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The System of Reservation – Boon or a Bane

“The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” This is an excerpt from the Indian constitution on the basis of which the Reservation system in India was formed. This article will speak about the genesis, need and today’s requirement of the caste-based reservation system in India following the opinion of the author. This work will address the question about the rightfulness of this action to ensure equality. It is to be noted that the article talks mainly about reservation in the field of education. Hence, reservation in general is synonymous to reservation in education.

Quite inadvertently, dominance has been the means of economic stratification and thus the survival of man from time immemorial. The roots of discrimination in India runs so deep that it has to be neutralized with actions that further have the ability to divide the country. The reservation system is an affirmative action taken by the Government of India to uplift the group of people who are deprived of the opportunities enjoyed by the upper echelons of the hierarchy. The history can be traced down to the introduction of special provisions granted by the British Government to backward classes. The entry of a scheduled caste person into an educational institution in the country was recorded in the year 1856. (Chalam,KS, 1990).³ This incident attracted the British government to formulate a policy to reduce discrimination in schools. With the enactment of the Caste Disabilities Act, the policy further gained prominence. This later turned into the caste-based reservation system in India.

The high correlation between the monetary status and the position of the members of the caste in the hierarchy necessitates the reservations. The ‘lower’ castes as termed by the society were poorer monetarily while the upper castes were rich. Their traditionally riveted occupations confined them to the same line of conditions trapping them in a vicious cycle. The importance of education and its effect on the economy will be known to a child only when it is emphasized by their guardians. When their parents cannot provide that emphasis, the child gets trapped in the cycle. To bring one out of this perpetual succession, many mechanisms incentivizing people to pursue education were implemented. One such action is the system of reservation. It is one of the workable methods though not perfect to ensure equality in opportunities. It is important to understand that reservation is based on caste rather than any other criteria, because large sections of lower castes were financially insecure. Had it been a case of differential financial positions of people belonging to the same caste, the reservations would have had another criterion. Hence, it can be said that the notion is not to divide the country on the basis of caste but to correct the disproportionate representation.

Even today, the inequality in income persists. Here are some statistics. According to a report published by UNDP (Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, 2018),⁴ every second person belonging to scheduled tribe and every third person belonging to scheduled caste remains poor. The same report covered and compared during a time frame of 10 years ending 2015-16 reveals that the ‘upper castes’ of the society fare far better on the weighted deprivation score. Only 15% of the upper castes are found to be poor. The access to education and the circumstances that may create a motivation to educate oneself is extremely low for the backward castes. This model if implemented rightly will not only increase the educated population but will also put poverty under check. From a long-term perspective, increased educational opportunities will result in higher exposure to employment, especially in the formal sector leading to a reduction in poverty.

This now boils down to the question about the ability of the model to achieve what it intends to achieve. Every coin has two sides. Similarly, this system has a number of loopholes which can be easily exploited. There are few questions that need to be addressed, if equality is the ultimate goal of this structure.

- The same report (Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, 2018), which revealed that 50% of people from Scheduled Caste (SC) are poor, and it also reveals that 15% of the upper caste individuals are poor. The top 10% of individuals from the upper caste hold 60% of the entire wealth of this class. With the passage of time, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is agreeable that access to educational opportunities go hand in hand with the financial position of a family. If a portion of the upper castes are also poor, what assurance is given to them to ensure equality in their opportunities?

- Among individuals from Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) too, the top 10% had accumulated the most wealth. Their wealth has increased with time. Between 2005 and 2012, more people among the deprived social class were brought above the poverty line. This is a good sign, but it also suggests that all the constituents belonging to the underprivileged castes are not in a grave need for the system of reservation in education. Since the option of reservation is open to everyone belonging to the backward caste, there are fair chances of exploitation. People from the backward class who have a sound financial background can take advantage of the existing reservation. It becomes unfair to the people who truly deserve to reap the benefits of reservation. Leave alone the poor people of the upper classes, it is unfair to the poor of the backward class who are in dire need of opportunities.

- It is taking away the opportunities of meritorious students of unreserved class. It instills a sense of ease in the minds of students from the reserved category. They can get lower marks and still get into a world class institution. This may lead to a direction which is not intentional wherein students from the reserved class would not work so hard. Exploitation in this way is possible and is true.

That being said, it is true that any institutional framework cannot be perfect and there has to be some tradeoff. Hence, India takes chances with the exploitation since the potential benefits and progression towards equality derived from the structure outpowers the exploitative disadvantages. There are possible measures using which the system can be made more effective. The criteria for reservation can also be based on the financial condition of a person. This prevents a well-off backward class family from enjoying their inadvertent privilege. This also gives an opportunity of education to the poor of the general class. A creamy layer distinction in reservation should be strongly accentuated. Reservations should not be eliminated as the income inequality and resultant gap in the opportunities of education is largely persisting. A step towards the same is the introduction of reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) entitled to the poor of unreserved category. It is just a matter of perfecting the execution of the system more than eliminating it.

In conclusion, the reservation system in India is a boon and is certainly a step towards equality. It is an effective way to battle oppression. Nonetheless, the mechanism needs refinement to remove the exploitative loopholes. India should move in the direction of achieving equality by gradually removing the traces of caste in determining educational opportunities.

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