Monday, December 17, 2012

Reservation and Merit: Some Myths

           I am against the caste system.  I have always felt outraged about such discrimination among human beings, and felt ashamed that it is prevalent in the country of my birth. I will be really happy to see a day when there is no discrimination at all on the basis of caste, religion or any such factors that arise from the accident of birth.
          Thankfully, my parents did not add the caste as a tail to my name. I have always felt proud that my name does not convey allegiance to any caste. I also felt proud when as a young student I succeeded in convincing my grandmother, for the first time, to let women of some other castes to draw water from the well, at our home.

          In spite of all such feelings against the concept of caste, I do understand the realities of my country, and how deeply entrenched the caste system is.  Therefore, I do believe the affirmative support granted by our Constitution, to the people of less privileged castes is the only pragmatic strategy to bring some parity among our people. The economic reservation cannot replace the caste based reservation so easily because in India caste is not merely an economic factor. It has much more implication- social, political and economic, in India. Therefore, economic reservation will not allow people from the castes that were oppressed for centuries, to come up to the level of members of more fortunate castes.

          Now, about the policy of caste based reservation for promotion. I am not as convinced about the need for it as I am convinced about the need for reservation in employment and education. Once a person is appointed to a post, irrespective of the source of such appointment, his/her growth should solely depend on the performance at the job. Maybe we should ensure that one’s caste or other status does not cause prejudice against him/her, in matters of promotion. In other words, equal opportunity for promotion should be available to all employees.

         However, after considering various aspects of the matter, the Supreme Court of India had validated such a policy with certain conditions that I believe to be fair and reasonable. However, the Parliament in its wisdom is now trying to nullify those conditions stipulated by the Supreme Court.  I am against such a step by Indian Parliament.  

        This post is not about policy of reservations in promotions, and therefore, I am not going into details of the SC verdict or merits of Parliament’s effort towards Constitutional amendment. This one is about some myths beings spread deliberately or otherwise, by those who oppose the caste based reservations.  Apart from the generic arguments like vote bank politics, divisive politics etc. the only argument of substance I heard against the reservation system is about merit.

        In the narrowest sense of merit, it does get affected by any kind of reservation. Therefore, replacing caste based reservation with economic reservation will change nothing. However, this argument of merit being affected by reservation will stand the test of logic only when comparing apples to apples. When things are not equal, one cannot argue for merit based on relative scores alone.

        The apostles of merit do not oppose the differentiation in schools and colleges. There are schools and schools in our country. Not all schools teach same subjects or syllabus, and not all of them have the same or comparable standards.  To a great extent, so called merit is determined by the kind of school one attends than any innate quality. Admission to these different types of schools is also not based on merit or equality, but other factors.

        We often get to hear comments like, “I will not feel safe to be treated by a doctor who is a product of reservation system” or “I don’t want to stay in a building constructed by an Engineer coming out through reservation”.  Ask them if they do check whether the doctor was admitted to MBBS or Engineer to the BE, through a payment seat before availing the services, they look at you with disbelief written all over their face. So, it is not about the merit, but about the deep caste prejudice what is causing such statements!

        Now, let us consider the issue of merit objectively. When an Engineer or Doctor or any other professional earns the concerned degree, they become eligible to practice the profession. They become eligible by virtue of passing the qualifying examination. If the qualifying examination places a cut off mark at 40, 50 or whatever percentage, no one who had scored marks below that cut off gets a license to practice. So, every person who crosses that cut off and gets the license to practice is qualified to practice. The fact that one had a better memory and scored 5 or 10% of marks in the final examination will not make him/her a better practitioner. Consider the ratio of top rank holders in the respective exams, among the most successful practitioners of any profession and this becomes amply clear.

        Same is the case with admission to professional courses. Most of us do not have any issue when rich parents pay hefty amounts to get seats for their children in the top professional institutions.  We will not ask the percentage of marks scored by these children, in their qualifying exams. However, lot of us are again concerned about the quality of the institutions, if a member of a  backward caste gets admission to a premier institute by virtue of reservation.  The reports about problems being faced by Dalit students even in institutions like AIIMS and IITs are indeed shocking.

        But the truth again is lost in the rhetoric. No person can get admission into any professional course without having passed the qualifying examination. That is the simple truth. Another truth is, because a student scored less or more marks in the qualifying examination, his or her performance in the professional course cannot be predicted on that basis alone. Even after getting admission to the course, the student has to study and pass all the examinations to become eligible to practice.

        To conclude, so long as a professional had passed the qualifying examination and holds a genuine degree, I will not seek his/her mark certificate before availing the services. As far as I know no individual has been given any reservation to practice a profession, without duly qualifying for the same. That being the case, using merit as a fig leaf to hide one’s opposition towards caste based reservation is nothing but pathetic.  

