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Reservations about reservations

The increased reservation for OBCs in our country’s elite institutes has caused much furore amongst students. Criticism against this move has been overwhelming. In a poll conducted on our website, over 80% of the respondents were completely against this move; while a mere 5% felt the reservation justified.

Reactions are coming in thick and fast. The Indian blogosphere is full of posts vehemently opposing, what many call, Arjun Singh’s political move. The media too has jumped into the fray … to put it in simple words, people have been stirred and are passionately debating on this issue.

The proposed 27% OBC reservation in IIT/ IIM/ DU:

Completely wrong! Reduce reservation to 10% maximum.There is no need for reservation but education as many brilliant people in rural areas don’t know what is IIM or IIT. They are intelligent but lack of knowledge pulling them down.
– Sk

Ok, if applicable only to poor OBCs. It will fine if implemented in right way. Keep the no of seats for open categeory same as they r now. n only increase seat for OBC candidate. So don’t need to have big issue like this.
– Bhushan, College of engineering Pune(COEP)

However, there is a clear lack of neutral opinions or statistics in this whole discussion. In the frenzy, the larger issue – the ‘haves’ sacrificing some of their advantages for the uplifment of the ‘have-nots’ – has been ignored. What we present here are three articles, which again are essentially point of views. We can, however, say for certain that we have tried our level best to steer clear of shrill protests. Who exactly are OBCs? Are they necessarily economically deprived? These are some questions that this article attempts to answer.

The positive fall-out in this whole fiasco are the vocal protests from students, who hitherto were acussed of being aloof towards societal issues.

Caste vs Class
Caste based reservation has no scientific basis, says Rashmi Bansal.

Maybe I had one of those rare childhoods but I grew up not quite realising the importance of ‘caste’. At some point I figured I was a bania or ‘vaishya’ but it did not seem very relevant because my father was a scientist. So I never made the connection between caste and profession.

When I set up JAM a few people commented that being a ‘bania’ I had business in my blood. I found that hard to believe. Yes, my grandfather ran a small shop and many of my uncles and cousins were traders. But for all practical purposes I was a first generation entrepreneur. The only thing I was ‘natural ‘ at was doing well in exams, which is hardly relevant!

What I’m saying is, in a single generation you can flip from flop or flop from flip. My father studied under kerosene lamps, on a meagre scholarship. Effort combined with luck and ability, led to social mobility. A government job which took him to the four corners of the world. And to a universe of x rays and gamma rays beyond that.

My brother and I were incessantly drilled on the ‘value of education’. It was held up as our only passport for the future. So we grew up striving for it, yearning for it. And that, I think, is the crucial X factor due to which certain kinds of young people make it through competitive exams. And others don’t.

If it was merely a question of access to resources surely we’d be seeing more rich kids than middle class ones in what are considered the ‘best colleges’. Of course, poverty is a major constraining factor for the rest – it’s hard to sustain a fire in a an empty belly. Although a few exceptional individuals do.

But, I believe class is not necessarily linked to caste. Now you may disagree with my view of the world and say no, caste is still a major impediment in social progress for a large number of Indians. And therefore, we need reservations. And I am ready to accept that argument – but on the basis of facts and statistics!

As we all know, reservations were initially recommended for a period of 10 years. Now they are in force for close to 50. Has any social scientist tracked the results of this policy? And I am talking purely of a sociologist or economist doing their job – uncoloured by any ideological agenda.

To begin with, can we have statistics from all educational institutions currently following 22.5% reservation on the profile of candidates being admitted? How many under the SC/ ST quota are first generation college goers or from households where income is below Rs 1 lakh a year? How many from rural and how many from urban areas? Such data surely exists, but it is nowhere to be found in the current debate.

Secondly, the entire reservation argument is built on 52% of the population being “OBC”. An article titled ABC of OBC in the Indian Express observed..

Using 11 criteria , the Commission identified 3,743 caste groups as OBCs. Since population figures along caste lines were not available beyond 1931, the Commission used the 1931 census data to calculate the number of OBCs. The population of Hindu and non-Hindu OBCs worked out to about 52 per cent of the total population.

I simply cannot understand this! How can 60 year old data be used to arrive at such an important figure. And why wasn’t a census along caste lines conducted in 2001 if this policy was to be properly implemented?

The 2001 census provides data by variables like age, sex, religion, marital status, educational status and disability. But as far as caste goes it only tracks SCs and STs. This really blows my mind… !

However we have something called a National Commission for Backward Classes. (www.ncbc.nic.in) Note the use of the word CLASSES not CASTES. Class need not necessarily mean caste.

NCBC could have taken the initiative to define backward classes in a new way (eg people living in kachcha houses, not owning land, no access to drinking water = 1 disadvantaged class, across caste lines). But no, it insists on naming specific castes’ as backward CLASS.

