//Reservations: Towards a larger perspective

Reservations: Towards a larger perspective

By D.Parthasarathy
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,

Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

The debate on reservations as one of the affirmative action policy measures in India has largely revolved around issues of merit and efficiency. While it is fairly easy to debunk the often ignorant and ill-informed ways in which these concepts have been used by those opposed to such policies, they are rarely questioned on the basis of a sociological imagination that is critical both for a better understanding of the problems involved as well to locate the whole debate in the larger context of the Indian social structure as it has evolved to its present stage.

This paper seeks to understand the whole debate within a larger theoretical and conceptual framework by interrogating the many in-built systemic biases that maintain and extend power and status inequalities in India today. One needs to understand the larger philosophical and epistemological issues that underpin the valorization of specific policy measures such as reservations and of issues such as “merit” and ‘efficiency”, so that a more objective view may be taken of the whole issue. Partly because of the influence of Ambedkar’s writing, activists and scholars sympathetic to reservation policies have to a certain extent launched epistemological critiques of concepts such as “merit”; on the contrary the thinking of opponents of such policies are clearly influenced by caste biases of an especially crass kind.

In critically examining the need and possible impacts of affirmative action policies like reservations, the first thing to be aware of is that de facto and de jure reservation is accepted and practiced by all societies in many different ways, most of which are not opposed at all, since they especially benefit the rich and middle classes. One example is inheritance rights. Going by the logic of anti-reservationists that merit alone and not accident of birth should be the criteria for seats or positions, one can ask why a son (or, rarely a daughter) should get the property of a parent when the parent dies. Should not the merit of candidates be assessed before passing on the property?

Take agricultural land in India. In many cases, the skilled agricultural labourer doesn’t get the property but an unskilled, absentee landlord living in a city gets access to agricultural land from his (mostly) or her parent when he (mostly) or she dies. Some of the great thinkers of the last couple of centuries (including Gandhi in India) have opposed inheritance rights on the ground that it rewards those who are not necessarily the most deserving. How many of those opposing reservations speak out against inheritance rights? Even if one accepts right to inheritance, why should property be reserved only for sons and not daughters as happens in reality in most families in India. Would it be correct to say that sons have no merit and cannot fend for themselves and therefore need the property, but daughters don’t since they have more merit?

Another example is a practice found among most of our large, medium and small businesspersons who are now raising their voice against reservation in the private sector. In India in the case of most businesses, including those where shareholders and financial institutions hold the majority shares, management is by inheritance whether you take the Ambanis, Birlas, or most other families. Some exceptions are Narayanamurthy, Deepak Parekh and Sunil Mittal who have said that they will not pass on management and control to their children, but will pass on or have already passed on management control to professionals who have the ‘merit’ and ability. How many of those opposing reservations speak out against business and management inheritance? In most countries in Europe and North America, the founding families have very little control over the running of the company. In a recent famous case, the families of Hewlett and Packard opposed the merger of Compaq and HP, but the shareholders and the CEO went ahead with it. In most companies in the US, it is the shareholders who decide the CEO and other functionaries through the board of directors, not one’s father or sometimes mother as in India.

Mr.Rahul Bajaj who has expressed a wish to start a movement against reservations, is himself said to be “grooming” his son to take over from him as CEO. The excuse that people like Mr.Bajaj always give for putting their children in positions of power is that they have been ‘groomed’. What prevents them from grooming a non-family member? How is it that fairly young family members are pushed to the top whereas those who have worked for a company and proved their talents over a long time never get the top positions? Mr.Bajaj asked for a level playing field when it comes to competition from MNCs, but doesn’t believe in a level playing field when it comes to the underprivileged! Mr.Bajaj should justify to his shareholders why the CEO position is reserved for his son, before he retires and starts a movement against reservations. Similarly many companies including some top ones have other forms of biases or ‘reservations’ in their recruitment. Mr.Dhoot of Videocon publicly stated that his company does not take women at the executive level. In the context of this kind of exclusion, how do opponents of reservation policies justify the exclusion of some groups and the inclusion of others?

