Caste based reservation in higher education and employment in India has always been a hotly contested topic in the country. We hear passionate accounts from people who believe they have been wronged by an unjust system. I have heard many arguments against reservation on social media and from my friends but reserved judgement for I knew that there was an alternative narrative that I wasn’t exposed to. As Prof. Satish Deshpande, Professor of Sociology at Delhi School of Economics puts it, “Everyone in India has an opinion on the caste based reservation system and their own reasons for it”. In this article, I argue why caste based reservation is not a mistake as made out by many and why in fact, the current system is inadequate to remove inequity.
- Caste based inequality is real
Data on income is hard to collect as (i) people have multiple sources of income, (ii) income has variations over months or weeks, both of which makes it hard to fix a number and lastly there is also the tendency to under-report income by respondents in any survey. All studies therefore use data on consumption as a proxy for income. The grave truth revealed from an analysis of NSSO data on consumption is that consumption expenditure is unequal across different caste groups; the Mean Monthly per capita consumption expenditure for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) is lower than the Others category. The Others category is all groups not under SC, ST and Other Backward Caste (OBC). This disparity is present even when comparing incomes after controlling for land holding. This is indicating that even after 70 years of independence, the nation is economically unequal on caste lines. The economic gap will widen when individual castes are considered disaggregated from the classification of SC, ST, OBC and others.
This is a reality to accept and not be ashamed of. The United States of America, a much older and mature democracy still has inequality along the lines of race. Impacts of historically prevalent discrimination take time to be corrected.
- Quantum of reservation is small
Caste based inequality discussions get narrowed down to a discussion on the reservation system. The current reservation system, far from doing too much to right a historic wrong is in fact doing too less to right the historic wrong of caste discrimination. Let us look at reservation in employment. As of 2005, the unorganised sector accounted for 86% of the workforce. Adding to this pool, the unorganised employment in the formal sector makes up 92.4% of the workforce (Sankaran, 2008), wherein there is no caste based reservation. Of the remaining 7.6% organised employment, 40% of jobs are in the private sector. So, reservation is only within the 60 % of 7.6% which is 4.56% of all employment. Say there is 50% reservation in jobs, this means that of all jobs in India, around 2-3% are reserved for SC, ST and OBC.
In the higher education system, all government institutions and institutions receiving financial aid from the government follow a reservation system except a few centres of scientific research that have been exempted. Private universities are not required to follow a reservation system for admissions.
- Financial mobility doesn’t erase caste disadvantage (Role of networks)
The social networks that certain groups (who by no coincidence have historically been better off and are the ‘forward’ castes) enjoy offer many advantages. To identify this network, think of the last time you called someone who knew someone to get something done. People do this all the time to get admitted in a hostel, to get an internship, to get a driving license quickly or get a reservation for a train ticket. The access to such a network which most take for granted is not privy to everyone, particularly people who have historically not been in coveted positions in society. For many, the only recourse from this disadvantage is political pressure and hence reservations are politically demanded.
Upward financial mobility does provide access to these circles to some. But by and large, these networks have a caste undertone. One’s caste thus precludes one from such networks, even when there isnt a deliberate exclusion. This caste identity becomes highly pronounced in rural areas where one can clearly identify the caste identities of social networks. Upward financial mobility does not necessarily mean upward social mobility.
We need better understanding of the impact of caste on people’s lives. The fact that in avenues of employment and education where there isn’t a caste based reservation has very few members of the ‘backward castes’ does raise questions of probable advantage offered by caste. Merit can definitely not explain the disproportionate representation of úpper’castes in these areas. Say, better financial ability which translates to better education is the reason for this. If so, there are people in lower castes who have moved up financially (in many cases, thanks to reservation) who should be represented in the composition of non reserved jobs and college seats.
What might actually be playing a large role in determining who is getting the job or the internship is the network that a person has access to. And when these networks are formed, not always deliberately, on caste lines, opportunities tend to be unequal. Reservation can be stopped when unreserved positions in the country reflect the caste composition of the country.