Take a list at the castes included for the state of Gujarat. Folks with surnames like Thakore, Nayak, Puri and Goswami are ‘backward’ in that state (if I have understood correctly…). Did NCBC duplicate an exercise as gigantic as the census to arrive at this list? How much science goes into making such lists, and how much politics??

Here is an interesting paper by JNU professor Pradipta Chaudhury which highlights the enormous complexity of the issue. The observation is for UP, based on data available at the turn of the century (not this one – the last one!)

“With respect to literacy rate, three OBCs, namely, Sonar, Halwai and Kalwar, were ahead of four high castes, namely, Rajput, Taga, Bhat and Kandu. Similarly, with respect to economic status, five OBCs, namely, Sonar, Jat, Gujar, Kisan and Mali, were better off than Brahman and Rajput, the two most numerous high castes, which accounted for one-fifth of the Hindu population. Two SCs, namely, Khatik and Dusadh, had higher literacy rates than many OBCs”.

The writer concludes that:
“Even in a backward region like U.P. at the beginning of the 20th century, there were large variations in the literacy rates and economic conditions of castes that were later pooled together and treated as homogeneous categories…High ritual rank could not secure some of the upper castes against low economic status. Similarly, low ritual status did not prevent large sections of Jat, Gujar, Sonar, Kisan and Mali from attaining prosperity.

Caste did not preclude the upward economic mobility of a section of the untouchables. Even with ‘5000 years old tradition of learning’, the Brahman population of U.P. could not reach an average of 12% literacy by 1911; they were not the most literate of castes”.

I really wish academicians like these, who can offer solid facts and not just emotional arguments were invited for TV debates. Perhaps facts don’t make for good television in which case I wish Prof Chaudhuri makes his case in the edit pages. His paper further points out…

“Advocates of caste politics argue that the problem will be solved if the OBCs or SCs are arranged according to the degree of backwardness and split into subgroups such as ‘more-backward’and ‘most-backward’ and sub-quotas created within the total quota. However, the economic status of households varies a great deal within each caste. In a caste, several economic classes exist.

Marginal and small peasants, and landless labourers constitute the bulk of the population in each caste. At the same time, every caste contains a section, varying in size, of well-to-do families.

Did all the lower castes suffer from an equal degree of ritual handicap? Actually, there was an elaborate gradation and hierarchy among the intermediate or shudra and even the untouchable castes, which governed interaction between them and kept inter-caste socialisation to a minimum. The rich households belonging to a low caste tried to imitate the customs and rituals of the upper castes such as child marriage, prevention of widow remarriage and payment of dowry for marriage”.

Our vision for ourselves:
JNU professor Dipankar Gupta rightly pointed out on TV that at the end of the day it boils down to what how we wish to shape the idea of India. Is it going to be an India dominated by caste, or do we look at ‘capacity building’ of weaker sections of society?

50 years ago the ‘idea of India’ as unity in diversity was shaky. The south protested against imposition of Hindi as a national language. Today, thanks to Bollywood and bhangra, Hindi is not seen as ‘alien’ by young people anywhere in India. It may be dominant but is not necessarily ‘dominating’. Today dosas are available in South Ex and chana bhatura in Chennai. Food has become a great unifying facor in the idea of ‘India’.

Similarly, I feel, caste had become irrelevant to a significant number of young people. But now it may once again become top of the mind… And that, I think will ultimately damage the idea of India. Things are far from perfect today but we should be working towards making caste a non issue. Not the issue.

Lastly, we need to shake off the guilty feeling that we are the first and only society in the world to devise this ‘abominable’ social practice. Caste based discrimination has existed in varying forms in varied places. And been successfully eradicated.

Few would know this, but France once had a group of people known as ‘cagots’. “These people lived separately from others, on the edge of towns and cities,” writes David Berreby in Us and Them. “They entered churches by separate entrances, and they could not touch an ordinary Christian, let alone marry one.” Cagots were the Dalits of French society—they no longer exist. They were absorbed into the mainstream.

Similarly, Korea had its own group of outcasts called the paekchong, who lived apart from the rest of society and worked in special occupations—butchery, leatherworking, shoemaking and related trades. Berreby writes that paekchong and prejudice against them was alive in the memories of Koreans of 50 years ago, even though the legal status had been abolished since 1894.

But today, they have ‘vanished without a trace into the mainstream of Korean society’. It took a Japanese occupation, a war and post-war economic growth to achieve that. Not reservation.

One can only hope that the economist in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prevails over the politician! And reservation is not perpetuated, even as opportunities are created for all…

Who will really lose out?
Gaurav Sabnis believes the real victim of Mandal are the Dalits

The problem with reservations in IITs and IIMs and any other government-run entity is they end up fulfilling just a fraction of the goal they set out to.