If one does an informal survey, it is easy to find out how many big companies have senior staff belonging to members of the company owner or major shareholder or founder’s caste, community, gender, region, linguistic group. How many women members of the Birla, Bajaj, or Ambani families are permitted to work in group companies? One could go on and on with examples. Contrast all this with corporations, government agencies, and universities in the US who in their advertisements put in a special line: “Women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply”.

Bias enters in recruitment in other ways too. Many software companies recruit new employees by asking existing employees to recommend new ones. So they contact people in their networks. Some ongoing studies by sociologists show that this leads to concentration of people from similar background in terms of gender, caste, and community within companies. They also found that qualified candidates from dalit or OBC backgrounds since they are first generation educated persons in their families and are not part of these networks, find it difficult to get jobs because of this practice. If companies want merit, wouldn’t the best practice be to advertise on a wide scale and attract the best to choose from? Sadly even a company like Infosys follows this practice to some extent. Employees are actually paid to refer new candidates.

One hears from many management graduates from premium institutes in India that large corporates and MNCs in India prefer candidates who may not be very good but who come from influential families, so that they can get their jobs done using their contacts and networks. What happens to the candidates with merit? And yet these very corporates oppose reservations in the name of merit!

A fourth example is in the field of education where there is reservation on the basis of ability to pay, which no one opposes. There are hundreds of private professional colleges where one may have very good marks but can’t get in because you can’t afford to pay. These are justified in the name of a euphemism – “management quota”. How many of the anti-reservationists oppose this? Hardly any of the private professional colleges have adequate loan or scholarship schemes. In many states in India, students are admitted to engineering colleges with 35% as the minimum marks. Those who have low percentages and enough money
get seats. One doesn’t hear of anyone complaining against the seats going to non-merit candidates in this case. In fact there is such an oversupply that despite the low eligibility marks, thousands of seats go vacant every year!

In every state in India over 85% of seats in government run educational institutions and offices are reserved for natives, those who are domiciled in that state. Political parties such as the Shiv Sena who are vociferous in opposing caste based reservations in fact equally vociferously support reservations for the natives identified on the basis of language. And yet almost no one in India thinks of this system as unfair or discriminatory, and as undermining “merit” in society. Reservations are fine if it is practiced on the basis of family (a euphemism for caste), language, or region. But the moment caste is a basis for affirmative action there are howls of protest!

The major issue therefore is that there are already schemes of reservation operating in society, which favour those who are more privileged. There would be little or no need for reservations in the public or private sector if these other schemes were non-existent, which is how it is in many economically developed countries. If positions or seats went to those who had the best ability or skill, then there would be more equity in society. But that is not the way things happen in India. Why is it that in our country land does not belong in a large number of cases, to those who actually cultivate the land – the dalit or adivasi landless agricultural labour? Why is agriculture not even considered to be an important skill in India? If our best scientists and engineers or doctors go and cultivate the land, the crops will fail for sure. Agricultural workers also have a skill that is important for society but we give it a low value and hence low wages, primarily because the task is performed by so called polluting and ‘low’ castes which has led to devaluing an important skill required for society to survive. If they were paid higher wages, over a period of time their socio-economic situation would improve, their children would be educated, and there would be no need for reservations. But because of past (and current) discrimination, and our present devaluation of an important skill, a certain section of the population continues to be poor, illiterate and so on. This is not what happens in western countries. Why is it that even factory workers, construction workers, or municipal cleaners can afford to educate their children and even own a car in these countries? Because these societies realize the importance of dignity of labour, that minimum wages are to be given to every worker for a society to progress; whereas in our case, a vast majority do not even get enough for self-subsistence, and we justify it by arbitrarily imposing different values on different skills.

