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A fresh look at Reservations and Quotas

This has been one of my longest posts in the making…taking almost two months since I first started putting down my thoughts on this issue.

To a large extent this was because I wanted to be able to capture as many viewpoints as possible in writing this post and to get accurate references.

This has been such a “loaded” subject that I hesitated a lot before venturing into it. At the same time, it is not a topic that any seriously concerned citizen can shy away from.

So please consider this as an humble and modest attempt at trying to understand what may be wrong with the current system. Hopefully this will help us to get it right and really achieve what we set out to do – viz. improve the lot of under-privileged and deprived sections of our society.

While doing my background research, I came across a number of articles and blogs on this topic but not enough that had a pro-reservation slant. I did come across a few counterpoints  e.g. Sujai has a series of posts with a pro-reservation slant which make for interesting reading (and no doubt some arguments) and Krish’s blog too has quiet a few posts on the topic (e.g. this one) – but they were few and far between.

So this analysis too may suffer from an intrinsic bias that creeps in after looking at something from only one side of the prism. Back to “reservations” and “quotas”.


This post was precipitated by the recent disruption and agitation in Rajasthan regarding the demand of Gujjars to be categorized as Scheduled Castes from their current status as OBCs.

The demand was an indicator of a fundamental problem with the whole system – it has largely become a system of patronage & dispensing largesse and a way to capture a slice of the “lucrative” government jobs and other benefits.

To an observer who may not be familiar with the reality of caste-based politics and reservations in India, the Gujjar demand may have appeared to be strangely regressive.

If you look at it from a purely rational and logical viewpoint, it appeared absurd. Why would a group wish to reclassify itself as even more backward?  and that too several years after having been the beneficiaries of a system designed to uplift their status?

Was not the condition of all these unfortunate and under-privileged people supposed to have been dramatically improved in all these years?

But that is missing the point.

Whether the condition of all these people has “substantially improved” or not is open to debate but the main point is reservations today have become a potent tool of caste-based politics and quotas and re-classifications of groups is more a function of political calculations rather than genuine developmental needs.


Let us look at some of the issues with the current system of reservations (An important thing to note is that the argument(s) for reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs are not necessarily the same (and neither are the counter-arguments). I have tried to point out where the difference is particularly important or germane).


Issue # 1: Present system does not address (in my view) the fundamental issue of access to good quality primary education.  Not surprisingly, this leads to:


Issue # 2: Unfilled seats across the spectrum – particularly for SCs and STs.

The roots of this issue go down all the way to the pathetic situation at the primary level of education.

Without enough students coming through the early stages of the education system, it is not surprising that year after year, a large proportion of seats reserved for the under-privileged go without being utilised.

For e.g. Parliamentary committee on welfare of SC & ST has been quoted as reporting that in Delhi University, 50% undergraduate level seats for SCs and 66% of undergraduate seats for STs remained unfilled between the years of 1995-2000 (unfortunately, I could not find the exact source of this statistic). The same source also quotes UGC Chairman Thorat as saying:

“…At higher education levels 1.2 lakh seats of reserved category are vacant”.

There are a lot of other statistics on the site but I am not quoting them here since full references are hard to find.

Note though that the situation with regard OBCs is somewhat different.

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has pointed out (in its 99 report) that 23.5% of all university seats are (were) already with OBC’s, on their own merit – without any quotas.

As Amardeep Singh says in his post, these facts suggest that

…at the very least there are problems and imbalances in the reservations system – and OBCs are not necessarily ‘backward’.”

The lack of adequate representation at the undergraduate and post graduate level eventually results in under-representation at the level of white-collar jobs as well.


Issue # 3: Present system appears to be mis-targeted

Since the current system is unable to make any provision for the exclusion of the “creamy layer”, it results in lopsided benefits and further deepens the divide.

As S S Gill (Secretary to Mandal Commission) said [“Diluting Mandal”, 24th June ’03, The Hindu]:

�And who were the main beneficiaries of this provision? Only the better off among the OBCs – the so-called creamy layer – who already had access to good educational facilities and could outperform their lesser privileged peers at competitive examinations within the reserved quota.

