Do We Ever Question Privilege While Demanding The Removal Of The Reservation System?

Posted on March 9, 2016

By Sarosh Ali:

Medical students carry placards as they participate in a protest rally in the southern Indian city of Bangalore May 14, 2006. Emergency services were hit in some New Delhi hospitals on Sunday as junior doctors and medical students went on a strike to protest against a government move to reserve more college places for the underprivileged in India. REUTERS/Jagadeesh nv - RTR1DD82
Image credit: Reuters/Jagadeesh Nv.

Reservations have recently come into the news in the context of jobs in the private sector. Also, the recent events of certain affluent social groups like Patidars’ and Jats’ vocal and violent forays into the cauldron of caste-based reservation is indicative of the paradox in electoral politics. In the context of the private sector, there is again an impasse between merit vs. accessibility to opportunities. It’s negation by the unchecked agitation by a comparatively wealthy community diffuses the principle. The first is deemed more malicious by the vote bank politics of the second. Reservations are broad brushed and generally seen as a major impediment to ‘development’.

This essay, however, will not address the politics behind the standoff. This will rather try to rationalise the popular discourse, as it is dominantly posed as a moral dilemma of our times in the public space.


Let us begin with the demographics of India, as seen from the caste perspective. India has 41.1% people in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, 30.8% in the ‘General’ category, 19.7% in Scheduled Castes category and 8.5% in Scheduled Tribes category as per the 2011 Census. This includes all religions and ethnicities. The central government reservation percentage for these categories is 27% for the OBC, 50% for General, 15% for the SC and 7.5% for the ST. So, we see that three of the sections are deprived of opportunities at the cost of the remaining section in a demographic sense.

Further, there is no such regulation in the private sector, domestic credits to which have risen to more than 50% of Indian GDP and which grows by using natural and human resources from within India. An objection to this might be that the General category is not a reserved category as candidates from the other categories are eligible even for this category. One reason why I still maintain my argument is the fact that General category vacancies and seats almost invariably get filled up, whereas there is always a backlog in vacancies the reserved category due to qualification criteria (even after further relaxation). A person belonging to the reserved section, who is also eligible for general seats, will still get a better opportunity in his/her own category. And so the spillover effect, I feel, would be negligible. I cannot validate this with facts due to lack of data and would be indebted to anybody who could fill this gap.

In my opinion, with a more equitable distribution of opportunities, if even the general category is frozen (of course, with reservations applying to all opportunities, both public and private, and at all levels) it may lead to a fairer and more equal society. I know this may sound a little quixotic, but just saying. So what is the logic based on which I am justifying this unnatural regulation that hampers the ‘free development’ of our country?

The Principle:

Let us first start with the assumption that all sections of people, on a statistical level, are equal in their merit and must also have equal rights to livelihood. Under the above assumption, if the society may be divided into various boxes or sections, there must be an equal distribution of opportunities among the boxes. There is a whole hierarchy of boxes in our society based on class, social status, caste, religion, ethnicities, gender and many more diversities. If every section has the right share of opportunities then things seem fair, at least from a human rights point of view.

In an equal society, there would be no need for regulating this. But historically, just after Independence, the distribution of livelihood was not equitable to start with, based on historical notions of all people not being equal with respect to the value attached to their lives.

Also, the economy was embracing a more modern form, which would make the backward even less equipped in coping with it. Further, the smaller boxes invariably shrunk more as compared to larger ones owing to various forms of exclusion from mainstream society and the sphere of learning and work. Processes that mediated this exclusion were the norms of forming relations, rights to the ecosystem, nepotism, cooperation within section based groups and demoralisation of the ‘inferior’ sections at places of education and at the workplace.

Well, if you look closely, these processes are regulations imposed on society at various points in history (though they may not look like it if we see it from a modern democratic perspective). It is not that this social structure maintains itself by virtue of its ‘naturalness’. It needs law making and enforcing mechanisms to sustain. I am not saying that we are to be blamed just by being born within a historical process. But when the law helps us inherit the yield of this historical process through better initial conditions and support, we perpetuate it. Wouldn’t it be better if all people of our generation started out equal? I am again going crazy with my ideas. But reservations are just regulations to deregulate this historical process. And the most it aims at, and that too in the absence of counterproductive forces, is an equal society.


Now let us analyse the two assumptions that led to the above logic. Firstly, is the inequality between the reserved sections and the ‘general’ section a present-day fact? There are many studies that show most of the backward section households in Indian villages fall in the lowest income bracket. For the upper-caste sections, household incomes are more distributed, though still concentrated in the first few higher income brackets. The average annual income for backwards castes is at least 30% lower than the upper castes. This is the story in villages where 70% of Indians live and where most people don’t rise much above mere subsistence.

Now, if there is significant backwardness among backward sections, then many of us may actually believe that they, in some way, lack merit. At least, this is what I feel is implied by the popular discourse on reservations. That, even if the situation is bad for them, they must live with it, for the nation to make giant strides, riding on the wave of the meritorious. Well, by this logic, shouldn’t all of our forefathers have made peace with their life’s conditions when the British Raj was making giant strides? Probably not, because the British treated us as unequal. They didn’t give us an equitable share because they thought (or at least, said) we ‘lacked merit’. Based on the bent of present day emulation and lure of the ‘West’, it is indicative that many of us might still feel that this is true.