The differential valorization of skills in India is related to who performs these jobs and how much profit is to be made from it. So since leather was considered to be a polluting occupation, it was left to dalit castes, but when export markets made leather work profitable, and technology no longer required one to touch leather with one’s hands, brahmins and upper castes also got into it. Cooking and stitching at home is unpaid so women have to do it. But when these occupations become paid, men take it up, so most chefs and cooks in restaurants, and tailors (even ladies tailors) are men! It doesn’t matter if women have a long history, tradition, and skills in cooking and tailoring, most of these jobs go to men anyway.

The concept of ‘merit’ itself is not properly understood by many. First of all we should remember that in India the most popular way of assessing merit is through an examination which is not often the best way of doing it. Take our IAS or IPS officers. Apart from the corruption issue, many of them have contributed to developing or implementing development programmes which are absolutely useless or inappropriate. A large number of studies have shown that these are because the officers are not actually equipped with the skill to understand the problems or best ways to implement them. If only doctors can treat patients and software engineers can develop software, how come a person who can pass exams in any subject can become a development and administration expert? Throughout the world there is a trend towards participatory development wherein, it is believed that the poor are better aware of their problem and they should decide the development model to be implemented. However they can’t pass the UPSC exams, and we believe that only those who can pass have the merit to devise, design, and implement development programmes on behalf of the poor!

Why is it that we believe that someone who has skills to memorize and regurgitate the answers in an exam have merit? But even to memorize or to study well and pass an exam, certain pre-requisites are required. For example one of our most progressive Supreme Court judges had this to say: “What is merit? Is not a child of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or other Backward Classes who has been brought up in an atmosphere of penury, illiteracy and anti-culture, who is looked down upon by tradition and society, who has no books, newspapers or magazines to read at home, no radio and TV to listen and watch, no private tuition, no one to help him with his home work and no one to advise him because his parents themselves are illiterate and ignorant, and who has to trudge to the nearest local board schools or colleges, has not this child got merit, if he with all his disadvantages, is able to secure the qualifying marks of 40% or 50 % of the total at a competitive examination, where the children of the upper classes who have all the advantages, go to the Sacred Heart Convent and St. Stephen’s college and who have perhaps been especially coached for the examination may secure 70, 80 or even 90% of marks. Surely a child who has been able to jump over so many obstacles may be expected to do better and better as he moves along in life.”[1]

Let us take the example of other skills. In India, there are some who speak English very well, whereas there are some who cannot. Some are very confident, while others are timid. Some look and act smart while others don’t. These are things people acquire from their family background and through socialization. Sometimes, some people who are academically very good get a lesser placement or job, compared to others who are not very good academically, but who are very confident, smart looking, and able to talk glibly. Meritorious candidates lose out. We need to remember that the criteria for assessing merit are very arbitrary and often not related to the job or expectation. So if we have a better system of assessing skill and attitude (other than rote learning and examination based systems), many of those currently considered as without merit will get in. Most US universities, when they ask for references specifically ask whether the marks are a true reflection of the candidate’s ability, and if not, if there were any reasons why the candidate could not perform well despite being a meritorious or talented person. We don’t do it in India, except in a handful of universities. The above statement by Justice Reddy makes us ask who has merit, someone who has all the advantages in life and gets 90% or someone who has a lot of obstacles to cross and gets a lower percentage?

Upper castes have been dominant in India for centuries. Even today if one looks at the government sector, judiciary, corporate sector and so on, minority groups, women, dalits, adivasis, and other backward classes are much fewer in number at the top level compared to their proportion in the population. Can we attribute all the corruption, illiteracy, poverty, inefficiency and lack of development in India to the dominance of the upper caste – that they lacked merit to rule the country? Why i
s it that we did not develop on many indicators for centuries, and for decades after independence inspite of the dominance of the so-called meritorious upper castes? Why is it that in the south India states representation of these groups is much higher in government and private sector and these states perform better on most development indicators?

The debate over merit versus reservation is therefore a false one. We must realize that merit is generally not recognized and rewarded in society. In many different ways, everyone from ordinary people to rich business families are out to protect their privileges, and deny basic rights to others, and merit is usually a casualty in this process. Further, the characterization of merit in terms of marks, degrees etc., takes away the focus from actual ability, appropriateness, aptitude, and competence for a specific task which are actually what you require to do a job well. There is no such thing as a universal or context-neutral merit. Merit is always context specific.

