Battle over reservations: Can quotas really work in India?

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 19, 2015 11:48 IST
Commuters ride their motocycles next to the wreckage of a bus that was burnt during clashes between the police and protesters in Ahmedabad. (Reuters Photo)

Hardik Patel got off the front seat of a Fortuner SUV in Ahmedabad last week. His car swung around, and his aides spread across forming a protective layer around him. He had just returned from a hospital, after visiting those injured during the clashes between the police and Patel protestors on August 25th and 26th.

We had been waiting for the young man who brought Gujarat to a standstill for over four hours. Patel walked back and kicked the car once, he fiddled with his mobile, and then settled down on a chair in the parking lot of a residential block, Hardik explained that his demand was simple, "Remove reservations for everyone. But if, because of politics, you cannot do it, give everyone reservations. Free all, or enslave all of India." He later added that reservations should be on economic basis. then, the 22-year-old leader had articulated his movement's demand in terms of inclusion of Patels into the OBC category. But now, he was expressing a different argument. He was, it appeared, opposed to caste-based reservations entirely. And if it remained, he believed that educational institutions and state organs must reflect the exact caste make up of social groups in terms of population - this is what giving reservations to all would mean.

Hardik Patel (seen speaking during the Kranti Rally organised by the Patel or Patidar community to press their demands for reservation at GMDC Ground in Ahmedabad) is now fading away from the news headlines, but his movement drew national attention. He struck a chord with many young people of 'general castes', for they too had been resentful of reservations. Beneficiaries of the reservation regime saw a deeper underlying conspiracy underway to throw away the system altogether. Groups like Jats and Gujjars, waging their own reservation battles, saw in it a possible moment to revive their agitations.

Irrespective of one's view of the politics behind it, the Patels of Gujarat had sparked off a debate.

Does caste discrimination still exist? Is reservation justified? How is the reservations regime working on the ground? Why is it that reservation - which is restricted to government jobs and educational institutions - such a big bone of contention? Who is benefiting? Are there real or perceived losers? Are they resentful? How do those young people who are within the reserved categories see the system? Is any review or rethink possible at all? Will it last forever or will there be a sunset clause?

Caste: Its persistence and irrelevance

On Friday, I travelled to the Government College of Behror in Rajasthan, where I met Dhiraj Kumar Sharma. Sharma's father works in the district court and he is in his final year of BA. He is a Brahman.

He echoed Hardik Patel. "Abolish it all. Everyone has the same exams, the same tuition, so then why should someone with 60 percent make it to a job when I don't make it with 80 percent. We should value hard-work, not caste." When I put to him that there had been discrimination against social groups, and reservation was meant to address that, he argued back, "Show me the discrimination. Things have changed. I am a Brahman and I sit with Dalits, I eat with them. They are in this college."

Many other students from 'general castes' argued quotas has lasted too long, 60 years for Dalits, 25 years for OBCs. "If this is forever, please add us also. Why should we pay a price?" said Vinay Kumar, standing next to Sharma. This is indeed a widespread refrain. While upper caste elites have seceded from the system, it is the lower middle class, general caste, semi educated, aspirational, ambitious young person who is the most resentful of the reservation regime.

Their case against reservation existed on the premise that caste discrimination did not exist anymore. They are tangentially true - but also mistaken.

Read: Hardik asks Patel leaders to clarify stand on reservation

The caste system does not exist in the same form as it did historically, yet caste is alive. The discrimination is not as systemic, overt and institutionalised, yet it persists in various forms. Untouchability may have faded to a large extent, but social interaction is still limited and inter-marriage draws a backlash. The strong and almost entrenched link between caste and occupation has weakened considerably and there is mobility; yet there is a substantial overlap between certain castes and occupations, for instance Dalits and manual scavenging. The polity is democratic and citizens are equal, but political parties are often clubs of caste leaders and caste-based competition has only intensified.
Sharma and Kumar not need to look far. They could go and speak to their own college principal Mira Chandawat.

As soon as I asked about her opinion on quotas, Chandawat, clearing her files, said, "I am an SC, but I did not use it. I was a topper throughout, a Principal Gold Medalist, and did my PhD in Sanskrit. I got into the public service through the general category, but because I was SC, they put me on the SC list." She smiled and said, "Unfortunately, some other SC must have lost out because they did it." Her maternal grandfather was an army mess contractor and her paternal grandfather went to fight in World War 2. They allowed and encouraged her to study.

