The Hardik Patel-led agitation demanding the inclusion of Patels among the OBCs has once again focused the country’s attention on the injustice inherent in the caste-based reservation system. The Gujjars and the Jats have been demanding this for long. In September, Vice President Hamid Ansari said that Muslims, too, have been inadequately represented in the reserved categories. The aspirational youth of several such groups feel cheated when they miss out on educational admissions or jobs to someone less qualified. Reservations always raise the issue of fairness. Those left out feel that reservations for persons belonging to the SCs, STs and OBCs are unfair. The Supreme Court has observed that reservations cannot be based on caste alone. The apex court has not spelt out what the option should be. Here, I suggest an alternative to caste-based reservations that benefits the truly disadvantaged and is constitutionally fair, without destroying the incentive to do one’s best. This alternative will be self-liquidating and would be acceptable to all concerned.
By and large, at the time of Independence, we had a consensus that we needed to take special measures to help the SCs and STs to overcome their disadvantages arising from centuries of discrimination. Later, the scope of reservations was expanded to include the OBCs as well. To be sure, reservations have benefited people belonging to the reserved categories.
But as the proportion of reserved seats went up, so did the resentment against them. This has been made worse by the so-called creamy-layer syndrome. It is held that the benefits from reservations have been cornered by the creamy layer, or the relatively well-off among the reserved categories. As such, it has been argued that the children of people who have already benefited from reservations should not be considered for reservations since they are no longer disadvantaged. On the other hand, as Babu Jagjivan Ram, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste and was a Union minister for more than 30 years, observed, even people belonging to the creamy layer suffer discrimination.
Moreover, the rest look down upon a person who receives an admission or a promotion because of reservations. In this context, it is also true that reservations reduce the motivation to do one’s best in a job or an examination.
For an alternative, we can safely assume that all Indians have the same genetic background and have the same potential, apart from the statistical variation one would find in any group. One’s performance in an exam is a function of what one has achieved and achievements depend on potential and nurture. That is why many countries try to base their admissions on some kind of IQ test. Such tests try to measure the innate intelligence of an individual. However, these tests are not completely free of nurture or background bias. Through practice and preparation one can improve one’s performance up to a certain level in such tests.
If we have admissions based on a merit list adjusted, in a transparent manner, for differences in nurture, to reflect the true potential of a candidate, then it would be seen as a fair system. The question is: How to measure potential in a way that accounts for differences in one’s background and nurture?
The potential can be measured as follows: We can take the secondary school leaving examination at the state level as the starting point. These examinations are taken by lakhs of students. We can then take the average of each sub-group. The sub-groups may differ on various counts. For instance, one sub-group could be of students from the Scheduled Castes, with illiterate parents, poor economic and rural background. Another sub-group could include students from the general category, with educated parents, rich economic and urban background.
We can differentiate between several such groups. Then we can take the difference between the average of the highest average-scoring sub-group and the average of a particular sub-group and then add that difference as a nurture handicap to the marks of all those who belong to that particular sub-group. Admissions done in this manner would be strictly on merit. Of course, the handicaps will be updated every three years.
Such a system has many advantages. It will not destroy the incentive to work hard among the people from disadvantaged groups. A bright student will increase her chances of getting admitted if she scores more. The creamy layer will automatically move up to another group with a lower handicap value and eventually, over time, the handicaps will disappear. This will also be consistent with the Constitution in terms of fairness.
Note that the proposed system would take care of economic backwardness as well. It would thus obviate the desire in any caste group to be brought under reservation. In fact, in this system, there is no need to allocate reservation quotas. Any group that feels it is disadvantaged can be considered a separate group. Of course, one might have to impose restrictions that a separate category requires at least a certain number of students, say 1,000.
This system can be used for all educational admissions, or even entry-level jobs, which are based on a common admission test. If the basic premise of the system — that the people selected are the ones with the best potential for achievement — were correct, there would not be any need for reservations in promotions.
It’s worth emphasising that the system is self-liquidating. Once we have provided equal opportunities to all groups, and as backward groups make progress, the differences in the average marks obtained will decrease and eventually disappear. Of course, that is what troubles the people belonging to the creamy layer. A couple of years ago, such a scheme was proposed for admission to a new institution being set up by the government. However, it was rejected because it would eliminate reservations.
The writer is chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development, and former member of the Planning Commission