Worse, this has:

�deepened the divide among the OBCs, as those who were already at the top of their community cornered the plum jobs and those at the bottom were left further behind.

Navjot Sidhu has proposed an easy filter for the “creamy layer”: Bar students whose families are income tax payers from benefiting from the system.  One can argue with the specifics of the idea but there is no doubt that this issue needs to be addressed.


#Issue # 4: The fourth problem with the current system is that it is in danger of becoming self-perpetuating.

Once established, it becomes difficult to reassess and begins to be considered as a “right” for all time to come.

M Rama Jois has quoted a Supreme Court decision in her article “One answer to 5 tricky questions” (Indian Express, 2nd Jun ’06) that is relevant here:

�the Supreme Court had said in Peria Karuppan as early as in 1971: �Government should not proceed on the basis that once a class is considered as a backward class it should continue to be backward class for all times…Reservation of seats should not be allowed to become a vested interest�.

Another site�mentions that the number of OBCs has been steadily rising over the years from 2399 in 1953 (Kaka Kalelkar Commission) to 3743 in 1989 (Mandal Commission) to 4418 in 2005.

More importantly, not a single caste has been removed from the list so far (Source: National Commission of Backward Classes � NCBC site, and Hindustan Times article on Sunday 28 th May, 2006).

The more serious problem is that in the longer term it may actually be making the system even more rigid and unchangeable rather than helping to overcome it.

In this context, this quote from a letter written by PM Nehru in 1961 to the Chief Ministers is sobering� :

”But if we go in for reservations on communal or caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second rate or third rate. I am grived to learn how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations.

”It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal or caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let us help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second rate people.”


Issue # 5: The fifth issue with the current system is that it may fail to create a longer term positive impact.

Reservations per se can be a useful and powerful tool to correct grievous imbalances in the socio-economic condition of various groups within a society. And there is no doubt that current policies have benefited large sections within the SC and ST communities and dramatically improved their lot over the last 50+ years.

Certain groups and a large number of people are today in a position that they may not otherwise have been, thanks to these policies.

And yet, affirmative action research in the United States has shown that results have been mixed and the system has not always had the intended effect on the self-confidence or performance of beneficiaries. E.g. see �Does Affirmative Action Work?� by Francine D. Blau and Anne E. Winkler.

I don’t think enough research has been done in India on this aspect yet. If readers are aware of additional studies/data that proves/disproves the hypothesis, please mention it under the comments section.


Issue # 6: The final point – and this is particularly more relevant to the reservations under OBCs category – is the suspicious data on which it is based.

In most cases, data that has been used is either too old, not validated, inconsistent or simply missing.

As Rajiv Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha on Sept 6 ’90 (reacting to the decision by the government to implement the Mandal report):

“It is incredible that the government has no comment at all on this report other than saying we will implement it in toto. Why has the government not thought about the lack of scientific input in the data, about the lack of scientific analysis of that data because there were no sociologists involved? Why has the government not spoken about the heavily conditioned inputs that the commission has got?

[Source: “Once upon a time, Rajiv Gandhi asked same questions as SC”, Varghese K George, May 30, 2006]

Karan Thapar, on his programme, The Devil�s Avdocate (May 21 �06), posed this question starkly (to Shri Arjun Singh):

…lets ask a few basic questions. We are talking about the reservations for the OBCs in particular. Do you know what percentage of the Indian population is OBC? Mandal puts it at 52 per cent, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at 32 per cent, the National Family and Health Survey at 29.8 per cent, which is the correct figure?

An excellent analysis of the lack of data (particularly re. OBCs) and its consequences can be found in various posts on RealityCheck’s blog.

As a sample, have a look at: OBC quota – Data or Confrontation?,�Stop picking on Raje, its much bigger than her� and The quest for data – I.


To SUMMARISE, here are the key issues:

  1. The current system does not address the fundamental problem of lack of good quality primary education
  2. That there continue to be unfilled seats suggest it may not be working as it should
  3. It appears to be mis-targeted and imbalanced
  4. It is in danger of becoming self-perpetuating
  5. It may fail to create a longer term positive impact and finally,
  6. It may be based on faulty, missing, un-validated and inconsistent inputs.