Oppose reservation by all means; we all have freedom to hold our own views and to propagate it. I will also wait for the day when we can genuinely say that we have moved beyond concepts like community matrimony dot coms, and are ready to embrace true merit with equal opportunity. Until then, let us not hide behind merit to oppose the affirmative actions to bring oppressed classes of people to some semblance of parity, being undertaken by the state.


  1. But you miss the most important aspect: the cut off mark for admission is lower for the reserved class. And now that you have reservation for promotion, the criteria for promotion will also be different.

    If the government makes education free and fair for all and if the govt. try to create jobs for all, much of this confusion will be over. The government also need to slowly remove the mention of caste and religion from every application in this nation. Only then will this nation forget the caste.

    1. This is precisely the myth that I tried to address in this post. The cut off mark to pass a qualifying examination is same for all. No examination in India has separate pass marks for any category, at least as far as I know.

    2. It is not a myth but a reality. The cut off marks for SC/ST is lower than the general for qualifying exams and for admission to prof colleges.

      SC and ST students are also entitled to relaxation in respect of the upper age limit (generally 5 years) as well as concession of lower cut-off qualifying marks (5-10%).

    3. Sorry to say, you again missed the point. I said there is no separate cut off for qualifying in an examination. For admission, due to shortage of seats to meet the entire demand, usually there is a higher cut off for the qualified students and you are referring to that.

      Again, the article cited by you clearly shows the reservation by and large corresponds to the percentage of respective groups within the total population. Is it your case that SC or ST students are grabbing more seats than what would be their due share as per population ratio, had things been equal for all Indian citizens? If not, what is the complaint? Is it that so called upper castes are not able to grab the seats which should have otherwise gone to so called lower castes?!

    4. Mr. Jay there is the practice of different cut offs for different categories in India. For eg. Civil Service prelims. It was around 238 for general, 210 for OBC , and even lower for SC/ST

  2. Your point that it is sufficient if one clears the cut-off mark is simplistic especially when it comes to higher education.
    In this world, higher education is still more of a privilege that has to be earned and less of a right; more so in India, as ours is a land of limited opportunities.
    When 3 lakh students are competing for a few thousand seats in a reputed college, just clearing the cut-off pass percentage does not suffice. It is against the very idea of a fair competition.
    Disadvantaged castes and communities should be provided free and compulsory primary education so that they can get a fair chance of competing for the limited higher education/job opportunities.
    Another thing that I find unfair in the reservation system is that even Masters and PhD courses have reservations. A person who is appearing for such a course already holds a Bachelors and is already at a certain standing in society. He/She doesn't require any further push/help in the form of reservations.

  3. I guess I have already covered those aspect in the post.

    When a child from such under privileged circumstances manages to get the cut-off mark, that itself is proving his/her merit above those children born with silver spoons.

    There is nothing like fair competition even if we keep same cut off marks for all students coming from such diverse backgrounds. Apple to apple competition?

    Also, it is highly unrealistic to say that merely because a boy from scheduled caste manages to get a bachelors degree he or she acquires certain standing in the society. Fact of the matter is our deeply caste conscious society will not recognise him/her even when they achieve the top laurels.

    1. Mr. Jay I'm sorry to say your logic seems flawed to me. >>When a child from such under privileged circumstances manages to get the cut-off mark, that itself is proving his/her merit above those children born with silver spoons. In this argument you are making a sweeping statement ignoring the fact that non-reserved communities also have poor children. Not all FC children are from high income families. And even these not-rich FC students also fail to get in to good schools.

      And I think once bachelors degree is completed (for which govt is taking almost full amount for reserved candidates) only their academic record matters to get an admission for PG.

    2. Sorry to say this. FC people never undergone any social discrimination based on castes. They were never threatened in the history, that they should not have their own land and never faced economic suppression. If you read history you will know how SC/ST people were suppressed socially and economically. There is a long period of time sudras were never paid for the work they have done. They have to beg for food after working. Poverty is not the only factor for which reservation is implemented. Because one can become poor due to various reasons. I can understand your problem, because you are belong to a new generation. For a better nation a democratic approach is needed. I agree, there are some disadvantages in caste based reservation. Its very difficult to implement economic based reservation because most of the people never declare their real earnings to the government. There is not even proper billing systems in shops even today. In such a corrupted system it is difficult to identify the real poor.

  4. Are you saying that just by being born in a non-backward caste, one begets a silver spoon? If you are, you are grossly mistaken.

    And going by the same logic that you have put forth, even if a person of a backward caste gets a PhD, since he cannot let go of his low standing in society, reservations are not effective in eliminating the caste divide. If anything, they only widen the divide and cause resentment.