Rethinking caste-based reservations in India: The need for overhaul

Yumnam Oken Singh *

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
—George Orwell (1945)

The caste-based reservation system in India, aimed at addressing historical inequalities, was instituted with noble intentions by the founding fathers of our Constitution. However, as time has passed, it has become increasingly evident that this system is in dire need of an overhaul.

While it has undoubtedly made some positive contributions, such as promoting social inclusion and empowering marginalized communities, it has also given rise to numerous challenges that hinder the Nation’s progress towards true equality.

Article 14 (Right to Equality) of the Constitution states that all individuals are equal before the law, and the Government shall not deny any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. But there is no equality. The moment someone is born, the baby is ST, SC, OBC, or GEN. People are differentiated by birth.

Major issues that have resulted under the present reservation system include: (a) Erosion of Meritocracy, (b) Disputes over Categorization, (c) Inadequate Focus on Economic Disparities, and (d) Regional Imbalances. It is essential to recognize these challenges and implement reforms that move beyond caste-based quotas, ensuring a fairer and more effective approach to affirmative action in India.

Erosion of Meritocracy

The erosion of meritocracy in India due to the reservation system has been a subject of considerable debate and concern, particularly in the field of education, examinations, and employment. While the reservation system was initially intended to uplift marginalized communities and promote social equality, its implementation has given rise to several challenges that impact the principles of meritocracy.

The reservation system in education, particularly in admissions to universities and colleges, has led to a significant imbalance in the selection process. Seats reserved for specific castes and tribes often result in deserving candidates from other categories being denied admission, even if they have higher qualifications and better academic records. This creates a situation where merit takes a backseat to caste-based quotas, preventing the most qualified individuals from accessing educational opportunities.

In competitive examinations for various profe- ssional courses and Government jobs, the reservation system can compromise the selection of the most capable candidates. When seats or positions are reserved based on caste, it is possible that individuals with lower scores are chosen over those with higher scores simply because they belong to a particular category. This not only undermines the efforts of the high-performing candidates but also sends the message that merit is secondary to social identity.

In the employment sector, reservation policies can lead to less qualified individuals being hired for certain positions due to their caste or tribal background. This undermines the efficiency and productivity of the workforce and denies opportunities to those who have worked hard and demonstrated the necessary skills and qualifications. Over time, this can contribute to a decline in overall work quality, adversely affecting the organization and the Nation as a whole.

The reservation system can also have a de-motivating impact on individuals from non-reserved categories. When they see candidates with lower qualifications being favoured, it can lead to a sense of unfairness and demoralization. This, in turn, may discourage many talented individuals from pursuing higher education, competitive examinations, or certain career paths, as they may believe that their hard work will not be rewarded fairly.

While the reservation system was intended to uplift marginalized commu- nities, it can inadvertently perpetuate caste-based identities. By categorizing individuals into reserved and non-reserved groups, the system reinforces the significance of caste in society. This can hinder the development of a truly casteless society where individuals are judged based on their abilities and qualifications rather than their social background.

Disputes over categorization

Disputes over categorization in India due to the reservation system have been a recurring issue, primarily because the reser- vation policies are based on specific caste and tribal categories. These catego- rizations often come under scrutiny due to their historical, social, and economic complexities, leading to disputes and demands for reclassification.

Here are some notable examples of such disputes:

Jat Reservation in Haryana: One significant controversy arose in Haryana regarding the inclusion of Jats, a tradi- tionally agrarian community, in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category for reservation benefits. This led to protests and clashes in the State, as other OBC communities argued that Jats, being relatively better off, should not receive reservation benefits. This dispute highlighted the challenges of determining backwardness within a specific caste category.

Maratha Reservation in Maharashtra: The Maratha community, a historically dominant group in Maharashtra, sought reservation benefits based on the argument that they faced socio-economic disadvantages. The Maharashtra Government passed legislation providing a 16% reservation for Marathas in jobs and education. However, this move faced legal challenges, with some arguing that it exceeded the 50% cap on reservations set by the Supreme Court and that it may not be based on valid criteria for backwardness.

Patidar Reservation in Gujarat: The Patidar (or Patel) community in Gujarat, which has traditionally been economically and politically influential, demanded reservation benefits, citing educational and employment challenges. The “Hardik Patel” movement, led by a young leader named Hardik Patel, gained prominence, demanding reservations for the Patidar community. This agitation sparked debates over whether economically well-off communities should be included in reservation categories.

Demand for Sub-Categorization: Beyond disputes over the inclusion or exclusion of specific communities, there have been calls for sub-categorization within existing reservation categories. Some argue that within categories like Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), certain groups have received more benefits and opportunities, leaving other subgroups within the category still disadvantaged. This has led to discussions about equitable distribution of reservation benefits among different subgroups.

Reservation for Economically Weaker Sections: Another recent development is the introduction of reservation for economically weaker sections (EWS) among the general population. While this is not a caste-based reservation, it has sparked debates about the effectiveness of the reservation system in addressing economic disparities and whether it might lead to further disputes over categorization or impact the existing quota system.

