The central government's move to introduce reservations for Other Backward
Classes (OBCs) in elite institutions of higher and professional education —
popularly known as Mandal II — seems to be heading towards a stalemate. In
this article, we propose a possible solution that might take us beyond the
debilitating standoff between `merit' and `social justice'.
This is clearly an ambitious and optimistic agenda, especially because Mandal
II proves that some mistakes are destined to be repeated. Once again the government
appears set to do the right thing in the wrong way, without the prior
preparation, careful study, and opinion priming that such an important move
obviously demands. It is even more shocking that students from our very best
institutions are willing to re-enact the horribly inappropriate forms of protest
from the original anti-Mandal agitation of 1990-91. As symbolic acts,
street-sweeping or shoe-shining send the callous and arrogant message that some
people — castes? — are indeed fit only for menial jobs, while others are
`naturally' suited to respectable professions such as engineering and medicine.
However, the media do seem to have learnt something from their dishonourable
role in Mandal I. By and large, both the print and electronic media have not
been incendiary in their coverage, and some have even presented alternative
views. Nevertheless, far too much remains unchanged across 16 years.
Perhaps the most crucial constant is the absence of a favourable climate of
opinion. Outside the robust contestations of politics proper, our public life
continues to be disproportionately dominated by the upper castes. It is
therefore unsurprising, but still a matter of concern, that the dominant view
denies the very validity of affirmative action. Indeed the antipathy towards
reservations may have grown in recent years. The main problem is that the
dominant view sees quotas and the like as benefits being handed out to
particular caste groups. This leads logically to the conclusion that
power-hungry politicians and vote bank politics are the root causes of this
problem. But to think thus is to put the cart before the horse.
A rational and dispassionate analysis of this issue must begin with the one
crucial fact that is undisputed by either side — the overwhelming dominance of
upper castes in higher and especially professional education. Although
undisputed, this fact is not easy to establish, especially in the case of our
elite institutions, which have always been adamant about refusing to reveal
information on the caste composition of their students and faculty. But the more
general information that is available through the National Sample Survey
Organisation clearly shows the caste-patterning of educational inequality. Some
of the relevant data are shown in Tables 1 and 2.
Table 1 shows the percentage of graduates in the population aged 20 years or
above in different castes and communities in rural and urban India. Only a
little more than 1 per cent of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Muslims
are graduates in rural India, while the figure for Hindu upper castes is four to
five times higher at over 5 per cent. The real inequalities are in urban India,
where the SCs in particular, but also Muslims, OBCs, and STs are way behind the
forward communities and castes with a quarter or more of their population being
graduates. Another way of looking at it is that STs, SCs, Muslims, and OBCs are
always below the national average while the other communities and especially
Hindu upper castes are well above this average in both rural and urban India.
Numbers below 100 indicate under-representation, above 100 indicate over-representation - showing that STs, SCs, Muslims and other OBCs are severely under-represented. Sikhs, Christians, Hindu upper-castes and others are over-represented.
Table 2 shows the share of different castes and communities in the national
pool of graduates as compared to their share of the total population aged 20
years or more. In other words, the table tells us which groups have a higher
than proportionate (or lower than proportionate) share of graduates. Once again,
with the exception of rural Hindu OBCs and urban STs, the same groups are
severely under-represented while the Hindu upper castes, Other Religions (Jains,
Parsis, Buddhists, etc.), and Christians are significantly over-represented
among graduates. Thus the Hindu upper castes' share of graduates is twice their
share in the population aged 20 or above in rural India, and one-and-a-half
times their share in the population aged 20 or above in urban India. Compare
this, for example, to urban SCs and Muslims, whose share of graduates is only 30
per cent and 39 per cent respectively of their share in the 20 and above
It should be emphasised that these data refer to all graduates from all kinds
of institutions countrywide — if we were to look at the elite professional
institutions, the relative dominance of the upper castes and forward communities
is likely to be much stronger, although such institutions refuse to publish the
data that could prove or disprove such claims.
Although it is implicitly conceded by both sides, upper caste dominance is
explained in opposite ways. The upper castes claim that their preponderance is
due solely to their superior merit, and that there is nothing to be done about
this situation since merit should indeed be the sole criterion in determining
access to higher education. In fact, they may go further to assert that any
attempt to change the status quo can only result in "the murder of
merit." Those who are for affirmative action argue that the traditional
route to caste dominance — namely, an upper caste monopoly over higher
education — still remains effective despite the apparent abolition of caste.