As I mentioned at the beginning, counter-views to these arguments are hard to find and I am particularly interested in opinions or views that challenge this line of thinking, unearth new facts or offer fresh perspectives.

The question is not whether the laws/system did well or served their purpose, the REAL QUESTION is are they STILL the best way to ensure upliftment of the most deprived sections of the society?

Should there be fresh thinking on the criteria? Are there other creative approaches that can be tried to solve this problem?

As Shekhar Gupta has said in one of his editorials in the Indian Express, the (reservation)  system “is the last – but perhaps the most destructive – relic of the licence quota raj“.

Rather than a measure to improve the lot of millions of those who toil in misery, it has today become a political tool driven by electoral calculations and perceived vote banks.

Is this (the current system) really the best we can come up with to solve the challenge of centuries of under-development and deprivation?


P.S. This article has borrowed from a very wide range of sources and while I have been scrupulous in acknowledging or linking the source articles, if I have missed something, or someone, please let me know.

Comments and reactions are very welcome. Your email id (required for comments) remains private.

Image courtesy: Wikipedia

August 9th, 2007 Posted by | Current Affairs, Featured, Hindu Social System, Politics and Governance in India, Reservations, Affirmative Action | 17 comments


  1. Rather than a measure to improve the lot of millions of those who toil in misery, it has today become a political tool driven by electoral calculations and perceived vote banks.

    I agree that reservations are being used as a political tool to drive votebank politics. As I have told many people, inefficiency in the implementation of the system will not make the system wrong. We have to work hard to make the system efficient and we should not throw away the system because the implementation was inefficient. Calls for removal of the system because the implementation is inefficient is like cutting off the hand totally just because the medicine to stop a pain didn’t do the job properly.

    Comment by Krish | August 10, 2007

  2. Krish: I agree broadly with your comment.

    Any thoughts on how to make the system more “efficient” – is some kind of “filter” mechanism an option (e.g. economic criteria or restricting it beyond the second generation)?

    Would it not be good to have some data to actually give basis to the system?

    Comment by B Shantanu | August 11, 2007

  3. Shantanu,

    Thanks for inviting my comment.

    You have summarized the issues quite well.

    This quota system is the heart and soul of our political structure. Various groups have merely congealed their interests around these benefits, in the process they elect representatives who they think are best equipped to protect or at best extend these benefits.

    The “inefficient system” argument used by many people is flawed. I call this the ration shop analogy. It goes, ” Just because the ration shops are an inefficient delivery mechanism, should we abolish them ?”

    The short answer is that an inefficient quota system snatches away (1) the right to equality under law of the people who have accepted an abridged version of it and (2) the right to social justice of people who are truly backward.

    It is a constitutional double whammy.

    For more :

    Even conceding that no system is perfect, the onus is still on the ruling political class to prove that good faith measures have been taken to address the inefficiency. Again this leads to the question of data.

    Data is the key here. I cant overstate this enough.

    You can fight data, but no one has won. Satyameva Jayate.

    Comment by RC | August 15, 2007

  4. Shantanu,

    I think you have summarized it well. Even though Caste is an important factor, I think it is about time it was taken out from the fore front and given a back seat.

    I know you have read this before but it is time we thought of other solutions.

    Comment by Polite Indian | August 16, 2007

  5. I have posed few questions in the RC’s blog, and NONE of them have been answered…. (THere are answers written below my question, but they are not answers TO the question)

    you can see and decide for yourself

    More in my blog







    Comment by Bruno | August 16, 2007

  6. While few people oppose reservations per se to uplift backward classes, the issue of caste as a determining factor is one that causes great deal of heated discussion either in favor or against its implications. Tamil Nadu is often pointed out as an example of the success or failure of the reservation debate, depending greatly on whether you support it or not.
    Let us look at Tamil Nadu. What was the net result of the reservations policy ? As someone who spent seven years of her life there, I was surprised to see the level of hatred that exists in the public sphere for forward communities, specifically the brahmins. The political speeches of the government along with its reservations policies have basically disenfranchised an entire group of people from participating in the socio-economic and political life of the place. Now, I wonder if such an action had been taken on any other minoriy group of Indian citizens, whether human rights activists wouldnt have called it unconstitutional. And it is. According to the Indian constitution no citizen can be discriminated against based on religion, caste, place of birth etc.