We must also realize that what is recognized as merit, whether in terms of a specific ability, academic record, talent, or skill – all constitute what sociologists such as Bourdieu refer to as “cultural capital”. While some of these are acquired in educational institutions, part of these, and how well we learn them depends on our social background. So if we come from an illiterate family, a family without a culture of learning or reading, then in general we don’t do as well, because of many reasons such as limited help at home with studies, interaction with peers who are not very knowledgeable, limited knowledge and awareness because of lack of books, newspapers, TV etc. at home and so on. Of course these are related to economic status. But in India, because of past discrimination, those with a lower economic status are mostly those with a low social or caste status. The objective of reservations therefore is to offset social and cultural deprivations resulting from past and present discriminatory behaviour by one section of the population against another. Nowadays we find some students – because they are always are teased by classmates, others don’t speak to them, or they are not able to match the lifestyles of some prosperous students – get depressed and perform poorly. Imagine if a person comes from a family which is always looked down upon, if his or her caste members are humiliated, beaten up, not allowed to be part of social gatherings, not allowed to use public facilities, how would he/she feel, and would he/she perform well in his/her academics?

The policy of reservations is not the only or even the best option for development in the context of a hierarchically ordered society like India. Other options include provision of free or cheap good quality education in schools which are accessible to everyone, land reforms by giving land to the actual cultivator, strict implementation of minimum wages, and a complete stoppage of all forms of discriminatory behaviour whether in the villages or in the corporate sector. If all these were successfully implemented, there would be no need for reservations for any section of the population now. Not just western countries, but also the East Asian tigers such as South Korea, Japan, and China have been very successful in implementing the above measures. That is why they are much ahead of India as far as social and economic indicators are concerned. If we are successful with the measures above, along with a properly designed and implemented policy of reservations, there would soon be no need for such policies. But since we have failed on these fronts, (and it is a deliberate failure, since the failures benefit the already privileged groups), reservations seem to be an easy and justifiable option.

Even though the policy has had some tangible benefits to a significant minority, it doesn’t change things much, and doesn’t lead to structural change in society. In the context of shrinking jobs in the public and government sector, dalits and other similarly placed groups are at further risk of marginalization. While economic liberalization may ‘open up’ the economy, it does not necessarily open up new opportunities for economic and social mobility for those in need of affirmative action, those who have been and are discriminated against on the basis of caste, religion, or gender. Given the attitudes of those in the private sector towards dalits and other backward classes, the limited gains due to affirmative action policies may receive a set back in the absence of policy measures for greater inclusion, so that more sections may gain from processes of economic change. Without going into the merits of the debate over economic liberalization, it is undeniable that new opportunities are being opened up by this process.

It is here that affirmative action programmes act to deliver substantive rather than formal equality.[2] The push towards substantive equality requires that “law and administration serve the equalization of economic and social opportunities”. It requires a rejection of ‘rational’ systems that merely work towards enhancing ‘efficiency’. Merely providing for formal equality of status may result in missed opportunities for those who lack – for historical and current reasons of bias and discrimination – abilities (as arbitrarily decided by the market and dominant social forces) to compete with others from more privileged backgrounds. Constitutional provisions and judicial pronouncements in India have precisely relied upon the principle of substantive justice or equality as the legal basis for upholding reservation policies. In the era of privatization and liberalization, it is all the more important we do not lose sight of this very important democratic principle.


[1] Presidential Speech delivered by Justice Mr O. Chinnappa Reddy on the occasion of the release of Dr Paramji’s Book, “CASTE RESERVATIONS AND PERFORMANCE’ on 14th April, 1985 in the Jawaharlal Nehru Museum Auditorium, Teen Murti House, New Delhi.

[2]Max Weber, ‘Rational and Irrational Administration of Justice’, in Max Rheinstein, 1969: 347-356.