From this perspective, the status quo is an unjust one requiring state
intervention on behalf of disadvantaged sections who are unable to force entry
under the current rules of the game. More extreme views of this kind may go on
to assert that merit is merely an upper caste conjuring trick designed to keep
out the lower castes.
What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, except that it is only part of a
much larger frame. For if we understand merit as sheer innate ability, it is
difficult to explain why it should seem to be an upper caste monopoly. Whatever
people may believe privately, it is now beyond doubt that arguments for the
genetic or natural inferiority of social groups are unacceptable. If so, how is
it that, roughly speaking, one quarter of our population supplies three quarters
of our elite professionals? The explanation has to lie in the social mechanisms
through which innate ability is translated into certifiable skill and encashable
competence. This points to intended or unintended systemic exclusions in the
educational system, and to inequalities in the background resources that
It is their confidence in having monopolised the educational system and its
prerequisites that sustains the upper caste demand to consider only merit and
not caste. If educational opportunities were truly equalised, the upper castes'
share in professional education would be roughly in proportion to their
population share, that is, between one fourth and one third. This would not only
be roughly one third of their present strength in higher education; it would
also be much less than the 50 per cent share they are assured of even after
implementation of OBC reservations!
If the upper caste view needs an unexamined notion of merit that ignores the
social mechanisms that bring it into existence, the lower caste or
pro-reservation view appears to require that merit be emptied of all its
content. While this is indeed true of some militant positions, the peculiar
circumstances of Indian higher education also allow alternative interpretations.
In a situation marked by absurd levels of "hyper-selectivity" —
300,000 aspirants competing for 4000 IIT seats, for example — merit gets
reduced to rank in an examination. As educationists know only too well, the
examination is a blunt instrument. It is good only for making broad distinctions
in levels of ability; it cannot tell us whether a person scoring 85 per cent
would definitely make a better engineer or doctor than somebody scoring 80 per
cent or 75 per cent or even 70 per cent.
In short, it is only a combination of social compulsion and pure myth that
sustains the crazy world of cut-off points and second decimal place differences
that dominate the admission season. Such fetishised notions of merit have
nothing to do with any genuine differences in ability. The caste composition of
higher education could well be changed without any sacrifice of merit simply by
instituting a lottery among all candidates of broadly similar levels of ability
— say, the top 15 or 25 per cent of a large applicant pool.
But the inequities of our educational system are so deeply entrenched that
caste inequalities might persist despite some change. We would then be back
where we started — with the apparent dichotomy between merit and social
justice in higher education. How do we transcend this dilemma? Is there a way
forward where both merit and social justice can be given their due?
The alternative proposed here is rooted in the recognition that we need to go
beyond a simple-minded reduction of `merit' and `social justice' to singular
and mutually exclusive categories. In reality, both merit and social
justice are multi-dimensional, and the pursuit of one does not require us to
abandon the other. The proposal seeks to identify the viable common ground that
permits simultaneous commitment to both social justice and excellence. It seeks
to operationalise a policy that is morally justified, intellectually sound,
politically defensible, and administratively viable.
Let us present the basic principles that underlie this proposal before
getting into operational details. First of all, this proposal is based on a firm
commitment to policies of affirmative action flowing both from the
constitutional obligation to realise social justice and also from the overall
success of the experience of reservations in the last 50 years. Secondly, we
recognise the moral imperative to extend affirmative action to educational
opportunities, for a lack of these opportunities results in the
inter-generational reproduction of inequalities and severely restricts the
positive effects of job reservations. Thirdly, it needs to be remembered that
the end of affirmative action can be served by various means including
reservation. The state's basic commitment is to the end, not any particular
means. Finally, flowing from the experience of reservations for socially and
educationally backward classes (SEBCs), we need to recognise that there are
multiple, cross-cutting, and overlapping sources of inequality of educational
opportunities, all of which need redress. This is what our proposal seeks to do.
The proposal involves computing scores for `academic merit' and for `social
disadvantage' and then combining the two for admission to higher educational
institutions. Since the academic evaluation is less controversial, we
concentrate here on the evaluation of comparative social disadvantage. We
suggest that the social disadvantage score should be divided into its group and
individual components. For the group component, we consider disadvantages based
on caste and community, gender, and region. These scores must not be decided
arbitrarily or merely on the basis of impressions. We suggest that these
disadvantages should be calibrated on the basis of available statistics on
representation in higher education of different castes/communities and regions,
each of these being considered separately for males and females. The required
data could come from the National Sample Survey or other available sources. It
would be best, of course, if a special national survey were commissioned for
Besides group disadvantages, this scheme also takes individual disadvantages
into consideration. While a large number of factors determine individual
disadvantages (family history, generational depth of literacy, sibling
education, economic resources, etc.), we believe there are two robust indicators
of individual disadvantage that can be operationally used in the system of
admission to public institutions: parental occupation and the type of school
where a person passed the high school examination. These two variables allow us
to capture the effect of most of the individual disadvantages, including the
family's educational history and economic circumstances.
