In January 2019, the government announced its decision to reserve 10% of seats in higher education and government sector jobs to the relatively less-affluent sections among the so-called upper castes of the country, those who do not benefit from the reservation policy already in place. This step towards additional reservations, especially coming as it does during the final ruling year of the current government, requires deeper analysis.
The government has put forth a set of eligibility criteria for those who intend to be the beneficiaries of the new quota scheme. The economic backwardness will be determined by their family income, agricultural land, residential house and residential plot. The following are the criteria set forth:
• Family income should be less than 8 lakh per annum.
• Farm land should be less than that of 5 acres.
• Residential house should be less than 1000 sq ft.
• Residential plot should be below 100 yards in a notified municipality.
• In case of a non-notified municipality area, the residential plot should be below 200 yards.
India’s current caste-based reservation policy has arisen out of a realization of historically perpetuated injustices on people belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes which has negatively impacted their access to higher education and employment. Moreover, many students who avail of reservations are first generation learners, which might impede their progress. Statistics show that even after more than 50 years of implementation of the policy, it is the upper caste Hindu who is more represented in various fields such as government employment, professional and non-professional education, in the sphere of law and judiciary, in the apparatuses of the state such as the police and defence, in media, and in political parties. This is the rationale for reserving seats in higher education for the under-privileged groups including the SC and ST categories.
However, the new reservation policy proposed by the government, for the benefit of students from the forward castes, cannot be rationalized on the basis of the above arguments. Most students from upper castes not only have a greater chance of finishing school education but also usually go on to pursue higher education.
What, then, could be the social justification for this new category of reservations? It cannot be, as the government claims, upliftment of the economically weaker classes, since they have seen fit to include households that earn up to a maximum of Rs. 800000 per annum as beneficiaries of the policy. In comparison to the rest of India, households who earn approximately 66600 per month can in no way be considered "economically backward".
The only way this move of the government can be rationalized is to think of it as a way to appease those categories of upper-caste Hindus who are hurt by the caste-based reservation system. Through this new legislation, the government attempts to make a substantial share of the upper castes happier.
Will students belonging to upper castes benefit from this legislation? Yes, it is very likely that they will. Most students belonging to this category already had greater chances of getting into colleges and universities. This new legislation will perhaps merely help students from upper-castes to go up a few more steps in terms of the social ranking of the college that they get admitted to.
Will this new legislation be effective in terms of the political goal of the government? This depends on the additional support that the party in power can garner among the upper castes. A substantial share of these groups already support the BJP in different states. However, this move may reinvigorate the support base of BJP among these castes.
What are the social benefits of this decision? There is an attempt to increase 10 percent seats in existing universities and other higher-education institutes, and this net increase could be useful, given the unmet demand for higher education within the country. The enrollment in higher education in the country is also not that high and hence an increase in the availability of seats is useful. This increase may not be that costly to the public exchequer since governments may ask the existing institutes to stretch their facilities, rather than investing that much additional resources. It may have some negative impact on the quality of instruction.
Does this move solve any fundamental problem faced by India in the domains of education or development? Less likely. A major problem faced by the country is the non-completion of, and poorer learning achievements in, school education. Since the non-completion is severe among the students belonging to the so-called lower-castes and other such groups, they may not benefit much from the prevailing caste reservation. This would lead to a situation where such reservation may have to continue in future without a substantial improvement in the life of these people. Different governments should have taken greater efforts to enhance the retention and successful completion of schooling by almost all children in the country. There is also a need to strengthen and improve the quality of post-secondary vocational education. All these may require substantial changes in the allocation of resources and effort on the part of state and central governments.
The nature of India’s economic development – the one that is focused on services with a stagnant manufacturing – would also make the economic impact of the new decision less significant. Those people who get the benefit of this additional capacity in higher education would compete for jobs in service sector which may not offer many more new jobs. The non-completion, and the poor quality, of schooling (and other extraneous factors) may prevent the growth of the manufacturing sector and employment therein.
In essence, this decision to institute reservation for upper castes fits well with the political economy of the current ruling regime, though its impacts on education and development of the country are uncertain.
Reservations based on caste are meant to redress a problem which is greater in severity than the economic disadvantage of an individual, a fact which can be very well understood after an honest analysis of history. It is a project to build a new nation of shared democratic development, if not of social cohesion, ensuring protection against the tyranny of the upper caste strata. This new reservation is, therefore, not completely logical or even socially desirable.