Limits of reservation
  dipankar gupta

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OVER the years reservations have become the standard format for groups demanding equality of results. There is a great degree of political pressure to extend reservations to include communities other than Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). On the other hand there is little attempt to reflect upon what reservations were meant to achieve and, indeed, to review this policy which has been in operation for over 50 years. In order to accomplish this task it is necessary to contextualize reservations within the framework of democratic governance. Only then can we adequately finesse it or plot its future.

With the gradual ascendance of primordial politics and the tendency to think of vote banks along caste lines, the necessity for critically assessing reservations has been put aside. No doubt, this requires a serious intellectual engagement that does not quite fit in with the exigencies of populist, short term politics. This is why, for the most part, reservations have become a kind of holy cow in public circles. Nobody dare question its relevance, and, what is worse, many are more than willing to extend reservations to cover other groups by arguing that they had been victims of some kind of historic injustice.

Without a doubt, while some classes, categories and communities in society have enjoyed privileges, perhaps for centuries, there have been others that have faced discrimination of one sort or the other, either in recent times or in history. If one were to grant reservations to all of them, then it would be very difficult to establish a democratic society where the individual is paramount, and where rewards and social worth are judged on the basis of individual accomplishment. The argument that is often put against such assessments of individual worth is that when groups have been downtrodden and exploited for centuries then the scope for considerations on merit must make room for social equality. Before we talk of the individual, is it not important to take care of poverty first?



At this point an important clarification needs to be issued. Reservations should not be construed as an anti-poverty programme, as a stand in for poverty eradication interventions. Programmes that attack poverty should continue independent of reservations because there are poor people in all castes and religious groups. Therefore, it is unjustifiable to either hold back anti-poverty programmes for the sake of reservations, or to hold back reservations for the sake of anti-poverty programmes. The two are indeed quite distinct and should be kept that way.

At first sight, reservations may look like an anti-poverty measure. This is because the target community is usually very poor. There is a strong statistical correlation between being a member of a particular caste, tribe or religious community, and being poor. For this reason the cultural mark of ascription serves the purpose well for it is a ready reckoner in determining who are to be the beneficiaries of reservations. If, in this process, a few well to do families get an undue advantage, then so be it. This is a minor matter in the light of the fact that an overwhelming majority of people belonging to a certain group or community are wretchedly poor and, what is more, this poverty is the result of grave historic injustices against them.



So poverty, as such, is not what reservations are contending against. Reservations are to create a sense of confidence and self-worth among people who, through history, had been victims of the most heinous forms of discrimination. They are meant for those who have no socially valuable assets whatsoever. Only an unrealist romantic might believe that skinning leather, or scavenging, has a high social and moral content. A leather worker or a scavenger suffers from no such illusions. These communities, and some others too, were not allowed in tradition to develop social skills and assets that would help them advance socially.

This handicap weighs heavily on them even today. Therefore, they need positive discrimination to get that extra push to move up and claim their rightful position in a democratic society. This is how reservations were supposed to increase fraternity and broad-base democracy. As we all know, liberty can be established by law, equality by dictat, but for fraternity to happen it requires a substantial realization of citizenship. The founding figures of the Indian constitution knew this problem only too well. In fact, this was the subject of Dr. Ambedkar’s famous speech on 26 November 1949.



As reservations are not meant to replace anti-poverty programmes but to instill self-confidence and courage among those who had been historically disprivileged, they should not be used loosely to address people and groups who are simply poor. Reservations are really about fraternity and not about equality of economic status. Therefore, this policy is best applied when crippling poverty is accompanied by the historical dispossession of social assets. As this is not true of peasant castes, as most of them possess socially valuable assets, the policy of reservations should not have been extended to them as the Mandal commission did. Mandal beneficiaries have rural infrastructural assets, plus political power, and have never faced discrimination of the kind that SCs and STs have.

Why is it that those who press for extending the scope of reservations never really raise issues that relate to economic development? After B.R. Ambedkar, rarely do we come across Dalit activists who demonstrate any concern with problems relating to the structure of economic relations. They are more interested in the issue of identity and, consequently, their energies tend to focus around the politics of reservation (Vora 2004: 283; see also Shah 2001). Rarely, if ever, have they voiced strong opinions regarding capitalism, globalization, agro-industrial development and, sadly, about the quality of education and training available to Dalits across the country. In fact, quite often, some of the Dalit activists tend to believe that these are matters that take attention away from their major concern, viz., reservations. That it is important to enable Dalits to acquire skills and assets that are socially valuable so that they can compete as equals, in the not too long run, is not seriously entertained.

The beneficiaries of reservations so far have been across different classes. There is no doubt that there are today a much larger number of Dalits in Grade I services than what was the case after Independence. According to current estimates Dalits occupy a little more than 12% of Grade I positions in the public sector. As one goes down the ladder the number of Dalits keeps increasing till we come to the Grade IV level where they are actually over-represented.

These figures are very interesting and most striking is the increasing presence of Dalits in Grade I services over the past 50 years. Soon after independence the proportion of Dalits in Grade I services was hovering around 1%. Today it is over 12% (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2002-3) and before long it will become 17%, which is roughly equivalent to the proportion of their population in the country.



In terms of finessing reservations so that the policy is just and fair and is not easily shot down by its detractors, it is necessary that the ‘creamy layer’ among SCs and STs be taken off the list. If these positions are blocked in perpetuity by those families that have succeeded in coming to the top, then there is no room for further upward mobility among SCs and STs who have not been as fortunate so far. The criteria for deciding who among SCs and STs are in the ‘creamy layer’ can be the same as for OBCs, but perhaps with greater objectivity (see Report of the Expert Committee 1993). This is because unlike many OBCs who own land, SCs and STs, in the main, do not own agrarian property. So the criteria will primarily be based on incomes from urban jobs in the public sector.



