The protest by the Patidars in Gujarat for their inclusion in the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) list, which would have made them eligible for reservations and other state benefits, has been going on for quite a long time now. While not commenting on the above agitation particularly, I have used this blog post as an attempt to look at the Reservation policy in general, answering questions such as- why did our government choose to continue Reservations even after 68 years of our Independence? Have reservations really had any impact in the upliftment of the ‘disadvantaged classes’? Has its true benefits percolated to sections that really need them? I have examined the idea of having reservations based on economic considerations either exclusively or in connection with the existent system based on caste. Lastly, I have compared the system of Reservations in India with the methods employed by other countries such as the Brazil, Canada and UK for the upliftment of backward classes in their own countries.


The reservation policy is a kind of an ‘affirmative action’ or ‘positive discrimination’ for the upliftment of designated, disadvantaged groups with the aid of an elaborate quota system in public jobs, government funded public institutions such as the IITs and in most elected assemblies. The groups are mostly those, which have historically suffered discrimination.

It has been often claimed that India’s affirmative action policy is among the largest, longest running, most elaborate and successful initiatives of its kind in the world. There are two main beneficiaries of this policy in India: The 100 million odd population of adivasis or ‘Scheduled Tribes’ as they are popularly called, amounting to nearly 8% of India’s population and living in remote or forested corners and the class repressed over the centuries by Hinduism’s caste system and previously considered as ‘untouchables’- ‘Scheduled Castes’. Recently, a class of lowly, but non- scheduled Hindu castes, collectively known as ‘OBC’s’ or the Other Backward Classes, comprising some 27% of the population, has also been included in the reservation category. The end result has been that in some states, such as Tamil Nadu or in the North East, where the populations predominantly belong to the backward classes, we witness quotas of more than 80% in government jobs, despite a Supreme Court ruling that reservations in a particular category cannot exceed 50% of the total number of seats.

Now let us examine the historical context in which the system of reservations was brought about. This practice of reservations finds its roots in the time of British rule in India. The British were compelled to reserve jobs in the public sector after a protest by non- Brahmins against the preponderance of Brahmins in the government services in Madras and Mysore presidencies. Initially, the main objective of the policy was that of restricting the monopoly of Brahmins in the government jobs and increasing the inclusion of non- Brahmins. The first reservation policy, though informal, was witnessed in Mysore in 1874, where 20% of the posts at middle and lower levels had been reserved for the Brahmins, whereas the balance 80% was for the others. However William Hunter and Jyotirao Phule were the first to envision the caste based reservation system, currently in existence, in 1882 whereas Chhatrapati Sahuji was the first to implement it in 1901. He created one of the first affirmative action programs in history by ensuring suitable employment for the students educated. After this, from time to time, separate states and presidencies were seen incorporating the reservation policy in their systems. In 1902, the state of Kolhapur introduced 50% reservation for backward classes in the services. In 1921, the Madras Presidency introduced the Communal GO, which ensured a reservation of 44% for non- Brahmins, 16% for Muslims, 16% for Anglo- Indians/ Christians and 8% for Scheduled Castes. After the Second Round Table Conference in 1932, the British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald granted the Communal Award, according to which, separate electorates would be granted to Forward Castes, Lower Castes, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo Indians, Europeans and the Untouchables (now known as the Dalits). However many, including Mahatma Gandhi, vociferously protested against this. Ultimately, after lengthy negotiations, it was decided under the Poona Pact of 1935, that there would be a single Hindu electorate, with seats being reserved for untouchables, while other religions such as Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo Indians and Europeans would continue to have separate electorates.

After Independence, this practice of Caste based reservations encountered a hiccup in 1951, when, in the case of State of Madras v Smt. Champakam AIR 1951 SC 226, the Supreme Court pronounced that caste based reservations as per the Communal Award was violative of Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution. However an amendment to the constitution in the same year- Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 by inserting in Article 15, a clause (4), which reads: “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizen’s or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”, was successful in removing this problem.

In 1963, by way of M R Balaji v Mysore AIR 1963 SC 649, the Supreme Court put a cap of 50% on reservations. Later, several changes were made to the reservation policy on the recommendations of the two committees appointed to assess the situation of the socially and the educationally backward classes, namely the Kalelkar Committee (1953) and the Mandal Commission (1979) and today the figures as per the Union Government figures stand at- 15% reservation for the Scheduled Castes, 7.5% for the Scheduled Tribes and 27% for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Examination of the need for and Impact of Reservations in India after 70 years of Independence

When India became a democratic nation, growth of each section of society was essential for the overall development of the country. In such a scenario, it was imperative, that those sections of society which had been oppressed or had remained downtrodden, whether because of the oppressive caste system in India, or for any other cultural and economic reasons, be provided opportunities to come on par with the other sections of society. Hence the system of reservations came into being. According to Article 334 of the Indian Constitution the reservations and special representation in politics, such as in the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha etc., was to be in place only for a period of 10 years, after which a policy review would be done to decide the further course of action. However more than half a century after independence, reservation still remains an issue in India with the Parliament amending the Article 334 periodically, extending the political reservations by another 10 years. The last amendment to the article was done in 2010- the 95th amendment to the constitution extended the reservation for SCs and STs in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies from sixty to seventy years.

