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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Two stark options
- Reservations in Indian higher education reconsidered

The bill that will implement reservation of seats in government-aided educational institutions for the other backward castes has finally been placed before parliament. While there is still some uncertainty about the precise nature of the final piece of legislation, it seems certain that 27 per cent of seats will be reserved for the OBCs in almost all Centrally-aided educational institutions. Moreover, the full quota will be implemented in stages.

What is most depressing and unfortunate is that many participants, in the often acrimonious debate about the merits of reservation, seem completely ignorant of vital facts. For instance, what is the OBCs’ share in the Indian population' The answer to this crucial question seems to depend on who provides the answer. Proponents of reservation assert that OBCs constitute 52 per cent of the population. Those who oppose the bill state equally confidently that the non-Muslim OBCs are only 32 per cent of the population. Since Indian Muslims are roughly 12 per cent of the population, at least one side is wrong. But what neither side ever acknowledges is that all these quantitative estimates are, at best, based on informed guesses.

The Census, the most authoritative source of data on population, currently divides the population into only three categories: Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/ Everyone else (“Others”). An alternative categorization is based on religion. In fact, the last Census that reported any information on individual jatis (castes) was seven-and-a-half decades ago in 1931. The National Sample Survey and the National Family Health Survey are other alternative sources of information. Unfortunately, both are sample surveys, and each has its own in-built biases.

Of course, there is an important reason why the relative share of OBCs in the national population does not really matter as far as the current reservation debate is concerned. Presumably, even the most vocal supporters of affirmative action will concede that no one can be granted admission to colleges unless they have passed the Class XII examinations. So what is important is the number of OBCs who pass Class XII and thus make themselves eligible for college education. Since there is discrimination against OBCs in school education, the proportion of OBCs in higher secondary schools is significantly lower than their share in the Indian population. An appropriate indicator of discrimination in higher education is to actually compare the number of students gaining admission to colleges as a ratio of the number of students who have passed Class XII, across different castes. This measure of discrimination will reveal a significantly lower (though still positive) level of discrimination against OBCs.

No one can deny the desirability of affirmative action in favour of groups who have been underprivileged for long periods of time. But, there is no logical contradiction in supporting affirmative action but opposing reservation in higher education. After all, reservation may not be the best form of affirmative action. And there are several reasons for believing this. First, reservation of the proposed magnitude has a high cost in terms of its adverse effect on the quality of education. Second, the amount of additional jobs created for OBCs owing to reservation may actually be quite small. Finally, there may be other less socially disruptive ways in which additional jobs can be created for the OBCs.

Consider, for instance, the effect of reservation on the quality of education. The government has stated that the additional flow of OBC students will be accommodated by increasing the number of seats rather than by cutting into the current share of non-OBC students. The increasing number of eligible students who are currently denied admission into colleges and universities of their choice obviously suggests that at least the better colleges have already accommodated as many students as they possibly can. These colleges are constrained both by their existing physical infrastructure, as well as by the number of teachers on their faculty.

At least in the foreseeable future, it is impossible to increase the number of classrooms in our crowded cities. Neither is there a pool of qualified unemployed persons seeking to enter the teaching profession. So, the inevitable consequence of the government’s decision is that virtually the same set of existing teachers will have to cope with significantly larger numbers of students in their classrooms. No teacher (and our prime minister was once on the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics) can seriously claim that this will not have grave consequences on higher education in India.

Once the full quota has been implemented after three years, the number of students admitted through reservation (including that for SC\ST) will be 49.5 per cent. The vast majority of such students will fall below the “cut-offs” imposed for students seeking admission for the non-reserved seats. When every second student in a class fails to qualify on the basis of merit, the average quality of students plummets below acceptable levels. The system as a whole will then have two stark options. The level of lectures and examinations can be maintained at existing standards, resulting in huge numbers of students dropping out of the system because they cannot cope. This obviously entails huge private and social costs. Alternatively, the value of a university degree can be grossly brought down by ensuring that most students pass.

It is also debatable whether reservation per se will actually have a significant effect on the number of jobs created for OBCs. For a wide spectrum of jobs, general undergraduate education does not really provide any specific skills that make recipients more productive. Thus, there is no intrinsic reason for employers to prefer a graduate over, say, someone who has only been educated up to Class XII. This is not to deny that a Bachelor’s degree is often specified to be an essential qualification for many jobs. Employers typically receive a huge number of applications for a limited number of jobs, and so they have to use some rationing device to reduce the number of applicants. A university degree serves this purpose just as well as, for instance, the requirement that all applicants must be left-handed. Now suppose that employers are actually biased in favour of the upper castes. Then, if they find that large numbers of OBCs have also acquired university degrees, they might well switch to some other rationing device, which is more in tune with their caste prejudices.

One can enumerate other reasons why the mere possession of university degrees will not necessarily help the backward castes. But, given the constraints of space, I shall instead switch to a very brief discussion of an alternative form of affirmative action. It is surely reasonable to assume that the ultimate objective of reservations is to ensure more jobs for the underprivileged. This can be done more directly through the appropriate use of taxes and subsidies to induce the private sector to offer more jobs to the underprivileged groups. Firms that employ specified minimum numbers of employees from target groups can be offered preferential treatment when it comes to awarding government contracts.

Similarly, relevant tax rates can be lowered for such firms. There should not be any insurmountable administrative hurdles in implementing this form of affirmative action. Indeed, several of these have actually been tried in the United States of America, the country that actually coined the term “affirmative action”.

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