In the accompanying tables, we illustrate how this scheme could be
operationalised. It needs to be underlined that the weightages proposed here are
tentative, based on our limited information, and meant only to illustrate the
scheme. The exact weights could be decided after examining more evidence. We
suggest that weightage for academic merit and social disadvantage be distributed
in the ratio of 80:20. The academic score could be converted to a standardised
score on a scale of 0-80, while the social disadvantage score would range from 0
to a maximum of 20.
Awarding social disadvantage points
Table A shows how the group disadvantage points can be awarded. There are
three axes of group disadvantage considered here: the relative backwardness of
the region one comes from; one's caste and community (only non-SC-ST groups are
considered here); and one's gender. The zones in the top row refer to a
classification of regions — this can be at State or even sub-State region
level — based on indicators of backwardness that are commonly used and can be
agreed upon. Thus Zone I is the most backward region while Zone IV is the most
developed region. The disadvantage points would thus decrease from left to right
for each caste group and gender.
The castes and communities identified here are clubbed according to broadly
similar levels of poverty and education indicators (once again the details of
this can be agreed upon). The lower OBCs and Most Backward Castes along with OBC
Muslims are considered most disadvantaged or least-represented among the
educated, affluent, etc., while upper caste Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains,
Parsis, etc., are considered to be the most `forward' communities.
Disadvantage points thus decrease from top to bottom. Gender is built into
this matrix, with women being given disadvantage points depending on their other
attributes, that is, caste and region. Thus the hypothetical numbers in this
table indicate different degrees of relative disadvantage based on all three
criteria, and most importantly, also on the interaction effects among the three.
Thus, a woman from the most backward region who belongs to the lower OBC, MBC,
or Muslim OBC groups gets the maximum score of 12, while a male from the forward
communities from the most developed region gets no disadvantage points at all.
Tables B and C work in a similar manner for determining individual
disadvantage. For these tables, all group variables are excluded. Table B looks
at the type of school the person passed his or her secondary examination from,
and the size of the village, town, or city where this school was located. Anyone
going to an ordinary government school in a village or small town gets the
maximum of 5 points in this matrix. The gradation of schools is done according
to observed quality of education and implied family resources, and this could
also be refined. A student from an exclusive English medium public school in a
large metro gets no disadvantage points.
Table C looks at parental occupation as a proxy for family resources (that
is, income wealth, etc., which are notoriously difficult to ascertain directly).
Since this variable is vulnerable to falsification and would need some efforts
at verification, we have limited the maximum points awarded here to three.
Children of parents who are outside the organised sector and are below the
taxable level of income get the maximum points, and the occupation of both
parents is considered. Those with either parent in Class I or II jobs of the government, or in managerial or professional jobs get no points at all.
Intermediate jobs in the organised sector, including Class III and IV jobs in
the government, are reckoned to be better placed than those in the unorganised,
low pay sector.
Combining the scores in the three matrices will give the total disadvantage
score, which can then be added to the standardised academic merit score to give
each candidate's final score. Admissions for all non-SC-ST candidates, that is,
for 77.5 per cent of all seats, can then be based on this total score.
Differences and advantages
While our proposal shares with the proposal mooted by the Ministry of Human
Resource Development (MHRD) the commitment to affirmative action and the desire
to extend it to educational opportunities, the scheme we propose differs from
the Ministry's proposal in many ways. The Ministry's proposal seeks to create a
bloc of `reserved' seats. Our proposal applies to all the seats not covered by
the existing reservation for the SC, ST, and other categories. The MHRD proposal
recognises only group disadvantages and uses caste as the sole criterion of
group disadvantage in educational inequalities. We too acknowledge the
significance of group disadvantages and that of caste as the single most
important predictor of educational inequalities. But our scheme seeks to
fine-tune the identification by recognising other group disadvantages such as
region and gender. Moreover, our scheme is also able to address the interaction
effects between different axes of disadvantage (such as region, caste, and
gender, or type of school and type of location, etc.).
While recognising group disadvantages, our scheme provides some weightage to
individual disadvantages relating to family background and type of schooling.
Our scheme also recognises that people of all castes may suffer from individual
disadvantages, and offers redress for such disadvantages to the upper castes as
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