Now let us observe the effect that reservations have had in India. It has been observed that the policy of minority political representation has been effective in reducing poverty for individuals close to the poverty line. This impact however, has been felt more in the urban areas as compared to the rural areas. According to an estimate, a 1% increase in SC representation reduces urban poverty by 0.2%, whereas the same increase in ST representation reduces urban poverty by 0.7%. Another impact that reservations have had is the increase in voter turnout during elections, for example it has been observed that the turnout of SC voters in SC constituencies is significantly higher, in statistical terms, than the turnout of SC voters in non- SC constituencies. There is a difference of 4.5 percentage points in the turnout of SC voters in SC and non- SC constituencies. This implies that apart from guaranteeing parliamentary representation of SCs, reservations also promote their mass representation in the electoral process. Also it has been noticed by way of these findings, that non- SC voters are not discouraged from voting in SC parliamentary, as the statistics for this are insignificant (there is only a 0.7 percent difference between the non- SC voter turnouts in SC and non- SC constituencies). Apart from all the above benefits, reservations have helped improve enrollment of SC and ST candidates into universities and other institutes of higher education, who would not have otherwise pursued higher education. As per statistics, the proportionate representation of SC and ST students in total higher education enrollment has been slowly rising. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, the SC proportion has seen an elevation from 7% to 7.8%, whereas the ST figure rose from 1.6% to 2.7%. If compared to the total population figures of these two classes, which by the way is 16% and 8% respectively, it can be seen that, by the end of the century, SC and ST student representation in the higher educational institutions had reached roughly one- half and one- third of their representation in the population as a whole.

Also, as can be seen from these various examples, although reservations have had an impact, the impact has been small, small almost to the point of insignificance in some cases. According to a study in 2004, the Hindu ‘dwijas’ with 5.8% (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Kayasthas including equivalent jatis like Bhumihars and Tyagis of North India, Boddis of Bengal and Khatris of North West India) are still way ahead of every social group in higher educational attainments. As we go down the hierarchy, the figures come down to 2.8% for intermediary castes (non- Dwija and non- OBC castes like Jat, Sikh, Maratha, Nair, Reddy, Patidar etc.), 1.8% for all the OBCs (excluding Muslims and Christians) and still lower for the SC and ST. What this shows, firstly is that, the traditional hierarchy of Hindu Caste Order still matters and secondly, that the policy’s effect has been very slow, so much so that, even after so many decades of having the reservation policy in place, we have not even come close to achieving the levels of upliftment that we had hoped for.

Models of reservations based on factors other than Caste

The sustained attention to the design of the reservation policy, as we know it today, has not been one of India’s greater strengths. In fact, India adopted a pre- designed and pre- positioned affirmative action policy at birth. Since the adoption of the constitution in 1950, there have been no substantive changes in the basic affirmative action policy. Hence, there have been many contestations regarding whether the reservation policy today needs to undergo a change.

One idea that has come forth is the concept of reservations based on economic lines. This idea finds many supporters; those who believe that caste based reservations have now become outdated and need to be kicked out and replaced with something more practical, useful and effective. Their main contention is that reservations have served essentially as tools to absorb privileged sections of the lower castes into the ruling classes. One of the arguments for reservations based on economic lines is that people who are not in the disadvantaged groups, but still need help getting into educational institutions and the like, and who do not usually get this help because of being in the ‘general category’ would also receive this help. And on the other hand, those children who belong to the backward class, but who do not actually need any support by virtue of being financially stable would not get this benefit, and this can then be extended to more deserving candidates. Also many people believe that this idea of social justice has turned more into casteism. This instead of bridging the gap between the different classes of people is actually widening this gap by creating mistrust between the different castes and also reinforcing caste identities.  This needs to change, and the only way to change it without adversely affecting the disadvantaged groups is by introducing reservations based on economic lines, thereby ensuring that the reservations reach the people that they are actually intended for. One more obvious argument for this idea is that it will hopefully help bring the focus on poverty and will help reduce it in India, since it has been the general perception that the politics of caste identity has, also founded on reservations, helped push real economic problems facing the poor away from the center stage. It also prevents poor belonging to high, middle and lower castes from uniting on class lines. Thus, it effectively keeps the deprived masses divided and politically weak. This was recognized by Dr B R Ambedkar who said that, “the caste system is a division of laborers, and what is worse, a gradation of laborers.” Hopefully a greater political representation of the financially disabled will ensure that policies governing the poor will be made by people who have a greater understanding of their condition rather than politicians sitting in plush houses and having absolutely no idea about their situation.

