The Why and How of affirmative action (reservations)?

Update: Prof TT Ram Mohan of IIM-A writes in the ET echoing some of these views in today’s (Apr 24, 2006) edition. The recent announcement from the HRD Minister Arjun Singh expanding reservations has touched off a raw nerve. Lots of heated discussions are taking place. Full disclosure: I support affirmative action. I remain committed untill affirmative action is proven beyond doubt to be useless.

Understanding the Law

First, there seems to be some misunderstanding about the scope of the constitutional amendment that has been passed. Some people have written reams on the assumption that this is targetted at having reservations at IITs/IIMs. So, lets first look at the Article 15 of our constitution as it stands before the amendment.

15. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.- (1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds
only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.
(2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste,
sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability,
liability, restriction or condition with regard to-
(a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of
public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or
dedicated to the use of the general public.
(3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. (4) 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 citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Text from Article 29 that is reference in Article 15.

29. Protection of interests of minorities.-

(1)Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any
part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own
shall have the right to conserve the same.
(2) No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational
institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds
on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them.

Through the 93rd constitutional amendment, here is the amended clause 5:

2. Amendment of article 15.-In article 15 of the Constitution, after
clause (4), the following clause shall be inserted, namely:-
“(5) Nothing in this article or in sub-clause (g) of clause (1) of
article 19 shall prevent the State from making any special provision,
by law, for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward
classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes
in so far as such special provisions relate to their admission to
educational institutions including private educational institutions,
whether aided or unaided by the State, other than the minority
educational institutions referred to in clause (1) of article 30.”.

Text of Article 19 referenced above:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.—(1) All citizens shall have the right—

(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;

(c) to form associations or unions;

(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;

(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and

*           *          *              *               *                               

(g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.

Text from Article 30 referenced above

30. Right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions. — (1) All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

(1A) In making any law providing for the compulsory acquisition of any property of an educational institution established and administered by a minority, referred to in clause (1), the State shall ensure that the amount fixed by or determined under such law for the acquisition of such property is such as would not restrict or abrogate the right guaranteed under that clause.

(2) The State shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language.

After analyzing these and the order that has been issued, we will now have nearly 50% reservations in all private and public institutions of higher learning (which of course includes IITs, IIMs). Only minority institutions are exempt from this order. Also note that it only talks about socially and educationally backward classes. Economically backward does not figure here for an important reason. What is Affirmative Action? I turn to the USA because the US has a few relevant similarities – it has had a few centuries of discrimination (India has had discrimination based on casteism for thousands of years) and is a land of abundant diversity (although much more diverse than India).  Also, USA has tried its hand at affirmative action and has been quite controversial and it continues to be. Additionally, as humankind, we have discriminated against women for the past 100,000 years and continue to do so. I picked this definition from a paper by Robert Fullinwider on Stanford University’s pages. This is a long paper and I consider it one of the best on this topic as it provides a very balanced view of the issues involved. I have borrowed heavily from it. Please read it at leisure.

“Affirmative action” means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—affirmative action generates intense controversy.

Why Affirmative Action?
While in the US context, affirmative action is for minorities and women, in India, sadly enough, a significant percentage of the population seems to need affirmative action. I think its undeniable that the responsbility for this state of affairs is squarely on the shoulders of the higher castes. But focusing on the past does not lead us to concrete solutions but becomes a blame game. Instead, let us focus on what can be done now to correct the situation. Discrimination  puts people in a  virtually  in-escapable cycle of  backwardness. The grand parents  and parents were discriminated against and hence their children cannot get benefits and so on.  The discrimination that has gone on for such a long time cannot be corrected by just saying “from now on there is no discrimination and all of you are equal”. Its a proven fact that children from families that have a history of education in their lineage do better than those that don’t. There  does not seem to be an easy way of breaking this cycle without using affirmative action. Affirmative action in India is designed to correct social and educational backwardness which is a direct result of casteism. Social and educational backwardness can result in economic backwardness but the converse is not true.  For economic backwardness, merit-cum-need and need-based scholarships exist and the affirmative policy does not concern itself with economic backwardness. Okay, its fairly clear that affirmative action benefits the people that directly benefit from it.  But what about the people from the higher castes that are impacted by it? Diversity Argument [Copied from the Stanford Paper] Management pundits will tell you that diversity of the workforce is a key ingredient for success in any business. Associating yourself with people only from similar backgrounds is not conducive to long term success. Professor of Psychology Patricia Gurin has conducted research and found evidence on how diversity is helpful even in educational settings. [From the same stanford paper quoted above]

students learn better in a diverse educational environment, and they are better prepared to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society once they leave such a setting.…[S]tudents who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual
engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills

Integration Argument  [Copied from the Stanford Paper] One can argue that the institutions of higher learning produce the future leaders of the country, both in business and government. Now what would happen if such leaders have never interacted with other sections of the society and are not able to empathize with them at all. Therefore it is necessary for us to make our best efforts to create a diverse milieu for our future leaders.  Excerpt from Stanford Paper:

In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes
of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be
visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and
ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have
confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational
institutions that provide this training.…Access…. must be
inclusive…of every race and ethnicity, so that all members of
our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational
institutions that provide the training and education necessary to
succeed in America.

