Reservations in India: Social Justice vs Meritocracy

Social Justice vs Meritocracy Reservations in India

Social Justice vs Meritocracy Reservations in India

When our lawmakers were debating the draft of our Constitution way back in 1947, two issues were of paramount importance; one was ‘equality for all’ irrespective of religion or caste, and the other was to ensure social justice to those who were traditionally denied.

‘Untouchability’ was a major issue and the purpose of reservation was to give the backward classes an opportunity to access education and subsequently jobs, to bridge the gap with the remaining classes. That was the basic purpose behind offering reservation. It must be noted here that the initial tenure of the reservation was for a limited time only. This was repeatedly extended by successive governments but was more a consequence of politics than true affirmative action.

This is borne out by the fact that beyond offering basic reservation, very little was done for the upliftment of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes. It’s been 68 years since Independence and we still have large pockets of communities that have very little access to ‘quality’ education and therefore have very little chance to compete with other privileged sections to improve their economic status.

Over the years, several constitutional amendments have been made to protect the weaker and underprivileged sections but have failed to bring about the desired results.

18 Constitutional Amendments have been introduced since Independence aimed at protecting the SC/ST/OBC categories:

Article 364 – 5 January 1960: Extended the period of reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies till 1970.

Article 330, 332, 333, and 334 – 23 January 1970: Discontinued reservation of seats for the Scheduled Tribes in Nagaland, both in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assembly and stipulated that not more than one Anglo-Indian could be nominated by the Governor to any State Legislative Assembly. Extend reservation for SC/ST and Anglo Indian members in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies for another ten years, i.e. up to 1980.

Article 334 – 25 January 1980: Extend reservation for SC / ST and nomination of Anglo Indian members in Parliament and State Assemblies for another ten years i.e. up to 1990.

Article 330 and 332 – 16 June 1986: Provide reservation to Scheduled Tribes in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assemblies.

Article 332 – 21 September 1987: Provide reservation to Scheduled Tribes in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assemblies.

Article 334 – 20 Dec 1989: Extend reservation for SC / ST and nomination of Anglo Indian members in Parliament and State Assemblies for another ten years i.e. up to 2000.

Article 338 – 12 March 1990: National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes formed and its statutory powers specified in the Constitution.

Article 332 – 5 December 1992: Provide reservation to Scheduled Tribes in Tripura State Legislative Assembly.

Schedule 9 – 31 August 1994: Enable continuance of 69% reservation in Tamil Nadu by including the relevant Tamil Nadu Act under 9th Schedule of the constitution.

Article 16 – 17 June 1995: A technical amendment to protect reservation to SC/ST Employees in promotions.

Article 334 – 25 January 2000: Extend reservation for SC / ST and nomination of Anglo Indian members in Parliament and State Assemblies for another ten years i.e. up to 2010.

Article 16 – 9 June 2000: Protect SC / ST reservation in filling backlog of vacancies.

Article 335 – 8 September 2000: Permit relaxation of qualifying marks and other criteria in reservation in promotion for SC / ST candidates.
Article 243M – 8 September 2000: Exempt Arunachal Pradesh from reservation for Scheduled Castes in Panchayati Raj institutions.

Article 16 – 4 January 2002: A technical amendment to protect Consequential seniority in case of promotions of SC/ST Employees.
Article 338 – Insertion of Article 338A, 28 September 2003: The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was bifurcated into The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

Article 15 – 20 January 2006: To enable provision of reservation (27%) for other backward classes (O.B.C.) in government as well as private educational institutions.

Article 334 – 25 January 2010: To extend the reservation of seats for SCs and STs in the Lok Sabha and states assemblies from sixty to seventy years.

Have reservations for SC/ST/OBC categories really made a difference?

Before answering this question one must understand the reasoning behind reservations. At the time of India’s independence, untouchability against Scheduled Castes was a major problem that had existed for centuries. The practice of untouchability accompanied social exclusion for the community and they continued to exist in isolation from other classes.

The lawmakers while debating the Constitution wanted to correct this evil by creating a provision to address this social and economic gap. A close study of the Constitution Articles 14, 15(1), 15 (2), 15 (3), 16 (1), and 16 (2) reveals that the basic objective was ‘equality for all’ on the basis of ‘non-discrimination’. The word ‘caste’ was completely avoided from any reference, however, there was a provision in Article 16 (4) to provide for reservation in favour of backward 5 classes – “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward 5 class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State”.

But then again Article 16(1) states “There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State”.

There is an inherent contradiction in the Constitution which on one hand offers ‘equality for all’ without discrimination, while on the other, offers ‘reservation in jobs’ for the backward classes. Article 16(1) speaks of ‘equality of opportunity’ for all, without any discrimination on the basis of caste. However, with time all political parties have exploited this to interpret ‘caste’ based reservation.

