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India – Three charts that show why reservations are desirable 

Scheduled castes are the most backward, followed by scheduled tribes and other backward classes, shows NSSO data

There still exist large gaps between various social groups in terms of educational status, especially in higher education. Photo: HT

There still exist large gaps between various social groups in terms of educational status, especially in higher education. Photo: HT

In October, a two-judge Supreme Court bench commented that “national interest requires doing away with all forms of reservations in higher education”. The judges also expressed regret that “some privileges remained unchanged” even after 68 years of independence. Debate on reservations has always been of a polarizing nature in India and abroad.

Arguments for doing away with reservations after so many years of independence are based on two premises. One is that social inequalities have been bridged during this period.

Data shows this is not the case. There still exist large gaps between various social groups in terms of educational status, especially in higher education. Scheduled castes are the most backward, followed by scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward classes (OBC), National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data show. A direct consequence of this gap is a small share of SC, ST and OBCs in the regular wage and salaried employment category in comparison with upper castes, as a Plainfacts piece pointed out last month.

There is further research to show the prevailing discrimination can be more acute than what the NSSO numbers capture. It is because NSSO treats all salaried employment (from a secretary level Indian Administrative Service officer to clerk) as one category. In a February paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Ankita Aggarwal, Jean Dreze and Aashish Gupta presented some stark findings based on a survey, which was conducted in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. The authors found that not only were upper castes disproportionately represented in government jobs, they also dominated other places of importance in civil society. The papers also cites secondary data to show there was minuscule SC and ST representation in top bureaucracy—less than 5% at the secretary, additional secretary, joint secretary and director levels.

The second argument against reservation assumes these lead to a loss in productivity or efficiency. This is based on the premise that to fulfil reservations in higher education, cut-offs are lowered for reserved category seats and hence merit might get compromised.

A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Pennsylvania State University economists Veronica Robles and Kala Krishna based on what they call an elite engineering institution in India analyses targeting, catch-up and mismatch among reserved and non-reserved category students. The authors found reserved category students to be from poorer backgrounds than unreserved category ones (better targeting) but they did not find any evidence of convergence in grades as the course progressed (no catch-up) and a lower probability of SC and ST students getting placed in higher paying jobs (mismatch). The latter two phenomena can be used to argue reservations do not lead to unambiguous benefits.

However, there are studies which provide counter arguments to such research as well. In a 2011 paper, Ashwini Deshpande and Thomas Weisskopf, economists at Delhi School of Economics and University of Michigan, respectively, show that there is no evidence to suggest the higher proportion of SCs and STs in Indian Railways on account of reservations had reduced productivity. The authors even argue there might be a case to believe greater labour diversity increases efficiency.

Research based on an economic experiment by S.K. Thorat, former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and others showed caste-based discrimination might be at play in private sector recruitment, where candidates with upper caste surnames had a higher probability of being called for job interviews.

A comparison of average cut-off scores for SC, ST, OBC and upper caste students in M.A. and M.Phil entrance exams at Jawaharlal Nehru University shows catch-up might be at play in the university. The gap between reserved category and unreserved category cut-offs is less at the M.Phil level than M.A. A significant number of those who are admitted in M.Phil courses are M.A. students from the university itself, which shows equal access to education might be helping reserved category students reduce their learning gap with the unreserved category ones.

Finally, while the data and studies here show the time may not have come yet to do away with reservations, even its supporters have emphasized that it cannot be the sole means of dealing with existing inequalities, even in the field of education. Especially noteworthy is the fact that economic and social entitlements crucially determine the access to primary education, the state of which is far from satisfactory in India. The worst affected are lower caste groups given their overall backwardness.

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