Originally Published 2016-01-29 12:24:00 Published on Jan 29, 2016
Muslims most hurt by India’s caste-based reservation policy

The unprecedented success of the Hardik Patel-led agitation in galvanising the powerful Patidar community on the issue of OBC (other backward classes) quota has once again brought back the spotlight on one of the most controversial policies in India. Taking note of various implications of the stir that generated considerably public attention, ORF organised a panel discussion India’s Reservation Policy’ held at ORF on January 21, 2016 to brainstorm key principles underpinning India’s reservation policy.

Moderating the panel, Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF put forth some hard questions. He asked the panel to deliberate on the method of implementation of the policy over the last 60 years, suggest the way forward and also consider an ‘exit policy’ for people who have benefitted from quota policy. He exhorted the panelists to look at more evidence based studies to relook at some of the key dimensions of reservation policy particularly the aspects of ‘eligibility’, creamy layer and soft affirmative policies.

< style="color: #333333;">Debating India’s reservation policy

Professor Ashwini Deshpande of the Delhi School of Economics defended the relevance of  reservation policy as it ‘desegregates the elites’ which if not done, she argued, would have been  a recipe for social disharmony. She then went on to counter certain universal arguments against affirmative action like it reinforces casteism, it should be based on income levels and that the beneficiaries are the creamy layer. To these she stated that casteism exists without affirmative action by giving the example of the private sector. She explained that the response to EWS quota imposed in Delhi schools was even more vicious and that clustering of community and thereby only the creamy layer being a beneficiary is the problem with all governmental policies in India and therefore the idea must not be to remove it completely. She concluded by arguing that affirmative action is necessary and an evidence based approach should be taken to which community should it be extended to. She also highlighted the importance of other affirmative action methods along with quotas.

Dr. Surjit Bhalla (Chairman, Oxus Research and Investment) countered the arguments raised by Professor Deshpande by highlighting that in this context it is essential to distinguish affirmative action from quotas and stated that, while affirmative action is absolutely necessary, quotas are not the correct system. Pointing out many statistics, he argued that OBCs should absolutely not get quotas and that Muslims are the community that have been hurt the most by this policy. He argued for economic based, rather than caste based, reservation. He also argued that quotas are an anti-merit system. In the end he stated that presently the whole policy has become a political tool.

Dr. D. Shyam Babu from the Centre for Policy Research opened his argument by highlighting the three key aspects of Reservation namely- Representation, Human Rights and Social & Economic upliftment. He focused on the present state of quotas and stated that the whole policy has become ungovernable in practice. He then went on to talk about the minimum standards of education that need to be implemented to make the policy workable. He also highlighted that caste discrimination is indeed a reality, especially in universities. Dr. Sahoo pointed out that an important question before the nation is how to depoliticize the issue of reservation and have a dispassionate approach towards it.

Ms. Britta Petersen, Senior Fellow, ORF explained the success of quota system by citing the reservation policy for women in the Green Party which has eventually led to the German Parliament having 36.5% women today. Talking about reservation policy in Europe, she highlighted that the European Union allows positive action but does not make it a duty on the state. She pointed out that the legitimacy of the policy in Europe is derived from its temporary nature. She pointed out that in Europe what works is a method of quotas long with other measures of affirmative action.

Dr. Cristina Dragomir, a political scientist from SUNY Oswego, began by pointing out that the tensions, problems and arguments that related to the reservation policy in India is the same as that in the US. Through a series of case laws, she pointed out the jurisprudence relating to constitutionality of affirmative action in the US. She also highlighted the importance of the Fisher v University of Texas case in determining the future of affirmative action policy in the US. She also pointed out various arguments against quotas that have been presented in the US such as the fact that students are more likely to do better at lesser schools than at big universities. The United States approach towards bringing diversity may undergo a complete overhaul if the decision in the aforementioned case were to state the need for moving towards an economic basis of affirmative action.

The Q & A session that followed raised many points about the effectiveness and need of reservation policy and the issue of merit and economic basis of reservation. The following discussion highlighted the fact that economic prosperity of lower castes does not solve the problem of discrimination and that the opposition that existed in India was to ‘quotas’ itself and not the basis of it. The need to explore alternatives to the quota policy was also expressed vehemently. It was urged by some that the need of the hour is to make the present system work through implementing minimum standards of education.

While concluding, Dr. Sahoo stated that the key points that have emerged from the discussion are that there is a need to move beyond quotas and other options of affirmative action including improving the educational and training opportunities must be taken into consideration. Adequate support must be provided to the lower castes whether or not quotas are to be continued. And he highlighted that, as with many other governmental policies and schemes, which he called “soft-affirmative” policies, the key is proper implementation. Had there been better implementation of the existing policies for the last 60 years, he argued, the country might have seen a completely different society today.

(This report is prepared by Rajendran Nair Karakulam, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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