By Elizabath Pappachan, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

The reservation policy is in a way uniquely Indian. The reservation policy is a form of affirmative action or positive discrimination where the idea is to support the disadvantaged members of society through advantages given in areas like education and employment, amongst others. It emerges from different conceptions of equality. The commonly accepted idea of equality states that all humans are equal and should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, religion, caste and other social barriers. However, affirmative action arises from a conception of equality that acknowledges differences of social background and the discrimination of certain sections of society may mean that people do need to be treated differently to achieve true equality.

India’s reservation policy largely means there are measures taken to reserve seats (a maximum of 50%) in the legislature, education institutions and government jobs for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes as well the economically backward sections. The Constitution has banned untouchability and other forms of caste discrimination and the reservation policy is India’s solution to help social mobility of these historically disadvantaged sections.

The elements of this reservation policy were already present under the British reign, most notably seen at the Round Table Conference of 1930-32 which proposed constitutional reforms where there would be separate electorates for seats reserved for Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others, i.e. an electorate only consisting of a certain community could vote for the seats set aside for them. This was approved and came to be known as the Poona Pact or the Communal Award. Ambedkar, a participant in this Conference, appealed for a similar reform for the depressed classes which consisted of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. After negotiations, Ambedkar agreed upon having a single Hindu electorate for the seats reserved for the depressed classes.

In 1951, in the State of Madras vs. Champakam Dorairajan, the Supreme Court held void the Madras Government’s law which allowed for reservation of seats for different communities in State engineering and medical colleges on the basis of Article 15. This resulted in the amendment of Article 15 which now allowed for special provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 1963, the case of M R Balaji vs. Mysore led to the Court putting a cap of 50% on the reservation policy. The Mandal Commission, or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission, was constituted in 1979 to identify socially and educationally backward classes. Using the old census data, Other Backward Classes identified on the basis of social and economic indicators, was estimated to be around 52% of India’s population. The Commission’s report recommended that 27% of government and public sector jobs be reserved for OBCs, which then led to a total of 49% reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs. This suggestion was quite unpopular and led to protests, however, it was finally approved in 1992 by the Central Government. By 2006, the National Commission for Backward Classes found that the number of backward castes included in the OBC list had increased largely. Implementation of the reservation policy has varied across states.

Reservation continues to evoke a variety of responses from the public, especially controversial, as it leaves only 50% seats and jobs for the general category. A proposal that has caused much debate is the idea of excluding the top or forward sections of disadvantaged communities from receiving the benefits of reservation. People from these communities who are above the specified income ceiling or those who are children of people in high positions being excluded, they argued, would lead those who are truly backward to receive the benefits which otherwise would have been reaped by those at the top of the hierarchy. This was brought forward in the Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India case, where in the view of 27% reservation for OBCs in government jobs, the “creamy layer” was asked to be excluded. This was held as constitutionally valid. Some argue that reservation is a remedy to caste discrimination and not an answer to economic backwardness and therefore, income should not be a criteria for exclusion from recieving these advantages.  

Another point of contention is the sunset clause. Originally, Ambedkar had agreed to the idea of reservation with the belief that it would be discontinued 10 years later to see what the effects of the policy were. However, it has continued through decades and is highly unlikely to be revoked considering the prevalence of ‘vote bank politics’. Political parties would rather appease these sections in fear of losing votes during elections. This has come to the point that upper caste communities like the Jats have started agitations to be included in the OBC category so as to receive reservation benefits on the basis of economic grounds. Sections like women and Muslims too have agitated to be included, with women attaining partial success with one-third reservation in all local elected bodies. 

One cannot deny that these scheduled classes have and continue to face social discrimination. In a way, these judicial decisions are justified. The example of the Jat agitation illustrates nevertheless that the reservation policy leads to social disharmony, owing to the way the policy views individual entitlement of reservation as a remedial measure for historical discrimination towards these groups. Detractors argue that individual merit should have primacy.

Less attention has been relayed by the lawmakers to the aspect measuring the success of the policy on reservation, and in fact, they have only extended it to more groups without measuring the impact of the same. The number of Dalits in government jobs has indeed risen but it is difficult for us to conclude whether that has had a bigger impact on the upliftment of these communities, considering these jobs only make up around 2% of the workforce. Work in the private sector hardly ever extends such quotas, and formal sector jobs are often held by higher income and upper caste workers. Hence it seems unlikely that the reservation of jobs in the public sector could have possibly been beneficial. In fact, the reservation for bureaucrats and legislators, has translated into merely representative figures, not necessarily capable workers. The impact of reservation in education institutions may have had a more positive impact. Though these groups continue to lag on social and educational indicators in comparison to the general category, literacy rates and number of students in the higher educational institutions have indeed increased. But it is difficult to pinpoint the cause for this increase as factors other than the reservation policy, could have been the drivers for this change. Thus, the lack of instruments to measure the impact of this policy remains one of its biggest problems.

The removal of the “creamy layer” has only been implemented for OBCs. Some have argued that this be extended to the other categories like SCs and STs. Further, some have argued that giving importance to caste propagates caste divisions and reservation should be solely on economic grounds. An interesting development has been the 124th Amendment that allows for a 10% quota for economically weaker sections with an income ceiling of Rs 8 lakhs. Since this covers over 95% of India’s population, this doesn’t really exclude anyone. It is possible that the best solution is indeed to revamp the reservation policy to make it more efficient and effective. Collecting relevant data to help us locate the disadvantaged groups more accurately, with a focus on particular sections that require more support may help us in narrowing down the beneficiaries. Taking steps to measure impact may also reveal relevant information to help us improve the reservation policy.

While reservation continues to be a highly debatable issue, as many see it is a contributor to dirty politics, or something that goes against the interest of the general public, it is indeed a blunt instrument that has the potential to improve the situation for disadvantaged sections; whether it can be effective is yet to be determined.