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In 2008, Parliament passed the Central Educational Institutions (Reservations in Admissions) Amendment Bill, stipulating 27% reservation for OBCs in public-funded institutions of higher education. Since then, the question of whether the quota over- or under-represents the share of OBCs, and that of the inclusion of certain castes in OBC lists across states, have frequently arisen. The unsettled issue of eligibility has fuelled agitations by Jats in Rajasthan (the latest round was called off on June 24 after government assurances) and Haryana; Marathas, Patidars and Kapus, and led to interventions by courts.
And yet, there has been no in-depth assessment of the real efficacy of affirmative action in securing educational opportunities for society’s marginalised sections. A recent attempt by Rakesh Basant of IIM-Ahmedabad and Gitanjali Sen of Shiv Nadar University to evaluate the tangible impact of the 2008 law found that the participation rates of OBCs in higher education has increased, but this increase has not been commensurate with the increase in participation rates for the general population.
The authors tested two hypotheses: first, that enrolment of eligible OBCs in higher education would grow faster than that of the ‘general’ group; second, that the growth in OBC enrolment would be highest in states with the least history of affirmative action.
To test the first hypothesis, the study computed the differences in enrolment between the younger (18-23 yrs) and older (24-29 yrs) age groups for eligible OBCs, and compared this with the similar difference for the general group, with the expectation that the former would be greater. Data were sourced from the NSS 68th Round, consolidated in 2011-12. The younger age group thus reflected the section of the eligible OBCs impacted by the Bill, vis-à-vis the unaffected older group. Empirical analysis showed that the enrolment rate for eligible OBCs is still behind the general population.
According to the second hypothesis, eastern and north-eastern states, which have virtually no history of affirmative action, should exhibit a bigger margin between enrolment rates for OBCs versus the general population, due to the 2008 law. The study found that general enrolment rates overtook that of OBCs everywhere except the east; however, the margin for OBCs over the general population in the east was not statistically significant.
In an interview, Rakesh Basant, lead author of the study, discussed the way forward for education policy in India.
Why do you believe quotas have been ineffective in securing educational opportunities for OBCs?
As our paper says, the time elapsed between the implementation of quota and the time of analysis is quite short. The impact, if positive, may take time. The immediate impact can be on those who are eligible to go to college — those who have crossed the school threshold. Data show that if we consider the population in the relevant age cohort who are eligible to go to college, OBCs don’t have a deficit. In other words, those who are eligible are already going to college. In such a situation, one would not expect any impact of reservation on participation in higher education.
What are the implications of your findings for education policy?
The implications are somewhat similar for all marginalised groups. Data show that deficits in participation in higher education decline when we look at those cohorts of people who are eligible to go to college. If the marginalised do not have decent access to school education, they will not become eligible to go to college. Non-availability of school infrastructure is critical before affirmative action in higher education can become effective. The assumption that affirmative action will create the incentives for the marginalised to cross the school threshold in the absence of accessible school infrastructure is misplaced. The focus should probably shift to the supply side; access, both for school and higher education infrastructure, needs to be enhanced.
So, should the focus be on primary and secondary education, rather than on tertiary education?
Yes, that will enhance eligibility for higher education. At the same time, one needs to enhance availability of good quality higher education institutions.
You have suggested elsewhere a shift in the criterion for reservation from caste to parental education. Do you think that will help communities that face discrimination due to their socio-cultural identity?
I wish to emphasise that I am not sure if reservation is the most appropriate form of affirmative action. But if we wish to continue with this form of affirmative action, parental education is an alternative worth thinking about as it is relatively easier to measure, and is self-limiting. Parental education is quite low among marginalised caste/community groups. Moreover, such a focus, though not constitutionally valid today, will shift the political discourse in a different direction.
In light of the evidence, do you think the government should continue with OBC reservations in higher education?
That is for the government to decide. A large number of factors go into that decision. The limited analysis we have done suggests that the efficacy of such a policy would be quite limited if school infrastructure is not improved and other complementary inputs are not available to the marginalised to benefit from affirmative action.