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Indian Reservation System: 70 Years and Counting

When we have any sickness, we always prefer taking an allopathic medicine as it suppresses the symptoms faster. But what happens when we keep taking this medicine on a regular basis? Side effects. This is exactly what reservation is: an allopathic medicine which was prescribed by the makers of our Constitution for a few years [1], but for the last 70 years, different governments have kept on giving this country an overdose. Protests for and against reservation have long plagued India, [2] giving rise to endless discussions and debates. But the agendas have always remained the same: Should reservation be class-based or caste-based?

How many seats should be reserved for different categories? Is reservation destroying merit? The very fact that we have been asking the wrong questions all along has been the hindrance to the social development of our country. There is this one big question which, because of vote bank politics, remains unasked, undebated and undiscussed in our country: When will the reservation system come to an end?

Before we come to the question of why and how reservation should end, it is very important to understand why, in the first place, it was introduced in the Constitution. At the time when our Constitution was framed, our country suffered from a deep rooted caste system. The Dalits, also called the untouchables, led pathetic lives, were denied education and access to public places, and were looked down upon by the same men who criticized the British. Hence, to ensure equality of status and of opportunity, the Constitution allows the State to make special provisions for the growth of the backward classes like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. [3] Thus, the aim of the Founders of our Constitution was that the socially oppressed and economically backward sections of the society get into the mainstream civil life and reservation was one of the ways of doing so.

It has been 70 years since our Constitution was adopted and against what would have been ideal, governments have kept on increasing reservation. At present, reservation is provided to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at the rate of 15%, 7.5% and 27% respectively in government jobs, educational institutions and so on. The persons belonging to Economically Weaker Sections (EWSs) who are not covered under the scheme of reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs shall get 10% reservation in direct recruitment in civil posts and services in the Government of India.[4] Reservation, of course, has had some positive effect on these backward classes but at the same time one cannot gainsay the adverse effects it has had on them and the people who do not fall under these quotas. Moreover, the benefits of reservation are taken away by the well-off people in the backward classes, who are also called the ‘creamy layer’, and the ones in need remain at the bottom of the society.

If out of 100 seats in an educational institution, 60 are reserved, how motivated will the non-beneficiaries be to perform well in the entrance examinations? There is no doubt that the ever continuing reservation system has destroyed merit. Whenever the government has increased reservations, the students have protested. In October 1990, Rajeev Goswami, a student at Deshbandhu College, attempted self-immolation as a sign of protest against the recommendations of the Mandal Commision.[5] In 2006, many medical and engineering students across the country protested against the reservation for OBCs in institutions of higher learning.[6] Again, when the 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) was introduced, student bodies termed it as a political move and opposed it.[7]

It is difficult to comprehend why reservation is even required in educational institutions. The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A in the Constitution of India to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which represents the consequential legislation envisaged under Article 21-A, means that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards.[8] Let us analyse what the ideal situation should have been according to the education policy of our country.

The RTE Act does not distinguish on caste basis and quality education is supposed to be received by every child. If the students in government schools get the same education as that received by students in private schools, there would not exist any educational gap between them. They are then equally competent to get admitted into higher educational institutions. Thus, the admission into these institutions can be based purely on merit. In a civilised society as ours, no educational institution would prefer an undeserving general category student over a meritorious backward class student. In this manner, the youth of the country would receive standard education and would get a chance to attain higher skills based on their own merit. As far as jobs are concerned, just like in sports, the most competent of them all should be selected as all have undergone the same learning process. Reserving seats for the undeserving candidates is only going to have a negative impact on the efficiency of work done. Many argue that reservation and efficiency isn’t a trade off as different sectors of our economy continue to grow; but the point is that in a developing country like ours, if competent individuals were given jobs, we could have attained much more.

We see that just by ensuring standard education to every child, there is no need for reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. When the backward classes receive education, they will no more be socially and economically disadvantaged. Now, in order to implement this, the government needs to identify the places where this chain breaks. Since free education is provided only up to 14 years of age, many students are unable to continue further education. The government should thus provide scholarships to such students till their education is complete. If there are cases of discrimination during job selection, the government should make it mandatory to remove the ‘Caste’ column from all job applications. Even after all this, there will be many who are neither able to receive proper education nor are getting jobs. What the government has been doing in such cases is that they have reserved seats for them without taking into account its impact on those who were supposed to get those seats. The only solution to this problem is improving the educational infrastructure of our country and increasing job opportunities.

Reservation was always intended to be a short-term measure. The unprivileged section of the society which did not get proper education can live a decent life if some seats are reserved for them but the next generation, i.e. their children, when given quality learning, should not need any reservation. In this manner reservation should have gradually been brought to an end. It is saddening to see that people protest not for their educational rights but for reservation. The Supreme Court had ruled that reservation isn’t a fundamental right. But the policy of the politicians to use reservation to appease their voters seems to backfire as different sections of the society keep asking for more reservation. Recently on 11th June, 2020, the Supreme Court had rejected pleas challenging the Centre’s decision to not grant 50% reservation to OBCs in Tamil Nadu medical colleges. [9]

The objective of introducing reservation was to ameliorate the condition of the socially and educationally backward classes but not at the cost of other’s equality. Corruption and inefficiency in implementing government policies has ensured that even after 70 years, class distinctions exist in our society. The governments have used reservation as a veil to hide their inability to improve the socio-economic condition of the country. Whenever the poor demand for their rights, reservation has been used as a compensatory measure. At a time when the Prime Minister is preparing for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, individuals should no more be dependent on reservation. Merely by asking the right questions, India can indeed achieve unprecedented heights with the help of its diverse population.

By Nikunj Khetan


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