Software Nerd

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The "Reservation" system in India

Indian castes: Traditionally, India had four major "castes": priests, warriors, traders/artisans and miscellaneous "lower" people (with many sub-castes within each of these). The lowest caste were dsicriminated against for centuries, treated as second class citizens.

Independence and Reverse Discrimination: On independence (1947), important India leaders wanted the government to help "untouchables" overcome centuries of being treated as second class citizens. Legal equality -- like allowing untouchables access to (say) the good village well -- is just. However, many wanted to give "lower castes" a leg up via special privileges. Faces with objections about such reverse discrimination, a compromise was reached: the government would practice some amount of reverse discrimination, but only for 10 years. Private companies were free do what they liked in this regard.

"Scheduled" castes: The government created a schedule, listing targeted sub-castes. It reserved a percentage of government jobs, college admissions, etc. for such "scheduled caste" folk. In addition, certain electoral districts were declared as only open to "scheduled caste" candidates for 10 years (even though the majority of the voters in them were not of those castes).

Vested Interests: Ten years later, the cry was "we need more time...these people are still underrepresented, etc. ". Fast forward to 2007, 60 years later, and the system is still in place, and getting stronger. Vested interests grew up around the system. Members of parliament who had been elected from "reserved" districts did not want to relinquish control. Other sub-castes began agitating to be included on the list, claiming that they too had been discriminated against in the past. The list grew, instead of shrinking. India now has "Scheduled Castes", "Scheduled Tribes", and "Other Backward Classes". The whole system is based on family heritage, not economic status.

By the 1980s, in some states more than half the college admissions (most colleges are government owned) were "reserved". In one state, 69% of seats are reserved. Since many of the richer, better educated families often traced their ancestry to the "higher" castes, children from these families had a hard time getting into colleges. (The Indian Supreme court recently ruled that a majority of seats cannot be reserved, so the maximum reservation must go down to 49.5%! )

Growing worse: Though all this, the government insulated certain elite institutions: the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the "Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)", keeping reservations to a minimum. Finally these (government controlled) entities have given in. They worked out a "compromise": for a budget increase, they'll increase the total number of students, and also increase the percentage of reserved admissions. The IIT has also agreed to keep aside "only" 27%.

Another recent trend has been calls to extend the system to India's private sector.

Shifting to an economic base: Some of those to were admitted in the "reserved" quota, were good students, from well-off families, who used the quota as a way to get a final little edge in the extremely competitive Indian college entrance. This is bad, of course. However, now, people have begun to question why the system is based only on ancestry, and are suggesting that its intent is to uplift the poor. Therefore, the argument goes, anyone from a "scheduled caste" who has made it (has a decent family income), should not be allowed to use the quota. By keeping out those who were "gaming" the intent of the system (claiming incompetence where there was none), this new approach will allow even less competent people. This will make a bad system even worse.

An observation: Sometimes a friend will comment that attitudes in India are more capitalistic than in the U.S. , citing polls that show people in India reacting more positively to terms like "profit" and "capitalism". This is a mistaken view. Since the economy in India was so tightly controlled, what people are positive about are the new-found freedoms and the results. It does not follow that they want to be like the U.S. in politics. The basic political philosophy still aims for a mixed-economy, just not as socialist as before.

My personal visualization of this is : India is racing upward toward the "goal" that is Western Europe, while the U.S. is drifting downward toward that same goal.

A Lesson : A lesson I take away from India's reservation system, is that it's tough to rollback a government-given privilege. If I apply the lesson to U.S. politics today, I think it is critical not to allow the Federal government to make any significant move toward universal healthcare. If they do, it will become like public schools, where the NEA is a strong lobby against change, and where parents routinely vote against change from a fear of change.



  • Thank you for the article. It brings together into a coherent picture what I have heard about only in bits.

    Two questions arise:

    1. What would be the minimum set of underlying ideas that would need to change before this corrupt reservation system could be abolished in favor of capitalism?

    2. Earlier in the 20th Century and before, did Indian society hold an even worse idea, the idea that the way things are is the way they always should be and will be?

    By Blogger Burgess Laughlin, at 5:28 AM  

  • Fatalism: The idea that this is just how things are etc. was very typical of India. Of course, this was not true of everyone. Thanks to the British, many Indians became quite modern in their outlook; but the poorer classes remained very fatalistic in their outlook.

    Remember though: India is a large country and traditional culture varies from state to state. There are some states (and areas within states) that have traditionally had less fatalistic, much more "can do" cultures.

    I don't know if this has changed since I left (early 1990s). From visits, my estimate is that the urban middle class populations have made huge strides in thinking they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. I doubt this has percolated to the poor and the villages yet.

    Abolition: As for the first question, I suppose the minimal idea for the system to be abolished would be a view along these lines: "enough time has elapsed, and reservations are no longer required. This is minimal because it signifies no change in principle.

    So, such an abolition would not be in favor of capitalism. I wouldn't be surprised if the system slowly changes from being caste-based to be "need-based".

    To end that type of system, in favor of Capitalism, Indians will have to accept that helping the needy is not the role of government. Right now, I don't see any country in the world showing signs of moving in that direction.

    By Blogger softwareNerd, at 11:58 AM  

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