Affirmative action: Do we need a pair of new scissors?



Affirmative action:  Do we need a new scissors?


Recent agitation by the young leaders of one of the most affluent communities in  Gujarat has revived the debate about affirmative action and the need for sharpening our tools.  To cut this problem differently, maybe we need a new scissors of different criteria and indicators.


There are several challenges that we need to address.  Opportunities for those who have merit have to be expanded.  Likewise, the reservation  for those who have potential for performing better in future, given an opportunity, has to be continued but with new criteria.  One reason why many communities feel agitated about the current instruments for affirmative action is that we have restricted our focus primarily on reservation and no so much on capacity building.   There is also a popular feeling that after a while, the benefits of reservation are pocketed by the same group rather than bringing more and more disadvantaged people into the fold.  Maybe, the creamy layer needs to be defined more sharply and precisely.   There are several ways in which we can define the problem.


a.       Government should provide more merit-cum-means scholarship to ensure that no talented young person is denied an opportunity for higher studies/progress in life.

b.      Private institutions, ironically, owned by the same community which is protesting do not provide any reservation or incentive to economically poor but brighter students.  The capitation fee for medical education in private colleges is far beyond the capacity of any ordinary middle class person.  There is no reason why the private colleges should not be persuaded and/or constrained to provide special incentive or scholarships to deserving economically poor students.

c.       It is well known that the dropouts after the tenth or the twelfth class include predominantly the children from backward socio cultural backgrounds.  Such dropouts would not be in the bidding for higher education.   It should be ensured that no deserving student in the country remains deprived of opportunities for higher education because of financial condition.

d.      The reservation for the RICH  on account of their ability to pay extra money in private institutions somehow has not received adequate attention of the youth from higher castes. I do not recall any agitation for elimination of reservation for the children of the rich. Even during agitation against Mandal commission reports, no body argued for abolition of reservation for the rich.

e.      The benefit of the reservation to non-creamy layer should be restricted only for one generation for those who join class one and two jobs, two generations for class three jobs and three generations for class four jobs.   Eventually everybody who is benefited from reservation must contribute to a national fund for helping the poor meritorious students so that social amity increases.  The reservation in the promotion should also be allowed only for class three and four jobs and for should be done away with class one and two positions.


We have both the kinds of examples – one, where students admitted on lower cut of points are able to cope with and make up their inadequacy within a year.  But we also have cases as it happened in one of the IITs where among those students who were unable to meet up minimum academic requirements, the majority were from socio-economically backward communities.  The implication is clear that we are not investing in capacity building as much as in managing race among the unequals.  If every institution of excellence runs one year preparatory programme for four times the number they need from the reserved category, it is quite likely that the difference between the minimum cut off points for reserved and unreserved category will become extremely low, if not zero.  A preparatory programme, then, would serve two purposes.  The pool of students in the top institutions would be of similar academic merit and a large number who cannot make to the top institutions may easily make it to second tier of institutions.  During the debate in my class recently, there was a consensus that students from communities which have historically suffered should get fair opportunities in life.  There were students who favoured it on the ground of diversity, social justice and bringing in multiple perspectives enriching the learning of everybody.  However, it was clear that socialization of many of the students with disadvantaged background does not take place with other students as much as it should.  Their reflexes take time to develop. Their social network also takes time to develop, something other communities take it for granted.  Affirmative action, most students felt, should not be restricted to reservation.  When elite institutions implemented the OBC quota, they all expanded the total seats to accommodate additional students. The students of general category didn’t lose the number of seats that they had.  Expansion of capacities in existing institutions through multiple campuses and larger classrooms should be a priority for the government.


There is a need to set up a national commission to study the whole issue of education for the economically poor and other deserving groups.  One should identify the nature of the problem so that it can be solved adequately and urgently.  Unlike engineering education, where supply exceeds the demand, in medical education, the situation is otherwise.  It is here that the youth feel more agitated.  But this is also a subject where private institutions set up by the same community members contribute practically nothing to help the economically poor students from unreserved categories.  Having five percent reservation for extremely economically poor students would be worthwhile, provided it is restricted to lower income deciles. There are not too many government jobs and therefore agitation for reservation for affluent communities may be a ruse for abolition of all reservations.  The role of social justice requires that continued discrimination against scheduled castes and many other communities must be overcome through a massive educational and socialization movement.  The social tolerance for such discrimination has not gone down significantly enough.  However, it has been proved that with capacity building efforts among the SC/ST categories, there is no more a problem of finding adequate number of candidates.  Country has been ruled primarily by people from privileged communities.  Perhaps when the leadership from less privileged background takes charge of the institutions, it will be easier for people to see the difference.  After all the only period in Indian history which is called the golden period of governance around 2000 years ago was the time when Shudra kings ruled India.   Many states have witnessed much better socio-economic indicators because of more pluralistic leadership.  If we look at the regions which have lowest infant malnutrition and better woman and child indicators, we will get our answers unambiguously.  Let us hope that the debate on affirmative action will not remain restricted to reservation and will include arguments for more capacity building, more diversity including for women and more openness to understand multiple sources and manifestation of merit.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place


  1. Animesh Patra

    It is pity that the policy which should have borne results within 20 yrs from independence has become an ecosystem for political muscle flexing. The seed sown by Ramsay Macdonald should have been harvested long time ago for greater good. Even the GODs here has kept aside a reserved time/viewership for the affluent(wealthy, Politicians, Administrators) class- EAST,WEST, NORTH, SOUTH, it is prevalent everywhere. Abolishing caste/reservation system is not just sufficient but to re-educate the mass in an eco-system where they can take pride in being equal and devoid of any caste can probably solve this problem from both the end(rich and poor). It may take time but as the Abbé Sieyès said “…because at the end this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World like the Third Estate, wants to become something too”.
    The prevailing reservation system may have helped in economic well-being of certain number of dalits and backward class out of their enormous number but have miserably failed in their social upliftment.

  2. Jeff Romm

    Thanks for this note, Anil. The protests in Gujarat have surprised me, although I see similar sources of motivation in this part of the world. Here, the better-off do not realize how advantaged they are, seeing instead the advantages of those above them. Needs for equality drive the privileged toward the examples of those who are even more so. There is a remarkable lack of awareness of the depths of suffering they need not see. If the state is not strong about this, private interest will merely sharpen inequalities. My state is strong about this, but still far from being strong enough to create equal opportunities for equal potentials.

    In my experience here, exam results, which often reflect access to privileged attention, are poor predictors of potential. Students who come with weaker educational backgrounds can make up the difference within six months to a year if given the slightest feedback. Because they are hungrier, less complacent, more dedicated, they often emerge at the top of their classes by the time of graduation.

    As to your situation, the differences in opportunity are so vast that I cannot imagine a legitimate argument for reduced state commitment to equalization. India’s Constitutional protections have deep respect elsewhere, a heroic dimension that perhaps is hard to see in the midst of home. Those protections reflect appreciation for the overpowering nature of the problems they address.

    All best wishes.


    • our struggles for secular space are becoming tougher but ultimately discourse will change from caste and communal agenda to development no matter how fractious