Why India needs to rethink its reservation policies

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Pavneet Singh Kochhar's picture

Recently, the Indian state of Gujarat has witnessed massive protests and damage to public property following the agitation led by the Patel (or Patidar) community. The face of the protest is a 22 year old Hardik Patel hailing from a middle class family of Chandrapur village in central Gujarat. He has led nearly 100 rallies in the state of Gujarat with huge success, demanding inclusion of the Patel community in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category. His contention is that reservation is the solution to the problem of Patel youths not getting admission into colleges and jobs in government and has garnered huge support from the community. Similar such protests have happened in the past by the minority communities and religious groups. However, the current argument by the leader seems doublespeak as he has often expressed that if Patels don’t get reservations, nobody should.

Reservation in India has been a debatable topic and has a long history going back to late 1800s. India has a long history of caste based system where people enjoyed rights based on their family background. A recent survey shows that one in four Indians accept of practicing untouchability [1]. To overcome this issue, in 1950, the Indian constitution enshrined the idea of discrimination to support two scheduled groups i.e., the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) who were primary target of discrimination due to the caste based system. Article 46 of the Constitution states that "The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation." Initially, the policy (also called as affirmative action) was introduced to be implemented for 10 years but has been renewed since then with the percentage of different categories increased over the years. Table I shows the current percentage of reservation for each group.


Reservation %

Scheduled Castes (SC)


Scheduled Tribes (ST)


Other Backward Classes (OBC)


Total reservation




                                          Table I: Reservations in India

Some of the questions that have been raised time and again: Will reservation in higher education compromise the quality of education? Has reservation benefitted the backward class communities? Does India lose because of reservation in terms of brain drain as talented students go abroad and study in the west? Let me shed light on some of these questions.

The underlying assumption of reservation is that all the people from “backward classes” are disadvantaged, whereas others are capable enough to get admission or job. I believe it is neither valid nor fair as there are wealthier and educated members within the SC/ST community who are economically well off and can support education for their family. The worrisome part is that the affirmative action policy does not have any termination date, which means these policies are renewed decade after decade. Politicians have often misused reservation to appease voters. The Supreme Court has mandated a 50% cap on the quotas to ensure equal access guaranteed in the Constitution, however, states have brazenly increased quota limit above 50%. Recently, Rajasthan government passed two bills to reserve 19% of seats, which is over and above the 49% reserved already [2]. Such brazen disregard of the judiciary shows the mindset of our politicians of favoring mediocrity over meritocracy. Announcements like these are often made before the elections to take advantage on the gullible voters; however, hardly any monitoring takes place after the reservations are implemented.

It is important to understand how successful these policies have been in uplifting the deserving communities. A study showed that reservation has helped in reduction in the level and intensity of poverty for the ST community but no effect on the SC community [3], while another study found that benefit was only limited to urban areas having better than average schools [4]. Another research, based on empirical evidence, found that affirmative action has positive effects on productivity in some areas [5]. Furthermore, researchers studied engineering college admissions in India found that people from stronger socio-economic backgrounds benefit most from the reservation policy and targeting by caste leads to exclusion of certain disadvantaged groups like the number of females getting admission [6]. Research studying different aspects of reservation with varied results makes it difficult to have a definitive conclusion about the impact of reservation on the deserving communities.

India has some of the prestigious institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). There is no doubt that these colleges churn out some of the best graduates in the world who go on to become highly acclaimed CEOs and Professors of large organizations and universities. Every year over 1.2 million aspirants sit for the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) to get one of 10,000 coveted seats at IITs [7]. Stiff competition along with reservation deprives a large numbers of students of admission in these top notch colleges. This is where the issue of brain drain comes in, which has been a topic of debate for several years. India has been losing highly qualified doctors, engineers, lawyers and entrepreneurs to countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. These educated Indians are highly in demand and draw some of the highest salaries in the western world. A perfect reminder of India losing out highly talented people is the recently appointed CEO of Google Sundar Pichai. Born and brought up in a simple family in Chennai who studied at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and then went on to study at Stanford and Wharton school. Currently, major tech companies like Microsoft and Adobe are being led by Indian CEOs.

It is high time that the government sets up an independent panel composed of group of experts, who have no political affiliation, to review the entire reservation system. Similar sentiments were echoed by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological mentor of the current ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, seeing the upcoming elections in the state of Bihar, the issue was brushed aside by BJP. Families from SC/ST background must be made to declare their family incomes. Such families who have been uplifted from poverty and benefited from the affirmative action should be removed from the backward class category so as the actual beneficiaries can reap the benefits. Furthermore, it is often seen that people spend few thousands to get a fake backward class certificate to land into one of the top colleges or government jobs. Not only this encourages corruption but also large communities of genuine backward class are left to fend for themselves.

We have to slowly move away from the caste based reservation to a system where people from poor economic backgrounds are rewarded. We have to create a level playing field by supporting people from weaker sections of the society not by dividing people based on caste which further increases the discrimination and  weakens the trust in the system. Furthermore, reservations in higher education do not bring benefits to millions who still do not have access to primary education. To maximize the positive impact of reservation on higher education, it is thus important to improve the quality of education at the primary level to reduce the number of school drop outs. Scheme like mid-day meal have led to higher enrollment in schools. We need to further provide healthy food, free textbooks and extra-curricular opportunities for holistic development of students. A good quality primary education will equip these students with the right skills that can help them compete with students from the general category. Furthermore, a strong monitoring needs to be in place to ensure the sustained impact of reservation.

Currently, scrapping the whole reservation would be an injustice to communities who have been discriminated and oppressed for years but we need to analyze the impact of these policies on the beneficiaries. The idea of completely abolishing the quotas can only be realized after these policies have made a significant impact at the grassroots level. However, at present, we don’t need reservations based on caste or religion but for the one who have minimal resources and are not provided equal opportunities. After six decades of implementation, the time has come when the government needs to have a healthy debate with academicians and experts to impartially review the entire reservation system. It’s time for a change; it’s time to take a step towards an egalitarian society.


[1] “Biggest caste survey: One in four Indian admit to practice untouchability”, retrieved from {http://www.ncaer.org/news_details.php?nID=91}

[2] “Raje’s quota gambit will help BJP outside Rajasthan”, retrieved from {http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Rajes-quota-gambit-will-help-BJ...}

[3] “Political reservation in India: The effect on poverty”, retrieved from {http://www.ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=81#sthash.Ygeg6qAM.dpufhttp://www.ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=81}

[4] “The Impact of Positive Discrimination in Education in India: Evidence from a Natural Experiment”, retrieved from {http://www.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/IMG/pdf/JobMarket-2paper-CASSAN-PSE...}

[5] “Does Affirmative Action Reduce Productivity? A Case Study of the Indian Railways”, retrieved from {http://sitemaker.umich.edu/tomweisskopf/files/railways.final.pdf}

[6] “Affirmative action in education: Evidence from engineering college admissions in India”, retrieved from {http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/marianne.bertrand/research/papers/AA_Ind...}

[7] “50,000 fewer JEE (Main) aspirants this year”, retrieved from {http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/entrance-exams/50000-f...}


I especially like your idea of tackling the problem of providing real benefits to the weaker classes on a more direct level to most of the people: "...it is thus important to improve the quality of education at the primary level to reduce the number of school drop outs. "

I totally agree with your views. If reservation to be sustain, it should be provided to weaker class, not basis on caste.In term of jobs, there is reservation in government jobs, but recently people demanding reservation for job in private sector as well.People from other minority also asking for reservation in education and jobs.
So, Its become very important to rethink on reservation policy