Reservation has its critics but it cannot be wished away



Admit it: Everybody loves a privilege but grudges the other’s quota. Be it getting seats at a restaurant or tickets at a counter, we all want to jump the queue and get preferential treatment for ourselves. One is all too familiar with the management quota in institutions of higher education. Similarly, call it what you will, the children of defence personnel get priority over civilian children in school admissions. Those who resent this exception invariably wonder: ‘Why should others have all the quotas?’

Hardik Patel is no exception. For Patel, quota or reservation breeds inequality – the very same evil that the 1980 Mandal Commission report seeks to eliminate in the first place. In principle, one can argue forever whether reservation is desirable. But in practice, is reservation avoidable? Perhaps not.

I do not know the provenance of the illustration (see picture) but I first came across it when a friend shared it on Twitter several months ago. I looked it up again over the past weekend and thought of sharing it here. The illustration is instructive in that it tries to explain the difference between inequality and inequity. The tallest boy shown in the illustration can do without a box to stand on in order to watch the match whereas the shortest boy would need not one but two boxes to stand on for him to be able to enjoy the game. Equality (as shown on the left) would dictate that all the boys shown in the illustration should get a box each. However, equity (as shown on the right) warrants that the shortest boy gets two boxes to stand on.

Now, in the context of reservation as it operates in contemporary India, if the tallest boy is either economically well off or from a forward caste, should he still feel a sense of entitlement in the name of equality? Would it not serve the interest of equity if that privilege were to go to the needy? There is yet another question: If the tallest boy were from a lower caste and has got there on the back of reservation, can/should s/he not consider forgoing the privilege so that others in need could benefit? This question of the creamy layer has not been satisfactorily resolved to this day. It would not be a bad idea for some to Give It Up, to borrow the Centre’s #GiveItUp slogan urging those who can afford to buy an LPG cylinder at market price to give up their subsidy.

A compelling argument can always be made for merit and meritocracy; that reservation perpetuates the caste system that we so want to see abolished; reservation can at best be a Band-Aid solution but it does not address the root cause/s of social injustice; and that in 2015, the aspirational youth of India seeks opportunity and enterprise, not freebies or doles. Some such as Hardik Patel argue for an economic criterion, not caste, to determine backwardness. To a certain extent, such views converge with those of Kaka Kalelkar, chairman of the First Backward Classes Commission. Although the Commission, which submitted its report in 1955, recommended reservation for backward classes, Kalelkar was circumspect. In his 30-page forwarding letter to the President of India, Kalelkar wrote that “backwardness could be tackled on a basis or number of bases other than that of caste”. Even the then government felt that it would be better to apply economic tests than to go by caste.

The Mandal Commission report sought to address the issue of merit versus reservation when it emphasised that the conscience of a civilised society and the dictates of social justice demand that merit and equality are not turned into a fetish and the element of privilege is duly recognised and discounted for when unequals are made to run the same race. As the report says, “There is equality only among equals. To equate unequals is to perpetuate inequality.”


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