There are some states like Tamilnadu which have been following these policies for a while now. In Tamilnadu, the reserved seats if you add all the quotas is over 70%. I think you can see the effects of both the diversity argument and the integration argument in Tamilnadu. There is a far greater acceptance of lower castes in all walks of life, and there has been a dramatic reduction in casteist discrimination. Yes, caste still plays a part but is more for political expediency than for discriminatory purposes. Although, a lot of credit for this goes to the social revolution led by EVR Periyar, I think the education system has also played an important part in this transformation.

I have one more argument to add – Forced Diversity in Occupations Argument Owing to the lack of opportunities in the past for people without
engineering or medical degrees, there was almost a feverish drive
amongst students to get into these disciplines. So the forward castes have  developed into stereotypical careers mostly in the software industry. This lack of diversity is going to hurt us in the future. In the current scenario, the projected demand for engineers is expected to have a shortfall of 500,000 by 2010, so there is plenty of demand for engineers. But simultaneously, there is going to be an even bigger demand for non-engineers due to the increasing growth in BPO services. All these jobs that are getting created, will place an even greater demand on other support services (food, communication, transportation, media, clothing etc.) which will require a substantial increase in
entrepreneurial activity because the government is unlikely to meet these expanded needs.  The only people that are capable of taking risks that come with entrepreneurial activity are the forward castes
that have attained a reasonable level of economic independence. Over a period of time, I expect that a certain pragmatism will set in these communities and force risk-taking which is going to be a key attribute for us to achieve greater economic progress. Who better to take these risks than our most capable.

What about merit? Now, this is the biggest stick that the anti-reservation forces have.  Eventhough there is not a commonly accepted definition of merit, this is a difficult one to argue against. But the question to bear in mind would we rather have 20% highly meritorious individuals and 80% backward individuals or the other way round.

Is there an alternative to caste-based reservations? Its clear that we need affirmative action, but can we avoid using castes? I have not done any research on feasibility of implementation. Please take it as just a rudimentary idea. I have been thinking about the idea of using the educational track record of the family that is seeking reservation. After all, social and educational backwardness should be reflected in the track record because lack of access to education is the biggest cause of this backwardness. Again, i don’t know how many generations it takes to erase socio-educational backwardness, but let’s say it takes 2 generations. We can ask for the educational status of grand-parents and parents and determine eligibility of reservations based on that. However, i am not sure how we will produce such records in the absence of any records being maintained by the government. So feasibility is a big question mark. But I thought I will throw it out there.

1. Case for Reservations by Dilip D’Souza.  Lots of good ideas. He also has an update. good read.
2. Saket writes against reservations in his usual no-holds-barred style. good read.
3. Positive Discrimination In India – A political analysis by Partha Ghosh (Via Mercatus Why Reservations are a Good Idea)  (Via Desipundit)
4. In defence of larger interests by Sudhir Krishnaswamy (Via Mercatus as well)


  1. Anonymous said April 24, 2006, 1:43 am:

    Good points Sukumar.

    I believe that there is a minority of population in India that is socially backward but not economically backward. I do not see a reason for the reservation policies to be applied to such sections of the population.

    I would rather see a college seat be reserved for a deserving poor upper caste student than a rich lower caste one.

    Economy should be added to the criteria of reservation, unless lo and behold we want the pendulum to swing to the other end – where the upper caste become the subjugated ones.

    Once everyone realiizes that they can achieve their dream of a decent livelihood if they work hard, and start working towards this goal instead of paying heed to politicians, things will fall into place. And now more than ever, is the time for this – Economy is growing at a robust rate, and India is expected to be one of the economic super powers. Hopefully, the good things will percolate down to the lowest starta of the society. And this I believe will be the equalizer – the economy!!


  2. Anonymous said April 24, 2006, 9:53 pm:

    Thanks Ganesh. I agree with you completely on the growing economy part of it and that opportunities will increase dramatically and this whole argument will go away. I am very hopeful and optimistic that indeed will happen.

    I disagree with you on the economics-based reservation. This is an important point that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar argued and I agree with him. While the lower caste person may be rich, he/she cannot be expected to compete equally with a higher caste person because of the millenia of lack of access to education. Now if the rich lower caste person has a strong educational background in the family, then it makes for a different case. Overall, affirmative action is designed to disrupt the cycle of discrimination which has forced so many millions of people into backward status. We have to make sure as a society that this indeed happens. There will always be a few people that take advantage of a system and misuse it. But that cannot deter us from taking corrective action.