One more idea that can be examined is a reservation policy based on both caste and economic lines. This would be a good way of recognizing the fact that class matters within each caste- community and that caste and class are not in isolation from each other but are rather inseparable, a point, which is not sufficiently recognized by proponents of caste based reservations. It is important to recognize that within each caste- community group people belonging to lower middle, or poor or very poor economic strata have considerably lower chances of accessing higher education, compared to those from the top two categories in their own caste community group. The inverse of this is also true with the caste within each class also mattering. Hence, within the same economic stratum, Hindu Dwijas are much more likely to be highly educated than any other caste community. An example of this would be the ‘creamy layer’ concept applied in the case of OBCs, wherein reservations are not given to OBC children of constitutional functionaries such as President, judges of Supreme Court and High Court, employees of Central and State bureaucracies above a certain level, public sector employees, members of the armed forces and paramilitary personnel above the rank of Colonel. This exception is also applicable to children of any OBC family that earns a total gross annual income of Rs 6,00,000 for a consecutive period of three years. Hence it is ensured that even in the OBC category, those people who are more needy because of their economic status, only get the benefit of the reservation policy, and is not usurped by the financially sound people who can anyways avail of these benefits even without the quota. One proviso to this policy that can be added here is that, the unfilled seats in the OBC quota can be offered to the ‘creamy layer’ of the OBC category, rather than being transferred to the general quota. However this system of the ‘creamy layer’ is not without its share of fallacies. It is well known that incomes can easily be under- reported. Hence if the benefits of reservations are to reach those for whom it is designed, namely the deprived sections of the OBCs, the creamy layer must be meticulously identified and excluded. One method by which this can be adopted is using the criteria of the total annual fees paid by the applicant at her/his Class X and Class XII and fixing an appropriate cut- off rate for the school fees, for identifying the creamy layer. For candidates applying for jobs, they can be asked to provide information about the address of the school(s) attended, the fees paid and even the receipts.

Yet another scheme which can be thought about, and something similar to which is in place in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is one which takes into account four main dimensions of group disadvantage- caste/ community, gender, region and sector of residence (urban/ rural). Beside group disadvantages, this scheme also considers individual disadvantages, for which two indicators that can be operationally used in the system of admission to public institutions have been identified- parental occupation and the type of school where a person passed the high school examinations. These two variables capture the effect of most of the individual disadvantages, including the family’s educational history and economic circumstances. Candidates are awarded deprivation points for each disadvantage in this system. The main feature of this scheme is that it recognizes that people of all castes may suffer from individual disadvantages, and offers redressal for such disadvantages to upper castes as well. In short, it demonstrates in an open and accountable fashion, that affirmative action is not about the ‘appeasement’ of particular castes or communities, but about abolishing continuing sources of tangible disadvantage in our unequal and unjust society.

Affirmative Action systems in other Countries

Brazil has a very mixed population built from European immigrants, their African slaves and the remnants of the Amerindian population that they displaced. It is one country whose experience with affirmative action is fairly recent, with the policy being introduced in 2001. It largely sought to increase the number of non- white students at Brazilian Universities and was seen as an anathema to the Brazilians long established idea of their country as a racial democracy. Although some affirmative action policies had been implemented at the municipal level, this was the first time that it had been implemented at the federal level on a large scale. It was brought on by pressure from the Black Movement and Brazil’s international commitments, particularly at the UN Conference against Racism. This program has been successful at two levels. On the one hand, it has engendered much public discussion about race and Racism and on the other it’s expansion to many public universities and a federal law requiring it in all federal universities. This is definitely a good start to building a more inclusive society.

There are some countries in which affirmative action is considered to be a taboo and is illegal. An example of one such country is France where the law does not even permit recording of census statistics on people’s ethnic background or specifying their race when applying to a school.

Another is the UK, where the Equality Act 2010 prohibits any discrimination, quotas or favoritism due to sex, race and ethnicity among other ‘protected characteristics’ for any reason in education, employment, during commercial transactions, in a private club or association and while using the public services.

 In Canada, the equality section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly permits affirmative action type legislation, although it does not require it. The Canadian Employment Equity Act requires employers in federally regulated industries to give preferential treatment to four designated groups- Women, people with disabilities, aboriginal people and visible minorities.

By: Shubhi Goyal