Let us consider a few things here:
Dalits are very different from OBCs. According to the Hindu caste system, one’s profession was determined by his birth. These 4 castes wereBrahmins, who did schoalrly work, Kshatriya, the warrior caste, Vaishyas, the traders, and Shudras, the manual labourers. Though no inter-mingling was allowed, each person belonging to these castes had a specific role in the Indian society and could earn his living honestly and under normal circumstances. Though Brahmins were respected for their monopoly over cerebral work, the Vaishyas and Kshatriyas used to be wealthier. The Shudras also had several professions like shepherd, artisan, etc by which they could earn a living.

Outside the caste system were certain people considered casteless. These were the untouchables, with whom no Hindu of any of the 4 castes was allowed to have contact. They lived on the fringes of society and even in the best of times, struggled to make a living. They were not allowed access to water resources, temples etc. Their existence, for centuries, was inhuman beyond belief. These untouchables are called Dalits, and in the reservation system, called SC/STs.

The OBCs, for whom the Mandal Commission recommends reservations, are not Dalit. They are made up of castes other than Brahmins. In fact if you look at communities which make up the OBCs, they literally represent every caste other than Brahmins. In Bihar, baniyas, i.e vaishya traders are OBC. In the north, the warrior Jats are OBC.

Now the OBCs historically suffered from one problem. They were not allowed access to the holy scriptures that the Brahmin was. So no cowherd or artisan could become a pundit. However, economically, a hundred years ago, they were no better or worse off than Brahmins.

What has constituted “education” and “learning” over the last century or so, is not and has never been monopoly of the Brahmins. Education and learning has been provided in schools and colleges. The Brahmins had as much access to it as any other castes. Their financial resources were as meagre as most OBCs.

The OBCs, over the years, have had similar access to a livelihood as an average brahmin. They are miles and miles better than the Dalits who led a sub-human existence.

So reservations, at least for OBCs, should be in place only to prevent discrimination. i.e if an otherwise capable candidate is being rejected only by virture of his caste. A quota in government jobs prevents such a discrimination….by and large.

But on these grounds, considering that OBCs were no better or worse in terms of resources and access to education, than Brahmins, I fail to see the rationale behind reservations in completely-objective selection procedures such as JEE and CAT or any other admission entrances.

In JEE or CAT, a candidate is just a roll number. A roll number has no caste or creed. So why do OBCs deserve reservation?

Personally speaking, this has been my experience studying in an engineering college, the best in Pune, with a 49.5% reservation.

The cut-off for the ‘general category’ was 97% for my class.
The cut-off for SC/ST was 70%.
The cut-off for OBCs however was around 92-93% (ballpark).

So you can imagine the scenario. The bulk of OBC students in my class were, in terms of resource availability, not very different from the general category. Even during engineering, as a group, they did not do significantly better or worse than general students.

So what happened practically was, that these 92-93% scorers, who would otherwise have studied in a lesser college, ended up studying in the best college. And several Brahmin students who would have otherwise studied in my college went to a lesser one.

I don’t know what this achieved. Those students would have had decent careers even if they had gone to other colleges.

The “intention” of reservations…or at least of Ambedkar, the man who evisaged them, was to help the Dalits. What happened to the SC/STs in my class? Most of them flunked in the first year. A fraction would complete the course of course, but most Dalits would flunk out.

Why? For the simple reason that they had just not been prepared for the level of competition. If students who scored 90+ in HSC got around 60-70% in engineering exams, you can imagine how people who scored 70% in HSC would fare.

I am told this happens in IITs too. Most SC/STs either flunk out or get their degrees in 5-6 years, which makes them quite worthless, unless you want a job in a PSU which also has reservations.

So this whole Mandal commission implementation, at least in areas where the selection is objective, such as entrance exams, is futile.

What will happen is, around 400 students who would have otherwise studied in colleges like Symbiosis, Somaiya, TAPMI etc, with 96-97 percentile CAT scores, will end up going to IIMs. And 400 students with 99 percentile scores who would have otherwise gone to IIMs will go to Symbi, Somaiya, TAPMI etc.

The overall level of the IIMs will not really fall that much by the inclusion of the OBCs. Just like the level of my engineering college didn’t fall. All this talk of fall in salaries and reputation etc is an over-reaction.

The overall positive is also the overall negative. The level won’t fall because they are not that bad. But then if they are not that bad, why are they being given reservations in a completely objective selection procedure anyway?

Just to score a brownie point. The politicians will thump their chest and claim that they have done a lot by implementing the reservations.

Brahmins, OBCs and SC/STs who always had access to resources will keep doing well. Only there will be a slight churning like I indicated.

