Is reservation an affirmative action?

Affirmative action and discriminatory measures are complex and controversial issues. The purpose of affirmative action is to speed up the establishment of a representative and unprejudiced workforce in addition to assist those who were in the past deprived by unfair discrimination to fulfil their highest potential. Reservations has encouraged an ongoing debate regarding the legal, moral and economic questions arising from the preferential treatment of certain groups of people in society. Underlying this debate are various concerns about the notion of reverse discrimination or unfairly disadvantaging individuals who bear no responsibility for past or present discrimination practised by others.

Caste has developed in India out of a system of many-layered social hierarchy that became a norm or way of life over several thousands of years. In the preamble to the Constitution of India, negative public discrimination on the basis of caste is forbidden. If the constitution strives for an egalitarian society with equal rights for everyone irrespective of caste, colour and creed, then the case of preferential treatment as evidenced in the policies of affirmative action may/will strike as a double standard. Due to this reason, in many countries affirmative action on the basis of race is deemed illegal but in India such is not the case.

India’s founding fathers had a good reason for putting asymmetry into the constitution. The inequality was so pervasive that it would’ve been absurd to say the law must treat everyone equally. Facial neutrality would’ve continued the structure of inequality. But permanently enshrining caste distinctions has created subclasses of privileged members of formerly disadvantaged castes. Communities or sections of communities who get listed as being permitted to benefit under reservation system are not removed from this list even if their social and political conditions improve. In many cases the legal system is involved in deciding if a certain person is entitled to reservation.

The problem with the caste-based reservation system is that the higher caste communities feel discriminated against by the government’s policy of reserving positions for the backward classes. A large number of members belonging to the higher castes contend for the small number of places reserved for them, while the members of the backward classes do not have to compete at all because of the large number of reserved places for them compared with the small number of candidates. This reservation system in favour of the backward classes seems to be leading to a situation of unfair reverse discrimination. The making of reservations as “compensatory discrimination” does not eradicate the caste system. This system of affirmative action was supposed to last only a decade — until 1960 — but, of course, nothing of the sort happened.

These reservations or quotas are there purely for political gain. Further, rather than leading India towards a “casteless” society, the policy of reservation and quotas have reinforced caste identities. The need really is to make the upliftment programmes more effective, instead of confining them to reservations alone. Other programmes should be followed, for example, programmes for special training and the development of skills, and measures to encourage the previously disadvantaged to pursue excellence should be taken up. Reservations or quotas alone can never be the answer.

The policies of affirmative action indirectly give rise to reverse discrimination. Resistance against affirmative action may also be validated if the perception that affirmative action does not take productivity and work standards into consideration. The compensatory discrimination limits commitments to merit. In order to fill quotas, candidates from the lower classes are accepted even though they are not suitably qualified. Sometimes some positions that are reserved remain unfulfilled as there are too few candidates from the lower classes to fill them. This causes tension between the castes. There are tensions over reservations between the lower castes as well.

The quota system is not a good system, and merely causes more resentment amongst the non-beneficiary groups. Further, there is ongoing pressure to increase the number of beneficiaries by adding more categories. This has created a situation that reservation is being used first and foremost to mobilise voting blocks, and has created hopelessness and antipathy among members of the younger age group, who feel that their opportunities are limited by their non-backward class status.

The reservation system in the present form needs to be reviewed and debated as it has failed to deliver in last six decades. A holistic, measurable, achievable affirmative action is needed to be evolved for the deprived section of the society to enable them to achieve their highest potential. Affirmative action needs to evolve in the direction of economic analysis. If quotas are to be used in India, they should be based on existing, persistent inequality, measured in terms of poverty and access to educational institutions.