August 4, 2021 9:23:07 pm
Written by Yashwant Zagade
With the central government announcement of 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC), and 10 per cent for Economically Weak Section (EWS) reservation in medical and dental seats, there is a lament over the loss of merit. Voices against reservation have been growing louder since the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in the 1990s and 2006. In the current debate over reservation, most upper-caste commentators have conveniently missed out on analysing the EWS quota. In this background, it is important to understand the significance of the reservation policy and the status of OBCs in higher education.
OBCs comprise 52 per cent of India’s population and have historically suffered social and educational backwardness. It is a heterogeneous category that includes peasant, artisan, service castes, among others, as well as several nomadic tribes. The Mandal Commission report recognised “caste as the main factor” in the backwardness of the OBCs. Such deep-rooted structural inequalities necessitate affirmative action from the state. With Independence, SCs and STs got the benefit of reservation policy, while OBCs had to wait until 2008 for the implementation of reservations in higher education.
A Brahmanical social system denied the right to education to OBCs, like others, for two thousand years. As a result, the educational progress of OBCs is still low. As per the National Sample Survey of 2015, the proportion of OBCs in higher education is 35 per cent. By comparison, the percentage of students from the upper castes is 41 per cent and the proportion of SCs in higher education is 24 per cent. Of this, a mere 10 per cent OBCs are able to finish their PhDs. The proportion of upper castes is 15 per cent, whereas only 5 per cent SC/ST students are able to finish their PhDs.
A study conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2009 demonstrates that the all-India proportion of OBCs in medical education is 21 per cent, whereas that of SC/STs is 15 per cent. This abysmal representation is also reflected in academia. There are no OBC faculty members at the professor and associate professor levels in any of the 40 central universities.
The available evidence on educational inequalities in contemporary India shows that even after seven decades of independence, the number of OBCs in higher education is inadequate. The upper-caste domination specifically in the field of higher education is a reality. With the ameliorative measures for OBCs, the longstanding monopoly of the upper-caste and upper-class elite over these resources is now being challenged.
The main reason for this lack of representation of OBC students in the higher education sector is inadequate scholarships. At present, UGC provides only 300 scholarships annually to OBCs undertaking PhD in India. There are no overseas government scholarships for higher education available to OBC students. Only those students belonging to the non-creamy layer of the OBC category qualify for the reservation. Access to this is impeded by an additional family income cap for Rs 1.5 lakh per annum that has been imposed as an eligibility criterion for the post-matric scholarship. The availability of the scholarship amount and numbers is linked to budgetary provisions. Considering every second person in the country belongs to the OBC category, the present expenditure by the central government is paltry.
It is imperative that non-creamy layer OBC students studying in Indian universities get full scholarships by doing away with the annual family income ceiling. Considering the increasing number of PhD applicants who have secured admissions in the most prestigious universities and institutions, the number of awards must be significantly increased.
Poor socio-economic background of parents, acute lack of access to remedial coaching classes, and quality schools create hurdles in accessing higher education. Given improved opportunities for better quality education at the elementary and secondary level will certainly make children from OBC communities pursue higher education.
The BJP government at the Centre has portrayed itself as a representative of Bahujans by providing them space in several ministerial berths, while ignoring the long-standing demand of OBC enumeration in the upcoming decennial census. For oppressed communities, education is a crucial way forward to achieve socio-economic mobility in a caste-ridden society. It is the duty of the state to ensure access to good quality education to communities that have historically fallen through the cracks of a casteist education system.
Zagade is a PhD research scholar at TISS, Mumbai, studying post-Mandal OBC politics in Maharashtra. He would like to thank Nikita Sonavane for her support with this piece.