Brahmins and OBCs who didn’t have the access to resources will continue to stay out.

Most SC/STs who make it despite being way below the cut-off will not be able to derive the benefits.

Of course, there will be a small percentage that will be an exception. There will be a small percentage of OBCs who had no access to resources, but fought all odds to score well. For instance, the son of a bhelwaala, who works all day, studies at night and scores 90% and the son of an engineer who studied all day, joined coaching classes, and scores 98%; both will probably do equally well in the course, if the bhelwala gets a scholarship and studies the same time as the other kid.

But such cases are too few and far in between. A huge chunk…. my guesstimate is 90% of OBC seats are taken by folks who have access to the same resources as Brahmin kids. Thus there is something horribly wrong in the way reservations are being implemented, even in government owned entities.

And the wrong will continue.

The ultimate sufferers are the Dalits, i.e the SC/STs. With a constitutional sanction to pamper and appease the numerically superior non-brahmin-non-dalit folks, i.e the OBCs, politicians have no incentive anymore to even think of upliftment or well-being of the really needy folks, i.e the Dalits.

Morality of merit
IIT Madras student S Shankar Prasad speaks out against reservation.

A week back, I was a part of team which conducted an event called “how things work” in our departmental techfest, Mechanica, in IIT Madras. Being a relatively small techfest, the participation was not too high from outside institutions. With over 70% of participating teams from the home college, it was hardly a surprise that most of the teams selected to appear in the finals were from IIT Madras.

Some of us wondered if we should reserve 2 out of 8 places in the finals for teams from other colleges. I opposed this stating that any form of reservation deserves to be scrapped. The suggestion was immediately taken back and we had the eight best teams participating in the finals.

The current attention of the media is focused on the reservation of seats to OBCs in IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and many other respected educational institutions in the country. Clearly, this is a political gimmick to gather more votes for the upcoming legislative assembly elections in several states.

The rationale
All of us know that reservation to SC and ST was given right after its Independence. It is also a known that BR Ambedkar himself suggested that the reservation be withdrawn after about ten-fifteen years. The introduction of reservation was to kick start the development of the socially oppressed. The intention was perfect. The execution may not have been very pleasing, but should have seen a partial success. A significant number of families must have been able on stand on their feet back then.

Today, it’s a different story. It is a fact the creamy layer reaps all the benefits from the system. The deserving ones are, more often than not, left behind. Most of the students who get in IIT are those who have been to coaching classes, and belong to average middle class families. SC/STs are not exceptions.

The year I got through JEE, the 9th ranker in reserved category was 1900th rank in general category. That was when I felt that reservation was “justice denied” to hundreds of deserving candidates. It is also seen that most unsuccessful students (academically) in IIT Madras are those who have come through reservation. There are exceptions, but only a handful.

I have read in a newspaper that among reserved class, ranks are only given to those who have secured atleast 75% of the cut-off marks in the general merit list. Others are admitted to Preperatory Course (PC) which is of one year duration. The following year, based on ranks obtained in their respective class, they are admitted to different braches B-Tech (or dual degree). It is known that once you are in PC, you are not turned down a seat in the following year.

As such, there is NO resentment towards reserved category students, but there is towards the rules laid down by the institute. For instance, reserved students are allowed to take four books from library while others two. In many cases, the most needed books are absent in general section but available in plenty in reserved section. Those books are allowed only after about half a sem. is completed. (call us nerds, but this issue always comes up every time ther is disscussion on reservation)

I must admit that I know only a few of the students as ‘SC/ST’ students. I don’t know if many of my other friends belong to reserved section or not. Same is the case with other close friends of mine. This itself shows that they are not socially outcast or something. They very much form an integral part of the student community.

The issue of ‘merit’:
A couple of years ago, there was debate regarding reservation in the private sector in Maharastra, I recall having seen ‘The Big Fight’ (NDTV), where supporters of reservation argued that reservation doesn’t mean a compromise in quality of professionals. Let’s get this straight. Seats are reserved for primary education – acceptable; seats are reserved for secondary (high school) education – again acceptable.

But at an under graduate or graduate level, reservation is certainly not acceptable. If they are not a compromise on merit, why are they demanding reservation even in the private sector? There is sufficient reservation in government jobs, and even there a number of their posts are unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified candidates.

Any form of reservation is a compromise on merit. When it was done 60 years ago, it was done with a purpose. With the purpose defeated, it’s all downhill from where I see it. Now, I think, it is time for SC/ST to come out and say, “We are good, we don’t need any reservation, don’t spoon-feed us.” What do you think? Seriously, look beyond cast, creed, religion, regionalism or wardrobe malfunction….there are number of other things which demand immediate attention.