Chandawat feels she has suffered because of her caste. "In my career, never do I get appreciation for good work. But if I do anything wrong, it is immediately linked to my caste." This is her 14th posting in a career spanning over 32 years; and her 7thposting as principal. "I have been transferred so many times because of my caste. I would like to live near home in Ajmer but they do not give me that posting. They delay my salary, holiday sanctions. This is all a subtle manifestation of caste discrimination."

She however supports affirmative action and feels many others in the community benefited. "A Brahman can open a tea shop, but no one will come to a Dalit tea-shop. We need reservations. But the problem is too many communities are lumped together fighting for limited seats."

Hardik, Sharma and Kumar's opposition to reservation also stems from the confusion that now underpins the entire objective of reservations.

Police and protestors clash at Chandni Chowk in 1990. (HT Photo/ SN Sharma)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, asks, "Is reservation an anti discrimination device? Is it to redress historical injustice? Is it to overcome backwardness? Is it to create a middle class in each caste group? Is it to ensure that the distribution of positions in state institutions should mirror exact population mix?" Mehta believes that while originally, reservation was seen as an anti discrimination tool, it moved to becoming a weapon against backwardness and is now a power-sharing arrangement.

Indeed, the logic that reservations is meant to create a level playing field for those who have been deprived of social assets like education and public space like Dalits has got overshadowed. Some groups now want reservations because they see it as income generating scheme, as their right over the educational and economic pie, as poverty alleviation measure, as a way to ensure equality of outcome and not just of opportunity, and increasingly as an employment generating scheme.

Quest for a Sarkari naukri
Chandawat's comment about various communities competing for a limited pie in fact goes to the heart of the problem - a supply-demand mismatch.

In an urban upper-middle class or middle class bubble, enamored with the market economy of the post 90s and the hefty packages one reads about after MBA programs, it is easy to think that most people aspire for corporate or private sector jobs.

This is not true.

This search for a government job lies at the heart of the Patel agitating in Gujarat.

It is at the heart of the Jat protests. Jayant Chaudhary, the scion of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, grandson of Chaudhary Charan Singh and son of Ajit Singh, recognises that Jats are politically empowered. In his vast Vasant Kunj residence, he argues that the Jat demand for inclusion in the OBC category at the centre is primarily because of under-representation in state organs. "You go to west UP, and everyone is running in the morning and the evenings. It is because they want to join the forces."

It lies at the heart of Gujjar protests. They seek ST status because they think they have a higher chance of getting state jobs under that category, where they have to compete with fewer groups.

In Behror's Government College, I asked a group of young boys - those who had just enrolled into the first year in various BA courses to those who were pursuing masters - about their aspiration. Ten out of 11 students said they wanted to enter government. In the Baba Khetanath Women's college some distance away in Bhitoda, a group of four young girls said they wanted to be government school teachers. In Bihar's Darbangha, Tinku Kumar Mandal, a history student, had told me in July, "I want to join the sarkar but I am not talented enough to clear competitive exams and will look for a private company job."

The reasons they offer is similar.

A government job is permanent. A private job is perceived as too uncertain, too subject to the whims of employers and economic cycles, and instability and erratic income flow causes deep unease. Many cannot afford it; parents too are reluctant and prod their children to aspire for sarkar.

The government pays well, much better than what private institutions offer to staff at the lower or even middle rung. Authorities say the starting salary in the Behror government college is Rs 21,500, and some of the more senior lecturers are earning over a lakh a month. A driver in one of the Japanese companies that punctuates the NH-24 in Neemrana may earn around Rs 7000; the starting salary of a driver in a government security force is over Rs 15,000. The government offers facilities, from medical care to pension, lacking in the private sector. And as Sunita Kumari, a student of a private girls college in Behror says, "It also has respect and value. There is status in the village."

Anti-Mandal agitation near the ITO Bridge in 1992 (HT Photo/ Virendra Prabhakar)

The sociological backdrop is important.

More and more people are getting educated, including in rural areas. For many, rural agrarian life is neither deeply attractive nor feasible. With technology and exposure, there is a recognition that a better life exists outside. The better life is often equated with city life and a stable job in the organised sector. The private sector is not yet ready to take them in, both because it is not large enough to accommodate the number of aspirants and because it feels that many of them are not skilled and employable, even if they have degrees.

