This is the personal blog of Ritwik Agrawal. I was a student of mathematics at Hindu College (University of Delhi), an activist with the United Students group and a co-founder of the popular cricket games site PlanetCricket.net - the largest site of its kind in the world. I now blog at http://www.ritwikagrawal.com


Sunday, November 12, 2006

in focus: Reservations - Exploding the myths Part I

In this first part of my new series, I will focus on drawing the reader's attention to the main points of distinction between Reservations [as implemented in India, on the basis of caste] and Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action is a broader concept as compared to Reservation. In fact it can be cogently argued that reservation is just one form of providing Affirmative Action.

Marguita Sykes defines Affirmative Action as follows:
"Affirmative action, the set of public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate past and present discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. “ "

The actual phrase "affirmative action" was first used in President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Executive Order 11246 which requires federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

A comprehensive system of Affirmative Action, such as the one that is in place in the United States, concentrates on recognizing the various levels at which a person might be discriminated against in society - such as race, national origin, gender or economic conditions and then seeks to tackle all of the varied methods of exclusion working in society:

For eg: a poor black woman is usually thought of as socially more backward than a black woman who is from a middle class background. Hence, by demands of natural justice the former should benefit to a greater degree by affirmative action programmes. Also, a poor white American is socially disadvantaged inspite of the colour of his skin, and hence will receive certain benefits under the US Affirmative Action system notwithstanding that he is white.

Significantly, the American Model is based on the premise that standards of academic achievement and administrative efficiency cannot be compromised while providing for the cause of social justice - the focus is on bringing the underpriveleged to the same level as the other sections of society. The motto of prividing AA is "all things being equal, a candidate belonging to a historically deprived community will gain preference over a candidate not belonging to such a community". In this crucial element, caste-based reservations differ greatly from Affirmative Action, particularly from systems of AA in the United States. Having said that, let us now take a look at how Affirmative Action works in India [in the form of caste-based reservations].


The most prominent part of Affirmative Action policies in India has been the policy of extending caste-based reservations in government jobs and in government run and funded (and in some states even in privately administered) institutes of higher education. This is basically a "quota" or fixed percentages system - a certain portion of positions available in every course, discipline and in various government services are reserved for people who belong to historically "oppressed communities" or to communities which are not adequately represented in higher education and in white collar, high paying and/or powerful jobs.

The biggest problem that many have with a system of Affirmative Action based solely [or even largely] on reservation is that quota-based allocation of seats reduces efficiency by sacrificing "merit" or the requisite capibilites or professional training - reservation does not talk of providing preference to a person belonging to an oppressed or backward community over a non-backward candidate only when they are equally matched in all other factors of determining fitness for employment or admission("everything else being equal"); rather it talks about consciously lowering standards to satisfy the demands of "social justice".

Points of Difference

In summary, the main points of difference between AA as practiced in the United States [and several other countries] and reservations as implemented in India are as follows:

1. A comprehensive system of AA recognizes various factors of exclusion (race, sex, national origin, economic conditions etc) and seeks to tackle all such factors which might not allow an individual to achieve their true merit.
in contrast - reservation recognizes only caste as a factor of exclusion. Other things like gender are conveniently forgotten.
2. Standards of excellence and administrative efficiency are paramount under AA - candidates from historically deprived sections are first brought to the same competitive level as others through "outreach" programmes.
in contrast - a policy of caste-based reservation consciously seeks to devalue merit for the sake of "social justice"
3. Quotas and fixed percentages are squarely rejected under AA. Fixing quotas is banned in the US and the UK.
in contrast - caste-based quotas are the norm in India.
4. Each institute and organization is free to develop its own systems of AA. There is no central directive from the government, and thus no "one size fits all" approach to this critical issue. [For eg: Why should AA work identically in Delhi University having 150,000+ students and JNU with 5000 students ?]
in contrast - The central and state governments decide upon the extent and style of reservation for all institutes of higher learning under their control.

Selected Sources and References:
1. Harvard Medical School Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs
4. The Origins of Affirmative Action by Marguita Sykes
5. Department of Global Workforce and Diversity, International Business Machines [ibm]

TOMORROW: A look at how outreach programmes work in US universities, with the particular example of Harvard University.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a severe accident in march this year.Have been through four major surgeries,was in the I.C.U for about half a month.The doctors who treated me are on the same plane as the gods for me cos they saved my life.They worked hard to come this far in their carreers and their achievements are only due to their own brain and hard work.Now if i was treated by one who has gotten the degrees and the job in the hospital only because of reservation and not because of his/her aptitude or the ability to take the correct decisions,what might have happened.One wrong decision could've endangered my life.What my point is,that is it really morally and ethically correct to reserve a quota just based on the caste that the person belongs to,and not his ability?How can we justify this??
i think the better alternative would be encouraging the enhancement of the basic infrastructure and providing oppertunities to those who actually deserve it,even if it means creating extra means to cater to them,not straight away blindly landing them with responsibilities they are not capable of undertaking..

11/13/2006 8:17 PM  
Blogger Ritwik Agrawal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11/14/2006 10:04 PM  
Blogger Ritwik Agrawal said...

Nishant you cite a very relevant example from your personal life.I have two observations:
1.)I am completely in agreement with you about providing better means throught better infrastructure, scholarships etc. Reservation is a very top-down approach to problem solving - the government is not bothering with basic infrastructure like primary education & health, roads, electricity, clean drinking water, and an efficinet judicial system.
2. If the current policy on reservation is not suitably amended, the day is not far off when a doctor will cite that he is a "general category doctor" alongside his various degrees, thereby exposing reserved category professionals who've done well in their studies open to discrimination and humiliation.

11/14/2006 11:21 PM  
Blogger ishita said...

very concise and cogent argument. i concur whole heartedly with you on this argument.laudable indeed. cannot find any flaw that i can figure out to start the "blog wars". sad!
P.S. since i have commented upon all your blogs,i expect the favour to be returned!

11/15/2006 8:49 PM  
Blogger Ritwik Agrawal said...

The days of people doing something for their friends in a selfless manner are indeed in the past now ....

11/15/2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger ishita said...

hehehe agree. atleast on my behalf. tit for tat you know. lol

11/15/2006 9:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home