Thursday, April 20, 2006

The problem with reservations in India

India is now in a turmoil because the government wants to extend the proportion of reserved seats in educational institutions. While the rationale for reserving seats for "backward classes" in order to help them develop themselves makes sense, I feel this is the wrong approach. Let's take a brief look at the issues, since they are quite complex.

India has a long history of ill-treating its backward classes. They were ostracised and treated as outcasts. After independence, in order to help them join the mainstream, it was decided to reserve seats in educational institutes, so that they could educate themselves, and better their prospects. Not only were places in colleges and universities reserved for them; jobs in the public sector were also earmarked for these classes.

While this was a reasonable way to trying to atone for the sins of past generations, this reservation soon got out of hand. In fact, today in some colleges, over 70% of the seats fall into the "reserved" category - which means that 90% of the students need to compete for just 30% of the total seats.

The reason this farce carries on is political compulsion. The backward classes represent important votebanks for politicians ( the poor will turn out in large numbers to vote, while the rich in the world's largest democracy usually are too busy to vote !), so no leader wants to anatagonise them.

However, the consequences of this reservation policy have been horrendous. While it's reasonable to use reservations as a crutch, to help underprivileged youngsters to catch up, they should have been phased out. Unfortunately, they are being misused, and no one wants to give up the free ride these reservations offer !
They breed corruption. Many influential people get false certificates to "prove" that they are from a "backward class" - so that their children can take advantage of the reserved quota.

The reservation is on the basis of social origin - not on economic grounds ! This means that even very rich students who happen to have been born in a "backward class" take advantage of this reservation - though they are not disadvantaged at all. This means the system is rampantly misused.

The system also breeds segregation and resentment. Rather than helping the backward classes to achieve mainstream integration, it has just created unhappiness and frustration amongst the general public, who now feel "underprivileged" because their children no longer have access to educational opportunities, because most of the seats have been reserved !

This has also ended up diluting standards. While it might be allright to reserve seats in undergraduate courses, to do so in postgraduate courses is unfair - if these students have still not caught up, they are never going to be able to . Even worse, since many of them cannot read and write English, teachers are forced to dilute their courses, resulting in a poor overall quality of students who graduate from Indian universities.

Our graduates represent our best opportunity at allowing Indians to remain competetive in the world. If we turn out poor quality graduates in order to accomodate the backward classes, we are headed for disaster !
The other students now feel illtreated and deprived - they have become the new backward classes ! This is a shame, and has created a lose-lose situation !

Unfortunately, we cannot solve a problem at the level at which it was created.

The problem is that we still persist in approaching this mess from a position of scarcity. Our mind set is that we have limited resources , which means we need to reserve these seats for the backward classes, in order to ensure equity for them. However, in our quest to give them a fair opportunity, we seem to be giving everyone an unfair break !

What we need to do it to increase the size of the cake, rather than think of ways of slicing it ( no matter what method you choose, it will always be unfair to some group !)

Let's approach the problem from a position of abundance. Education is not a non-renewable resource ! The more you teach - the more learning there is. It's like love - it multiples , it does not get divided ! There is plenty to go around - let's think of clever ways of ensuring that we can teach everyone to the same high standards, so no one who wants to learn is left out.

We need to create new opportunities to spread learning, and modern technology allows us to do this. Why do we still think in terms of "brick and mortar" colleges and universities ? Why can't we clone the IITs to create a much huger virtual IIT ? Anyone who wants to participate in the courses should be able to do so online !

We can capture the learnings of exemplary teachers from all over the country; and deliver these online to anyone who wants to learn from them ! While there will be a certain amount of expense and effort involved in the beginning, this will have a multiplicative effect, and has the potential to touch millions !

India has enough clever teachers and money to be able to do this on its own . The technology is now mature enough; and a small investment in this can result in huge dividends.

This is a great opportunity - and anyone who does it well can make lots of money as well !


  1. Anonymous10:04 PM

    I agree with you completely on this issue. Reservations in theory and reservatiion in practice are two totally different things.The framers of our Constitution thought that with time the number of SCs n STs will diminish, but the sheer opposite has happened! Everyone is clamouring to get on the bandwagon of the disadvantaged...irrespective of religion.Casteism, the bane of the Hindu religion has permeated to other religions.We now have to contend with Christian Dalits and reservation for the Muslims as well.What needs to be addressed is the mindset of the people and that i think to change will take several decades still.

  2. Anonymous8:26 AM

    "In fact, today in some colleges, over 70% of the seats fall into the "reserved" category - which means that 90% of the students need to compete for just 30% of the total seats."

    Are you sure about the numbers you quoted here that 90% of the students compete for 30% of the total seats. That tells me that 70% of the indian population contributes only 10% of the student population. If this is true then there is some thing very wrong with either the system or the country.

  3. Anonymous5:04 PM

    I really think that the reservations like what has been proposed will only do harm to the country - and to begin with, it will only increase the distance between the privileged and underprivileged classes. I agree that the underprivileged needs support - but doing that at the professional level or beyond is a deliberate mistake.

    I have had a wonderful discussion on this subject at my blog post:

  4. 50% of seats are reserved for Backward Classes ( Constitutional Reservations). However, this is not the only reservation students need to deal with. For example in Maharashtra, for Health Science Courses, 5% of seats are reserved for Children of Defence Personnel; 3% are for Physically Handicapped; 1% is for Maharasthtra-Karantaka Disputed Border Area Residents; and 3% are for Hilly Areas Residents ! ( There may be even more I am not aware of !)

  5. Read Your blog

    Here is mine " No! Let’s join the self-proclaimed snobs protesting with slogans “Remember your place”, polishing shoes and cleaning premises? Let’s pretend not to see it at all! Damn Reservations!"


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