Combine this with the yearning for government jobs. There are limited seats. Even within those limited seats, there are quotas. Those not eligible for quotas look wistfully at the seats that may have been for them to bag, but which are beyond their pale. They blame their failure to make it on the reservation regime, and turn resentful of it - or want to become a part of it.

Read: 8 dead in Patel quota violence, army deployed in more cities

Devesh Kapur, director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, has extensively studied Indian public institutions. He understands why government jobs are seen as such a privilege. "Except at senior levels in many government jobs like schoolteachers, you get several times the salary that would available in the private sector, there is job security for life, yet you don't need to have much of a work ethic. And in many cases you can leverage the power that comes with these jobs to extract rents. Consequently there is an adverse selection problem. And the political incentives make this very hard to change no matter which party is in political power."

Kapur says this yearning for government jobs is a delusion. "The Indian state can and should have more personnel - from judges to police to health care workers. But these young people need to realise that the vast majority of them will never get jobs in the state. The net growth of state jobs post-1990 has been virtually zero."

In a study, Kapur and colleagues looked at the aspirations of high school students, and found there was an immense mismatch between what was available and what they wanted.

The working-age population in India is increasing by 8-10 million people every year and will do so for the next few decades. Most of those entering the work-force will be without regular, full time, organised sector jobs. "We have to think of a range of policy tools to accommodate them, such as building universal safety nets like health care. But the fundamental challenge is to try anything and everything to increase employment. Manufacturing has to be a priority area. It is not just much easier to set up a textile mill in South Carolina than in India today but given the multiple obstacles such as access to land, water, electricity, its is cheaper as well. The majority of Indians will continue to be self-employed in low-productivity jobs with non-existent safety nets; many will have to branch off and become small entrepreneurs; others will have to become sub-contractors. It is perhaps the most troubling specter haunting India's future," argues Kapur.

The battle within
Manoj Yadav is a cab driver with a private travel operator in Delhi, but his heart is elsewhere.

A tall lanky man, Yadav is from the Kayasa village in Rajasthan's Alwar district. I travelled with him to his village. His father had been an army hawaldar. Yadav passed out of school seven years back to begin his quest - like everyone in his village - to enter the Indian state's security forces.

Yadav has taken a staggering 32 exams so far. After some prodding, he listed out the services and positions for which he had competed. Rajasthan Police constable - five times. ITBP driver - thrice, constable - thrice. CISF driver - twice, constable - twice, head constable - once. CRPF constable - five times; head constable - twice. SSB driver - once, constable - twice. Delhi Police head constable - once, constable - thrice, driver - once. BSF constable - once.

"There may have been a few more," he says, laughing. "But most of these operate through paisa, money. So I paid dalaals, brokers, about three and a half lakh rupees before some of the SSB, ITBP and CISF attempts." They could not manage to get him in, but returned the money as a part of the deal. His next aim is the ITBP driver exam in a few months. Yadav is 25, and says he will keep trying till the age limit of 30. "If I get a sarkari naukri, I will be set."

Yadav is eligible for the OBC quota. "There are too many castes within OBCs and too many applicants. With my quota plus a bribe, I still did not make it." The entire quota system, he now says, should be scrapped. "Make it entirely open. Quota benefits only a few."

This element of competition within the reserved category is often missed by groups clamoring for inclusion in the list, who see it as an easy entry-point. It is also the reason why existing OBC groups resist others joining the club, for they know the pie will get even smaller with more claimants.

To understand how it is working on the ground, I went to the two universities in Delhi I had graduated from.

In JNU, Anuradha Chenoy, the dean of the School of International Studies, says the assumption that it is a cakewalk for those with reservation only feeds into the construction of a false enemy. "I looked at Hardik Patel's marks - and even if he gets OBC quota, he will not make it into a masters program or get a government job." To fill the position of an assistant professor at SIS under the OBC category, there were about 40 applicants, 14 got shortlisted, and one made it. "And all the candidates were excellent." The lower you go in the employment chain, the higher the number of aspirants.

The internal battle also complicates one of the key claims made by those resentful of reservation.