- Caste discrimination still exists
Recent research reveals some alarming cases of discrimination in places where you expect it the least. A study by Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell published in 2007 found caste discrimination in the unlikeliest of places – recruitment for skilled jobs in the private sector, an area allegedly running on meritocracy. The researchers sent out applications for jobs in the private sector that were advertised in newspapers. They sent out three applications to each job with identical profiles that differed only in names. The names differed, that is one an easily identifiable upper caste Hindu name, one a Dalit name and the last a Muslim name. The study found that the Dalit name profile was only 0.67 times as likely as an identical upper caste Hindu profile to be called for interview and a Muslim profile was only 0.33 times likely to be called in comparison with an identical upper caste Hindu profile. Another comparative study of graduating students from three premier institutions in the country (Delhi School of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia) done by Ashwini Deshpande and Katherine Newman had similar findings. They found that reserved and unreserved students from the same institutes had very different experiences in job interviews. Reserved category students found interviews a test of cultural fitness and found the interviewers questions intrusive and discouraging. At the same time, most unreserved students in these universities claimed interviews to be learning experiences and questions on family background were not seen as discouraging or hurtful. These examples show that caste discrimination is present in recruitment in skilled private sector jobs; recruiters wherein are highly educated and considered socially forward !
This may not be discrimination done intentionally, but unintentionally and is explained in sociology theory as ‘homosocial reproduction’. It is the tendency to believe that people who are socially similar to a person can do well a job that the person does. This means that unreserved openings are not composed largely of forward caste people due to merit, but due to intentional or unintentional discrimination. Social and cultural capital (caste, family background, network, contacts) play a huge role in urban, formal sector hiring leaving certain sections of society disadvantaged.
One cannot deny that there are some externalities caused because of a block wise reservation for certain castes. One’s caste is still an indicator of disadvantage in India and caste in reservations cannot be done away with. But there are slightly modified alternatives that try and minimise the externalities of such reservation.
The current system looks only at caste as the indicator of inequality. Caste based reservation thus deepens caste identities and entrenches it rather than remove it. Satish Deshpande and Yogendra Yadav propose an alternative to quota based reservation that awards points on the basis of individual disadvantages faced by a person and group disadvantages faced by the social group the person is from. Individual disadvantage can be identified on the basis of parents occupation, school studied etc. and group disadvantages are identified as a person’s caste, residence (urban/rural), gender etc. These points can then be combined with academic performance while deciding the scores of individual candidates.
Extant social hierarchies have a tendency to maintain themselves and any form of reservation is a step to altering the social order. This will definitely be faced with resistance and will be uncomfortable to the socially upward groups. A practice of exclusion and unequal opportunities perpetuated over 3000 years cannot be reversed with reservations that have been provided for 70 years now. The blows to meritocracy is an externality caused in the process of creating social equity. For every story we hear of a meritorious candidate losing out to a candidate with reservation and ill-equipped candidates taking positions of responsibility there are hundred unheard stories of how being born to a higher caste helped in getting a job or internship over an equally qualified lower caste candidate.
P.S: This article was inspired by a lecture by Prof. Satish Deshpande on Caste Inequality which exposed me to few arguments for reservation and made me look further into this area.
Deshpande, A., & Newman, K. (2007). Where the path leads: The role of caste in post-university employment expectations. Economic and Political Weekly, 4133-4140.
Deshpande, S., & Yadav, Y. (2006). Redesigning affirmative action: Castes and benefits in higher education. Economic and Political Weekly, 2419-2424.
Sankaran, K. (2008). Informal economy, own account workers and the law: An overview. WIEGO Law Pilot Project on the Informal Economy.
Thorat, S., & Attewell, P. (2007). The legacy of social exclusion: A correspondence study of job discrimination in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 4141-4145.