Reservation; Is it fair to all?

Reservation is a fiend that is present in the Indian system for ages now. Right from the education sector till jobs and recruitment, reservation is everywhere. In simple terms, reservation in India is all about reserving access to seats in the government jobs, educational institutions, and even legislatures to certain sections of the population.

Also known as affirmative action, the reservation can also be seen as positive discrimination. Reservation in India is a government policy, backed by the Indian Constitution (through various amendments).

What is the principle of reservation in India?

The two main motives to provide reservation as per the Constitution of India are:

1.   Advancement of Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST) OR any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens (E.g.: OBC) OR economically weaker sections (EWS) – Article 15 (4), Article 15 (5), and Article 15 (6),

2.   Adequate representation of any backward class of citizens OR economically weaker sections (EWS) in the services under the State. – Article 16 (4) and Article 16 (6)

The extent of Reservation in India

In India, reservation is provided in:

1.   Government Educational Institutions (like IITs, IIMs etc.) – as per Article 15 – (4), (5), and (6)

2.   Government Jobs (like IAS, IPS etc.) – as per Article 16 – (4) and (6)

3.   Legislatures (Parliament, and State Legislature) – as per Article 334

Before 2019, the reservation was provided mainly based on social and educational backwardness (caste). However, after the 103rd constitutional amendment in 2019, economic backwardness is also considered.

Apart from the reservation quota, additional relaxations like upper-age relaxations, additional attempts, and lower cut-off marks are also provided for various reservation categories.

A vacancy reserved for SCs or STs or OBCs cannot be filled by a candidate other than an SC or ST or OBC candidate, as the case may be.

As seen from the above table, about 60% of seats are reserved in India – for various sections like ST, SC, OBC, and EWS – for Government jobs and Higher Education Institutions. 3% of seats are also reserved for differently-abled persons across all categories.

This also means that only 40% of seats are available under merit. In the merit seats, not only the general category candidates but all other categories like SC, ST, OBC, and EWS can also compete.

History of Reservation System in India – Rectifying the Historical Injustice

To an extent, reservation as a policy is pursued by the State to correct the historical injustice done to certain castes by the so-called “upper castes”. The caste system prevailed in India had alienated many “lower castes” from the mainstream – hindering their development. To a great extent, the repercussions are still felt.

Original Constitution of India has provided reservation only for quota in legislatures – that too only for 10 years until 1960 (article 334). Subsequent amendments to the constitution extended the period of reservation for quota in legislatures.

Provisions of reservations in Educational Institutions and Government Jobs – article 15(4) and Article 16 (4) – were too created employing Constitutional Amendments later. No period is given for the validity of the reservations mentioned in article 15(4) and Article 16(4).

The initial reservations were only for SC and ST [article 15(4) and Article 16(4)]. OBCs were included in the ambit of reservation in 1991 [Article 15(5)]. In 2019, Economically Weaker Sections are also included [article 15(6) and Article 16(6)].

SC/ST Reservation

The objective of providing reservations to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) in services is not only to give jobs to some persons belonging to these communities. It aims at empowering them and ensuring their participation in the decision-making process of the State.

Besides, the state is also keen to end practices such as untouchability.

Scheduled Castes (SC) are given 15% quota in jobs/higher educational institutions while Schedule Tribes (ST) is given 7.5% quota in jobs/higher educational institutions.

Reservation is provided not only concerning direct recruitment but also for promotions for SC/ST category (Article 16(4A)).

There is no concept of ‘creamy layer’ for SC/ST reservation. This means that irrespective of the income status or the government posts held by the parents, children of SC/ST parents will get SC/ST Reservation.

OBC Reservation

Reservation for Other Backwards Classes (OBC) was introduced based on the Mandal Commission Report (1991). The quota for OBCs is 27% in government jobs and higher educational institutions.

However, there is a concept of ‘creamy layer’ to the OBC reservation. Only those from OBC who comes under Non-Creamy Layer would get OBC reservation.

The creamy layer concept brings income and social status as parameters to exclude some of the privileged members of OBC from the extent of reservation. This concept also keeps a check to ensure that the benefits of reservation do not get extended to subsequent generations.

EWS Reservation

The Central Government of India recently introduced the EWS Reservation. 10% quota is provided for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among General Category candidates in government jobs and educational institutions. This is done by adding clauses for the same in the Indian Constitution (103rd Constitution Amendment Act, 2019).

Should India need reservation (now)?

The government must provide equality of status and opportunity in India.

Reservation is one of the tools against social oppression and injustice against certain classes. Otherwise known as affirmative action, reservation helps in uplifting backward classes.

However, reservation is just one of the methods for social upliftment. There are many other methods like providing scholarships, funds, coaching, and other welfare schemes.

The way the reservation is implemented and executed in India is largely governed by vote-bank politics.

Indian Constitution allowed reservation only for socially and educationally backward classes. However, in India, it became a caste-based reservation instead of class-based reservation.

Initially, the reservation was intended only for SC/ST communities – that too for 10 years (1951-1961). However, it got extended ever since. After the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990, the scope of the reservation was widened to include Other Backward Communities (OBCs).

The benefits of the reservation were successively enjoyed only by a few communities (or families), excluding the truly deserving ones. Even 70 years after independence, the demand for reservation has only increased.

Now, with the introduction of economic criteria for reservation, in addition to the caste-criteria which already existed, things have become more complicated.

Unequal’s should not be treated equally, but is reservation the only solution?

There is no doubt that unequal’s should not be treated equally. However, is the current system of unequal treatment perfect? Is it creating more injustice? Is it the only way out in a welfare-nation? It’s time to introspect.

Reservation based entirely on economic criteria is not an all-in-one solution, though family income can be one of the parameters. Also, it’s time to fix a period for the reservation system – rather than extending it to eternity.

Denying India, the service of the meritorious candidates, who see them being overtaken by others with lesser academic performance or brilliance, is also a crime and injustice.

Aren’t there any alternative mechanisms to uplift the marginalised so that everyone gets equal opportunities? How is affirmative action done in other countries?

A reform in the reservation system of India is the need of the hour. However, as the subject of reservation revolves around a lot of votes, parties are reluctant to disrupt the existing system.

 Implications of the Judgement of the Supreme Court:

  • After this judgement, the members of the SC and ST communities, as mentioned in the Presidential List under Article 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India, will be presumed to be backward on account of their castes.
  • Such communities will be given reservation in job promotions without the need of any data to act as a proof of their backwardness.

M Nagaraj vs Union of India, 2006: In this judgement, the Supreme Court ruled that if the state wishes to make a provision for reservation in promotions for SCs/STs, it must:

  • Collect quantifiable data showing backwardness of a particular class.
  • Prove inadequacy of representation of that class in public employment.
  • Prove that such a reservation in promotion would not affect the overall efficiency of public administration.

There is no second question that all castes/classes should be adequately represented in government services. However, which percentage can be called adequate – without compromising the merit or efficiency of the administration?

Is the current level of reservation adequate? Or is it less? Or has it already compromised the merit? What do you think?