Students at a girls' college in Alwar want to become government school teachers (left), Vinay and Dhiraj, upper caste students of Behror College, who are against reservation, say caste discrimination has ended (right). (HT Photo/ Prashant Jha)

Hardik Patel told me in Ahmedabad that a person with 80 percent does not get admission, while a person with 40 percent - just because he is an SC or ST - gets in. It is true that there is a gap between the general category cut-offs and cut-offs for reserved categories. But this is not as wide as suggested.

Manoj Jha wears two hats. He is both a national spokesperson of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a party at the forefront of advocating caste-based reservation, and the dean of Delhi School of Social Work, at Delhi University.

In his latter avatar, Jha, sitting in his north campus office, says, "This year, for our masters program, the cut off was 55.5 percent in general category; 55 percent in the ST category; 53 percent among OBCs; and about 50 percent for SC. The gap is narrowing."

Jha points to another dynamic within the OBC category. Last year, the centre had included Jats in the central OBC list. This made them eligible the quota at DSW, like other institutes. Out of 42 OBC seats, Jat students managed to bag almost 20 seats. The Supreme Court struck down the Jat inclusion in the list and when admissions opened up this year, other OBC groups who had lost out last year were better represented.

The issue of internal differentiation within OBCs, SCs and STs strikes a chord with Dilip Bhil.

A little away from DSW is the Hindu College.

Bhil was standing in a group with other students near the hostel. He was in his third year, and said in his state of Rajasthan, under the ST category, Meenas were tremendously advantaged. "They belong to the cream of government and their children take most of the seats under quota. Bhils lose out." Jivitesh Sharan nodded and said he was a Jat from Hissar in Haryana; his grandfather had been a sarpanch and his father is a government school headmaster. "I have stayed in a village for eight years. I know Jats are often the primary oppressors. I don't think we should get reservation, and I certainly will not take advantage of it. But the system should exist for those who need it."

Time for a review?

Caste and affirmative action clearly remain deeply complex in India.

Vinay, Dhiraj and even Hardik Patel look at their own life's circumstances and do not see why there is a need for any positive discrimination for others when, in their worldview, discrimination no longer exists. Principal Chandawat's story however shows us that caste discrimination is alive and kicking; only its form has changed. She made it on her own but for the many other SC principals and teachers in Rajasthan colleges like her, reservation was an indispensable tool.

Manoj Yadav's story tells us that just being included in a reserved category is no ticket to success, for the competition within the broad OBC grouping is more intense than ever. Dilip Bhil is angry precisely because in this competition, advantaged groups like Meenas corner more benefits. But from Hindu College's Sharan (a Jat) to Behror Government College's Ajay (SC) to Manju and Rinku (Gujjar), there are also younger people within reserved categories who are confident and keen to compete in an open system. There are however others, for instance the Jat constituency that Jayant Chowdhury represents, who believe that they need quotas to make up for underrepresentation.

Read: Real agenda of Patel agitation is anti-reservation

What is clear is that a key element of the contestation is the very deep desire for entry into government educational institutions and access to government jobs. And reservation regime - because it has become everything to everyone and got burdened with multiple often conflicting responsibilities - becomes the site of this conflict.

The question is if Indian political class is willing to look at it afresh, refine and polish the system while keeping social justice at the core. If they have to do that, they have to think through the objective of the affirmative action regime. They have to think of ways of honing it. This could range from a dynamic exclusion category where groups which have now benefited from the affirmative action regime and have social assets are brought out of the list. It could mean publishing the caste results of the socio economic caste census and evaluating which groups need greater attention.

It could mean creating a multi layered deprivation index, as suggested by academics Satish Deshpande and Yogendra Yadav, which looks at many categories and not just caste as a basis for quotas. It could mean making the education of parents, as economist Rakesh Basant suggests, the basis for judging who has access and who does not have access to opportunities and providing quotas. It could mean rationalising promotions, or putting a one generation cap in the case of OBCs even if Dalits and tribal categories are left untouched.

But few believe that any radical overhaul, or even a partial review and correction, is in the offing. As Manoj Yadav says, "Kuch tu system gadbad hai, par aisa hi rahega. There is something wrong in the system, but it will remain like this." Status quo may persist, but events like the Patel agitation are a wake-up call that the social contract on India's affirmative action policies is fraying.

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