    The net result seems to be mutual hatred, with the Hindu society divided on caste lines. Not only is the situation one of brahmins versus the rest, but also OBCs against dalits etc. Now this is a problem for all of us who are in the majority Hindu community. Not having any unity among ourselves leaves us open to attack ; not just attack from foreign enemies, but groups within our own borders. Thus, we have no coherent response when trains are bombed, when explosives go off in temple , when maoists attack the public or even when the government wants to destroy the Ram Setu. We are so busy fighting among ourselves over our caste identities, that we have little time for anything else.

    Which brings me to my other point. What has been the plight of brahmins who were pushed out of the government jobs that they used to favour. Have they suffered? Here we find numerous things. One is that many have left the state in search of greener pastures as well as non-traditional (for them) professions. So, while in past, teaching and government jobs were favoured, now you find brahmins in a whole host of jobs from business to perfoming arts etc. Many have gone abroad where they do pretty well. So not having the crutch of reservations actually served as an impetus to seek new opportunities. And I think that if one community can do that, others can too. This wholesale mass reservations of 60-80% of seats may actually impede the competitive spirit which is responsible for a great many of the achievements we see in various groups.

    So while reservation seems appropriate to uplift backward classes, we first need to define backward. Is it birth (caste) that makes one backward, or is it money or place of birth which may impede ones growth. It may in fact be a combination of all three. Thus, it one is of lower caste born to a poor family in a rural area, life will be more difficult than if the person had been born in the same caste but to family with wealth and /or living in an urban area. So all these factors need to be considered. Backwardness is not a function of caste alone.

    My last point really is one in favor of (dare I say it) merit and the spirit of competition. An education system is not merely a number crunching exercise where you have so many graduates per year in various specializations. An education, especially a higher education, is one which is supposed to give training to the best minds available. I think open competition , where the individual is not asked to identify his/her community will throw up the best students. The idea that such open competition will only favor the the forward communities is actually very insulting to the rest of IndiaI truly believe intelligent indians , whatever their caste background, will succeed. Intelligence and hard work, and not birth and caste, are are what should be rewarded in an education system.

    Comment by Subadra Venkatesh | August 16, 2007

  7. @ RC: Thanks a lot for coming back and for the link. It has given me some more ideas for my follow up post. I like your emphasis on Data sadly it is a dirty word amongst policy-makers in India today.

    @ PoliteIndian: Thanks for your comment. I liked The Deprivation Certificate idea It needs to be seriously considered and discussed more widely.
    I find it frustrating that most bloggers and otherwise politically aware commentators clam up when it comes to this topic. Unfortunately though it is not something that can be wished away.

    @ Bruno: Thanks a lot for the links. This is exactly the kind of counter-perspective and arguments that I was looking for. Please allow me a few days to go through them and I will then try and comment in more detail.

    @ Subadra: Thanks for your comment.
    The anti-brahmanism (is that the right word?) feeling in TN is something that I have wondered about before. See e.g. this post http://satyameva-jayate.org/2007/05/01/periyar-against-brahminism-not-brahmins/

    I agree with you that an unexpected side effect of the current system has been mutual antipathy, hatred and at the very least a feeling of distrust amongst various groups.

    This does not help the task of building a national identity at all in fact, quite the contrary (as you have pointed out)

    I also think that more work needs to be done to understand the potentially negative effect of reservations on the groups that it is supposed to benefit (my point # 5) unfortunately studies on this aspect are thin on the ground.

    Comment by B Shantanu | August 17, 2007

  8. Thanks Shantanu for your encouraging comments. Your forum is helping me think and write–hopefully clearly. Check out what the Tamil Nadu government recently said to the Supreme Court. Interesting view of the quota system.


    Comment by Subadra Venkatesh | August 17, 2007

  9. Shantanu,

    Re the -ve effects of reservations you may like to look at the recent clashes between Meena and Gujjar communities of Rajasthan which claimed more than 40 lives.

    Also, would you like to relook at the mass conversion issue in this regard?