These disputes underscore the complexities of caste-based categorization in India’s reservation system. Balancing the need to uplift historically disadvantaged communities with the necessity to ensure fairness, equity, and social harmony remains a challenge, and continuous dialogue and reform are essential to address these issues effectively.

Inadequate Focus on Economic Disparities

The reservation system in India, while designed to address historical inequalities, has often been criticized for not adequately focusing on economic disparities. This critique arises from the fact that the reservation policies are primarily based on caste and tribal categories, which may not always accurately reflect the economic realities of individuals within those groups.

Here are some examples that highlight the inadequate focus on economic disparities within the reservation system

Creamy Layer Exclusion: The “creamy layer” concept was introduced to exclude the relatively well-off individuals within reserved categories from accessing reservation benefits. However, the criteria for determining the creamy layer have faced criticism for being inadequate in many cases. As a result, individuals from economically privileged backgrounds continue to benefit from reservations, while those who genuinely need assistance based on economic status remain excluded.

Reservations for Politically Dominant Groups: In some States, certain castes or communities that were historically politically dominant managed to secure reservation benefits. This has led to situations where individuals from these communities, who may be socio-economically better off, receive reservation advantages, leaving out other marginalized communities that are genuinely economically deprived.

Lack of Precision: The reservation system, based primarily on broad categories such as Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC), lacks precision in targeting specific economic disparities.

As a result, within these categories, there can be considerable variation in socio-economic conditions. Some individuals or sub-groups within these categories might continue to face severe economic challenges, while others have made significant progress and still enjoy the benefits.

Urban-Rural Divide: The reservation system often does not adequately address the urban-rural divide when considering economic disparities. Many economically disadvantaged individuals in urban areas, regardless of their caste, may not receive the same level of benefits as those in rural areas. This situation can be problematic since urban poverty has unique challenges that need attention.

EWS Quota for General Category: The introduction of an economically weaker sections (EWS) quota for the general category was a step toward addressing economic disparities. However, this move faced criticism for not being comprehensive enough and not fully addressing the multifaceted economic challenges faced by many in India. It’s been argued that the focus on EWS should extend beyond just reservation benefits and include broader socio-economic policies.

These examples demonstrate that while the reservation system has had positive impacts on social inclusion, it has not adequately targeted economic disparities, and there is room for improvement. Balancing the need for affir- mative action with a more comprehensive approach to addressing economic challenges is essential to ensure that the most deserving individuals, regardless of their caste, receive the support they need to succeed.

Regional Imbalances

Regional imbalances in India’s reservation system can arise due to a lack of precision in targeting the areas with the greatest need for affirmative action. The current reservation system, which categorizes individuals based on caste or tribe, does not always account for the regional disparities within these categories. This leads to situations where certain regions or communities within a category remain underrepresented or underserved, while others receive disproportionate benefits.

The reservation system may not effectively target regions that face severe economic and social challenges. For instance, some remote and economically disadvantaged tribal areas in states like Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh may not receive the same level of attention and support as more developed regions within the same tribal category. As a result, the benefits of reservations may not reach those who need them the most.

In some cases, the reservation system may inadver- tently benefit individuals from urban areas within reserved categories, leading to regional imbalances. People in urban areas, even if from reserved communities, often have better access to education, employment oppor- tunities, and social services compared to their rural counterparts. This can perpetuate disparities and prevent the intended benefits of reservations from reaching marginalized rural communities.

The current system lacks the necessary customization to address region-specific challenges. Different regions in India have unique historical, cultural, and economic contexts that impact the effectiveness of reservation policies. Failing to tailor these policies to specific regional needs results in a “one-size-fits-all” approach that fails to address the root causes of regional imbalances.

When certain regions within a reserved category become more developed or receive disproportionate benefits, it can create competition among different communities within the same category. This can lead to tensions and disputes, with underrepresented regions feeling marginalized and demanding a fairer distribution of reservation benefits.

Imbalances can also result from the system not paying enough attention to certain disadvantaged communities that may not fall within the traditional SC, ST, or OBC categories but still face significant challenges. These communities might be at a disadvantage due to factors other than caste, such as their geographical location or specific historical circumstances.

The Way Forward

The present reservation system in India was intended just for 10 years in the beginning. The initial ten-year period was intended to be a temporary measure to address immediate concerns related to representation and social uplift. However, over the years, the reservation system has been extended several times through Constitutional amendments, and it has become a long-standing policy in the name of promoting social justice and equality.

In fact, it has become a vote-bank policy of all political parties. Even after 76 years of independence, the system has failed to adequately address regional imbalances, often leaving certain areas, communities, or regions within reserved categories under-served or overlooked.

To create a more effective and equitable system, there is a need for region-specific policies, targeted interventions in the most disadvantaged regions, and a comprehensive approach that considers economic, social, and cultural factors beyond just caste or creed.

* Yumnam Oken Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Assistant Professor (English)
Dept of Basic Science & Humanities
College of Horticulture and Forestry
Central Agricultural University,
Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh.
Email: yumoken(AT)rediffmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 30 August 2023.

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