But few would actually argue that the people of the West are superior to us or have more merit. And yet, within our country, we will push all history under the rug. And about merit, it is important to ask ourselves: is the system in which we work actually based on merit? Isn’t there a ubiquitous phenomenon of rising through the ranks by cosying up to our superiors? Isn’t there also a phenomenon of avoidance or transfer of work using politics as a means? In educational institutions, how dedicated are our students on average? Are our intentions, when we work or study, in any way aligned to anything other than personal interest? And if free market systems, taking care of the ‘development’, work best for all in the society, would there be any need for marketing and promotion or for that matter any form of wealth management? Wouldn’t it just sustain itself?

Creamy Layer:

Passing the merit-based argument, and even accepting that there must be room for some social justice, the discourse takes a technical turn. It is argued that even if we accept the overall logic of reservations there are some economic hierarchies within the reserved category which prevent those who most need it to benefit from reservations. There is also a concern that the ‘creamy layer’, by availing reservations multiple times, might increase disparity within a reserved section. Well, this argument sounds quite relevant to me. But, if I go back to the earlier logic, all we had done was allocate a proportionate space of opportunities to every super section. Of course, we didn’t do anything to reduce inequality within the section.

But, as I see it, even the general category is not immune to such an argument. Isn’t there a ‘creamy layer’ within the general category too? Aren’t there needy within this section who are also deprived of opportunities? This argument, rather than disregarding reservations, must lead us to more insights from within our society. We must also incorporate religion, gender, regional and other hierarchies within this argument. One way to go about this would be to assess every candidate by a statistically determined criteria based on the qualification required for a particular position, their education/experience based standing and where they stand in the hierarchy. A gradation across society for the index of the individual must be used.

Well, this may again be a little quixotic because this will require extensive surveys at the level of each individual which should be efficient and transparent and which seems a little difficult in India with already a lot of flaws in functioning of its administration (both public and private). But does this mean we have to go back to our feudal days, disregarding the present version of reservation? Or, to go a little further, can’t we have a little more extensive analysis of our society? Of course, with all this, there will be a big hue and cry about how the economy will just fall apart once everything comes under the purview of reservation.

I would just like to point out about the scams that have surfaced within the past decade. Has anyone ever seen scams of this scale in earlier days? These were corporate scams, a sector which is considered to be the most accountable and efficient in our country. So, it is not that at the highest economic scale everyone is all that professional. At the end of the day, the global economy benefits more from us than we from them. One can find that out just by comparing the per capita GDP-PPP (purchasing power parity) of India to a country, say, like China, with an even larger population, or Sri Lanka, with a much lower population. And when corruption trickles down right from the top, should we have so much of a moral problem with the fact that at least there are some provisions within the system for a more equitable distribution.


The holy grail of the whole logic is the idea of equality of opportunity and livelihood for every person. So, let us try to explore this principle and its relevance. If we restrict ourselves to the realm of ideas for this, then there will always be an impasse, and public discourse will always, or in general, go with the dominant culture. It is important to bring the inequality vs. equality debate to the table by appealing to the larger issues facing humanity.

We have grown as a species, and grown to a level where we now occupy almost all habitable parts of Earth. The resources that it can offer us are depleting one after another. Water, agricultural land, oil, coal and many more. What we had used for about 10,000 years, will be insufficient for the next 100 years. Thus, conservation of resources would be very necessary. Controlling population and consumption are some very important needs of the day, for which short-sighted ‘merit’ will be a major impediment. But let us not stray from the topic at hand. Given that all these conditions are kept the same, are resources conserved better in a more equal or more unequal society?

In India, the top 1% of people own more than 50% of the wealth. The average Indian earns around Rs. 7,000 per month. If we have an equal society, everyone earns Rs. 7,000 per month. It means if you have a family of four, then the family income is less than Rs. 30,000 per month. Do you think anybody could afford to buy cars and use them for day to day purposes? Further, will not the housing become more modest? Will anybody be able to afford luxuries such as air-conditioners or constantly changing smartphones etc.? The life of the bottom 99% (well!) is already worse than this (at least most of it).

Anyway, with an equal society, we will not have cars taking just one person over large distances, or electricity running in large houses for one single family, or water flushing toilets all the time, or wastage of food. Public transport will be the norm. There will be limits to the use of electricity, water and food produce. This lifestyle seems very uncomfortable to me too. But remember that a majority of Indians are doing worse than this. Of course, we may rely on cost-free resources offered by the ecosystem more than we do now, but it’s likely that lesser resources will be consumed despite that.

A little physics aside. This phenomenon should not be alien to someone who has studied science up to 10th standard. Whenever we try to maintain different pockets within a metal at unequal potentials, there is dissipation. Remember when a battery is connected to a jagged line called resistance, heat is produced (Joule heating)? Maintainance of wealth inequality is also a dissipative process. The dissipation is through systems of keeping wealth secure, large loans that are defaulted on, stocks that crash, fat salaries that just go for managing that wealth without actually producing anything and many more. And this dissipation also includes the carbon footprint, something the world will be increasingly concerned about in the days to come.

Now, when we stand at a comfortably high position on this steep ladder, instead of looking up, we look down, to get our share of rights. We don’t say anything when education subsidies are taken out from government institutions to make way for foreign-styled private colleges. We criticise reservations. Had the income of millionaires (made through cheap labour and subsidised resources) been taxed more to provide better education, health care, wages for the lower rung, we might already have started making progress. But we don’t complain because we see an oasis of opportunity within this system.

If one just pragmatically wants to get the most out of the system, it is understandable. But when morality is associated with it, the system fortifies by the submissive compliance of the lower sections. They lose their voice. Cultural dominance is more pervasive than mere dominance by force. The politics of reservations, coming up in recent times, might be very nasty. I accept that. But the battle will be lost if the principles are surrendered completely. There is no problem in the dissent that people express with regard to reservations. The problem is a conviction that tries to dominate.

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