    Comment by Pragya | August 17, 2007

  10. @ Subadra: Thanks for the link. I will have a look at it.

    @ Pragya: The Gujjar-Meena clashes actually precipitated this post.

    Not sure I understand the reference to “mass conversion” – Are you suggesting a link between reservations and this?

    As far as I am aware, most mass conversions have been out of Hinduism rather than into Hinduism.

    Comment by B Shantanu | August 18, 2007

  11. Hi Shantanu. Please remove this post from the reservations topic, since I wanted it posted on the topic of Aryan Invasion. Thanks

    *** Comment by Moderator ***

    Subadra: I have moved the comment. Thanks.

    Comment by Subadra Venkatesh | August 18, 2007

  12. Shantanu,

    Apologies for adding a completely orthogonal context to the discussion.

    Since you had mentioned in Comment#8

    “I also think that more work needs to be done to understand the potentially negative effect of reservations on the groups that it is supposed to benefit (my point # 5) unfortunately studies on this aspect are thin on the ground”

    I thought we need more data points reg above.

    I was referring to the demands of dalit (converted) christians and muslims for reservation.

    The following might provide some more useful data points:




    Once again apologies for not going thru the complete post :-).

    Comment by Pragya | August 21, 2007

  13. Friends
    If the “Reservation Policy” is base on “Caste” equation then it is a never ending story. If it is based on “Economic” criteria then there is possibility to succeed to a certain extent not a fool proof or watertight compartment.
    Basic malady of Indian Society is both “Caste system” and “Minoritism”. One has to remember what constitutes miniritism for special privileges under this category?. How many Parsis are there in India and what “Reservations or Privileges” that community has ever asked for? There is Jewish community in India, have they ever raised their head for special privileges? ( They came as refugees )
    It is the problem of “Greed” of the Minorities and Caste equation as imbibed in Constitution.

    There are no honest politicians to tell the community that enough is enough and stop in stages by reducing the percentage and if one is in upper social order as a result of “Reservation Policy” than stop it forever for that Individual. This may involve to maintain an Entry Register. As to record who is climbed the ladder in the society who has not. (An impossible taks )

    I met an IAS office form the Reservation Category. He was my guest from India, He did say that he agrees with me BUT if there is no “Legal” binding to this convention it will not be implemented.

    Late Suraj Bhan was our guest at home, he was Governor of Uttar Pradesh and Later Himachal Pradesh. A learned gentleman and Politician said that society itself must help the down trodden for its upliftment and not the Law and Constitutional guarantees.

    I am certain that may be better views

    Dr. Ambekar.

    Comment by Dr. Ambekar | August 24, 2007

  14. Reservation in India has become big nuisance especially in the field of education and in job sectors and people belonging to SC,ST,BC’s , Muslims are encouraging politicians for more reservations in India for their vote banks.It’s only politicians example mayamatti,arjun singh, sonia gandhi etc..,who plays all such games and we are suffering because of situation like this.arjun singh and sonia gandhi created big scene for reservation. come on i am from IIT as well I am asking you is it so necessary for people belonging from SC,ST,BC’s, Muslims to have resevations in educational institutes like IIT,IIM,AIIMS and Govt job sectors such as IAS,IPS etcc., why can’t they got brain to study and work hard?k i agree if this people are economically backward Govt must help them for money but not in the case of seats never ever help them i mean study and get the seat come on it is IIT,IIM ,AIIMS not your parliament seat.If backward caste wants to study in higher institutes ask them to crack the seat not by reservations come on India is developing country we are no longer lower then countries like USA,UK,CANADA.I am in UK and to be frank more than 36 % Indian scientist work in NASA most of them are from IIT’s so understand the importance of IIT and education not reservations it’s only we who can really change the India not stupid politicians who looks after reservations.Politicains must be punished highly if they create any stupid issue reservations .Just wipe off the reservations from the roots and say no to reservation for the future development of India.