Another aspect of the original Constitution draft was that at the time of framing it, the concept of reservation was time bound. This has been systematically extended by political parties with an eye on electoral politics. The objective was that the government would extend special attention to education and infrastructure to enable the backward classes to bridge the knowledge gap and therefore, the social and economic gap with the rest. This unfortunately did not happen and 68 years after independence, India is far from achieving this goal.

The reality today

The Constitution was written to prevent discrimination of any kind with ‘equal opportunity for all’ to improve social, economic and political development. However, what we see today is a perverse interpretation of what comprises SC/ST and OBC classes. All communities are now fighting to be included into one of the above categories

No one will dispute that the first step to remove backwardness and poverty for ALL classes is ‘education’. The next is ‘opportunity’. Let’s take education first. Today, any school in an urban city that is providing good quality education has students from ALL communities. They all have equal opportunity to study and learn, irrespective of their family’s economic status.

On completing school, they all have the same opportunity to sit for a competitive exam for higher education and the marks earned by each student is ‘independent’ of their caste, religion or social status. The best of them get selected and now they begin to compete through their years of education in their institution. At the end of their term, the best of them get the best employment opportunity, again, it is ‘independent’ of their caste, religion or economic status.

While we are on the subject of education and staying with the above example, how does ‘caste’ based reservation come into this equation? And where is the need for it? One can understand if a student from an economically weaker section who is qualified but cannot afford the fees of say a good school or college, but this can be easily addressed by financial scholarships or loans, so where does ‘reservation’ come into play as a birth right?

And if reservation must be given based on ‘affirmative action’, why should it be extended through the entire period of education. For the sake of argument, if a student is given admission through reservation, that’s the ‘opportunity’ for him and beyond that, his knowledge, interest and aptitude must determine how he fares till the time he passes out. Why must the student be offered lower marks than others as a qualifying benchmark?

That said, the problem lies not in education not being extended to weaker sections but the ‘quality’ of education being extended to weaker sections. Today, the gap in quality of education imparted in some of the best schools and those in semi-urban and rural areas is wide and therefore this creates an ‘unequal’ opportunity rather than an ‘equal’ opportunity. This is about urban-rural divide and not a ‘class’ divide issue. State governments get away by quoting mere numbers of schools, students and teachers without any metrics that reflect on quality. And this is prevalent across states.

The poor quality of educational infrastructure, especially in government run institutions in the state, has been a major hindrance to the overall socio-economic development and opportunity for its people. Education is a state subject and therefore, all states must take the blame for the poor state of education in schools and colleges. Besides, poor quality of education delivered through poorly trained teachers, ‘language’ remains a major barrier even after 68 years of independence.

Thanks to electoral priorities and chauvinism, all states have promoted their own languages as the medium of instruction, as a result, today’s generation struggles to communicate when they travel outside their respective states and reduces their chance for employment. Take the case of A.P and Telangana. Between the two states, there are over 400 engineering colleges. These churn out large numbers of engineers each year. Ask top recruiters from any company in any city and they will all confirm that ‘quality’ and ‘inability to communicate’ is the biggest drawback for most of these engineers. Now the list of engineers passing out is ‘independent’ of caste, as the problem is universal. This issue is not restricted to just these two states but applies to other states as well.

So, what should be the priority for the government – to have ‘reservation’ in educational institutions or to provide ‘good quality’ education’ across the state and available equally to all? The answer should be obvious.

The same logic extends to the job sector. Do we recruit based on ‘merit’ or do we recruit based on ‘reservation’? If the objective is to provide employment opportunity to the SC/ST/OBC categories, then the initial entry level recruitment should suffice. So why promotions thereafter should be reserved and not earned, based on merit?

It is this loophole that all communities are wanting to exploit for all times to come, irrespective of an individual’s economic status. How and why should an individual from one of the SC/ST/OBC category, who is well educated and comes from a well-to-do family, be granted reservation? Would Dr Ambedkar request reservation for self and family in today’s time? The answer is no. The solution lies not in ‘reservation’, which only divides society, but in providing ‘equal opportunity’ to all.


Therefore, it is absolutely imperative for the government, both central and those of states, to take responsibility and ensure that the quality of education imparted improves, in keeping with the demands of a modern society.

Everyone, without exception, must have easy access to free or low cost education. And based on his or her qualification, interest and aptitude, compete with the rest on ‘equal terms’ for a career ahead. This must be the goal and not ‘caste’ or ‘community’ based reservation, into perpetuity. The Constitution provides for ‘equal opportunity for all’ and we all have a responsibility to safeguard this. It is time for all of us to revisit the need for reservation, which is now being subject to misuse.