoint on the caste reservation in India? Should OBC Muslims be also included? Justify.
  2. Why did the recent reservation agitations flare up? What do they signify? Explain.
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