    Comment by CHURCHILL KUMAR SHAH | May 13, 2010

  15. An over view of Reservation

    1. In most of the states except for Brahmin community other forward communities has got some sub groups identified as OBC/MBC. These forward community people gets bogus certificate of the sub groups and avails the reservation benefit. Similar in case of OBC/MBC to SC/ST

    2. The Government should pass a law with a time limit stating whoever got the bogus certificate and availed the reservation benefit should announce the same. Those people are warned with a nominal fine and left out. Beyond that time frame if any one caught with bogus certificate they should be severely punished.

    3. To-day’s politicians are all mostly bogus certificate holders and they only raise their voice for more reservation and also oppose the creamy layer concept.

    4. The families of (OBC/SC/ST) having got the reservation benefit for all the family members once and there is no justification in extending the same to their future generation. Hence Government should publish those family names in the Gazette time to time so that the benefit can be extended to other needy persons.

    5. Except in Hindu religion cast division is not there in other religion and our constitution also clearly says that cast base reservation is not applicable to other religion. But most of the converts are having two certificates with a Hindu name and availing the reservation benefit in Hindu religion and also in minority institution. No one is bothered to verify the same.

    6. Suppose a forward community male or female marries a lower cast person their children should be identified only as forward community.

    7. Now the Government has introduced creamy layer concept in higher education. Initially for this purpose the annual income was fixed at 2.5 lacs. But the bogus certificate holding politician opposed this limit and now the same was revised to 4.5 lacs. That means those who are earning an annual income of less than 4.5 lacs are considered to be poor. Then why the Government is taxing the salaried people who are earning an annual income of more than 1.5 lacs per annum. The Government should increase the tax ceiling to 4.5 lacs and establish social justice.

    8. It is Justifiable giving reservation in education and there is no logic in extending the same in employment also. It is not stopped at this stage reservation is still extended in promotion also.

    9. Backward people are allowed to apply in general quota as well as in reserved quota. If he gets a seat in general quota one number is reduced in general quota for the forward community and there is no reduction in backward quota at the same time but the left out number is carried over to the next year. Is it OK?

    10. Upon introduction of reservation in educational institution every body forgot character building along with the education. Thus a generation of educated character less people has been created and we are now witnessing the tragic end of the same to-day in all the administrative mechanism. Without bribing you can not do any work from burial ground to parliament. State assembly & Parliament is functioning like a fish market. Doctors are engaging in long strike without bothering about the valuable human life. Very often Lawyers are breaking the law and behave like a street rowdy.

    11. A trend is set that every community wants to identify them as backward.

    12. Hence cast base reservations are to be abolished and creamy layer system only helps the needy people. If required we can have 2 or 3 income limits for reservations. This alone will eradicate the cast barrier on the long run.

    13. Swami Vivekananda said “True equality has never been and never can be on the earth. How can we all be equal here? This is impossible kind of equality implies total death. Inequality is the basis of creation. At the same time the forces struggling to obtain equality are as much a necessity of creation as those which destroy it” That is why the Supreme Court restricted the reservation to 50% maximum. Providing reservation beyond this only leads to pushing the forward classes to backwardness.

    Comment by vedamgopal | September 8, 2010

  16. According to me when one is born he is identified as male or female and all other identifications are society enforced like nationality, religion and cast group. When one has the right to change his nationality if he settle in other country, when one has the right to change his religion as per his choice, WHY NOT ALLOW CHANGE OF CAST GROUP?

    Nationality is a general identification based on the birth place. Even for changing the nationality in a foreign land one has to full fill so many conditions and also to wait for long time to get the changed citizenship. It is not something like dipping you in bath tub, putting a cross dollar in the neck and saying from to-day you are a Christian. The majority becomes minority and he is eligible for all the minority benefits. Is it logic? Cast & religion are based on who gave birth to you and it is permanent and can not be changed. If change of religion is justifiable by law then change of cast group is also justifiable. I am willing change my cast group and want to announce that I am converted to dalit community and except the government to provide all the reservation benefit. Is it OK ????????????

    Comment by vedamgopal | September 8, 2010

  17. @Vedamgopal: re. your last point about changing faith to avail reservations, you may be aware of the controversy brewing in Tamil Nadu over the faith of Sh C Umashankar, IAS Office of the 1990 cadre, who has been in the news for exposing corruption in numerous departments and administration in TN.

    Comment by B Shantanu | September 8, 2010

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