Different communities and classes have different sets of aspirations. Now that the elite among SCs have experienced what it is to be among the better off in the public sector, their outlook has undergone a change. Like other well to do classes their ambition is now to be in the private sector which has all along been rather exclusivist in its recruitment policies. The private sector is not a homogeneous unit. There are numerous enterprises, big and small, that constitute the private sector. Obviously, when referring to the private sector, the reservationists are aiming their sights at high end jobs in major multinational and other Indian listed companies.

The fact is that most private sector companies have serious problems regarding their hiring policy. Very few of them have a transparent system of recruitment. In most cases it is the network that counts. This network excludes certain people rather than discriminates against them. In other words, regardless of one’s caste background, if the network is not supportive of the applicant then the chances of making it to the post are extremely limited.

Rarely does one see regular advertisements for jobs in the private sector. This is primarily because employers in these companies generally prefer applicants that are recommended. They are reluctant to go to the open market to search for prospective employees. This smacks of a lack of professionalism, which is why their plea of upholding standards sounds hollow to many. Most private sector organizations choose only between those who are network recommendees. This excludes a vast majority of potential applicants from any active job consideration in such organisations.

So it is not as if SCs and STs are purposively discriminated against. Perhaps SCs and STs do not make it to the private sector because they lack those critical network connections. Otherwise, in a large number of major private companies, particularly the transnationals and multinationals, there is no real interest regarding the caste background of a person. In fact, if anything, there is a strong possibility that Muslims would be discriminated against, especially in family run private organizations.

But to get back to the earlier point about caste based discrimination, it must be said that private sector executives, in general, are wary of employing anyone who has not come to them through their networks. So even those who are not SCs or STs, but lack network connections will be discriminated against. To think that private sector employers go out of their way to ascertain the caste of their prospective employees is, generally, wide off the mark. The rule of thumb for private sector recruitment in most cases is: no network connections, no jobs.



Nevertheless, is it proper to enforce reservation quotas in the private sector as well? To recall Ambedkar, reservations for SCs and STs were meant to enlarge the scope of fraternity. As we mentioned earlier, fraternity is a collective project, quite unlike equality and liberty. The state has to be the prime mover in all attempts to shore up fraternity for it can neither be established by law nor through unmediated market forces. Given the onus on the state to get fraternity off the ground it is necessary that the public sector takes the responsibility for reservations and for affirmative action.

Affirmative action includes policies that advocate representation of different communities and groups, and not just caste. In addition, affirmative action also encourages and rewards those companies and institutions that get state funding when they show a satisfactory mix of communities on their employment rolls. The ingredients of this mix are generally left open which is why the quota system, as in reservations, is resisted in affirmative action. Thus, even though affirmative action is not the same as reservations, in this case too it is the state that plays the lead role for the policy applies only to the public sector and those who depend on state funding. This version of affirmative action is best exemplified in America.



Those who have had the benefit of reservations in the public sector acquire socially valuable assets in a generation or two. Subsequently, it is not fair for them to seek further reservations anywhere else. That would go against the spirit of the policy of reservations. It is possible to suggest that reservations should be continued in the public sector to make sure that a critical number of SCs and STs have truly benefited from them. But after that the rationale for reservations simply disappears.

To argue that as long as there is prejudice there should be reservations is simply incorrect. Prejudice can never be fought with policies. Prejudice can be contained when there are proper laws that are intolerant of discrimination. But most significantly, prejudice is best combated when its victims are strong enough to take the battle up to the victimizers in the court of law. Reservations were meant to create this strength and confidence among SCs and STs.

Unfortunately, prejudice lurks everywhere. If some people are able to escape prejudicial and discriminating treatment against them it is because they are strong enough to hit back. There are prejudices against linguistic groups, against regional backgrounds, against religious communities, against sects, and against those who have different dietary preferences, and so on. In most of these instances there is no need for special social policies as the people concerned are both willing and able to stand up for their rights. Likewise, the SC and ST elite should set the trend in their communities and fight back against discrimination with all the legal and constitutional means at their disposal. This is ultimately how attitudes against Dalits will cease to be expressed in social practice, whether or not prejudice exists at multiple personal points.



Instead of asking for reservations in the private sector, Dalits would do better to call the bluff of reservationists. They should make clear that they refuse to be fobbed off with the standard reservation format but would want better training and education standards for that would be their most trusted guarantor for success. This would not only help to fill the reserved posts that are lying vacant for want of qualified Dalit candidates, but would also open up more avenues for members of these communities in their drive to live better and more fulfilling lives.



Report of the Expert Committee for Specifying the Criteria for Identification of Socially Advanced Persons Among the Socially and Economically Backward Classes, Ministry of Welfare, New Delhi, 10 March 1993 .

Ghanshyam Shah, 2001, ‘Dalit Movements and the Search for Identity’, in Ghanshyam Shah (ed.), Dalit Identity and Politics: Cultural Subordination and the Dalit Challenge, vol. 2, Sage, New Delhi.

Rajendra Vora, 2004, ‘Decline of Caste Majoritarianism in Indian Politics’, in Rajendra Vora and Suhas Palshikar (ed.), Indian Democracy: Meanings and Practices, Sage, New Delhi.