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The Mandal muddle

As the debate on OBC reservations spreads, I?ve unearthed a few interesting facts which raise pertinent questions, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 04:46 IST

As the debate on OBC reservations spreads, I’ve unearthed a few interesting facts which raise pertinent questions. Today, I want to share both with you. To begin with, do we have a clear idea what proportion of our population is OBC? According to the Mandal Commission (1980) it’s 52 per cent. But the National Sample Survey Organisation (1999) puts it at 32.1 per cent and the National Family Health Survey (1998) at 29.8. So which is it? Shouldn’t we know before reservations happen?

The NSSO data also shows that already 23.5 per cent of college seats are occupied by OBCs. That’s just 8.6 per cent short of their share of the population according to the same survey. Does that order of difference justify reservations? Or does it call for some other form of action instead?

Beyond the issue are reservations necessary is the question do they work? A study done by two IIT directors (and quoted by SS Gill, Secretary to the Mandal Commission) shows that only 50 per cent of vacancies at IITs for SCs and STs are filled up. Of the remaining half, 25 per cent drop out before completing the course.

Much the same is true of Delhi University. According to the 2001-02 Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, between 1995 and 2000 barely half the SC quota and merely one-third of the ST quota of undergraduate seats was filled up.

Medical colleges fare no better. Last year at Kanpur’s Ganesh Shankar Medical College as many as 50 per cent of SC candidates for the final year MBBS exam failed. A further 17 per cent only got through with grace marks.

For some the conclusion seems to be quotas don’t work. They either aren’t filled up or many candidates don’t finish the course. But you could also argue the opposite. If even 50 per cent of the quota is filled that’s proof of efficacy because without quotas the percentage of SC/ST students in higher education would be a lot less.

Next, what do reservations mean for those they don’t cover? Seen through their eyes they mean students less qualified get preference over those more qualified solely because they are OBCs. That’s penalising the upper castes for being upper caste. Thus reservations favour caste over merit. This is why students have risen in protest.

Flip the coin and the answer is different. After centuries of untouchability only reservations will help SC and ST students overcome the humiliation they’ve suffered. The moot point is does this argument apply to OBCs? Whilst it’s clear they’ve never been on par with upper castes, have they suffered like the SCs and STs? Do they deserve the same reservations? Or should their disadvantage be alleviated in some other way?

Today politicians seem to be of one opinion. But there was a time when this was not so. Forty-five years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru publicly disagreed. In a letter to Chief Ministers dated 27th June 1961, he wrote: “I dislike any kind of reservations... if we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis we (will) swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate... the moment we encourage the second-rate we are lost... this way lies not only folly but disaster.”

Finally, do reservations for OBCs become more acceptable if, in compensation, the number of seats in universities, IITs and IIMs is proportionately increased? This is a bit like having your cake and eating it too. It sounds like a neat solution until you ask whether our institutions can handle such expansion. The answer doesn’t seem to be yes.

Overall this will amount to a 53 per cent increase in higher education seats. The IITs would have to jump from 3,980 to 6,242, the IIMs from 1,400 to 2,195 and Delhi University from 50,800 to 83,073. But the problem is, as the UGC Chairman has stated, there are 1.2 lakh vacancies in all such institutions with 40 per cent in the teaching staff. IIT faculties alone are short-staffed by up to 30 per cent. On top of this, there’s the critical question of infrastructure which can’t handle such numbers.

So might the neat solution become a messy outcome? It could be a way of making reservations acceptable but at the cost of diluting the quality of higher education.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. This being India, we’re bound to muddle through. Unfortunately, the stress is on the word ‘muddle’.