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The benefits & liabilities of quota
Cases with parallels in India and US

Chennai, Oct. 8: The two women both claim that affirmative action cost them coveted spots at elite public universities. Both cases have now reached the Supreme Court.

One of the women, Abigail Fisher, 22, who is white, says she was denied admission to the University of Texas based on her race, and on Wednesday, the US Supreme Court is to hear her plea in what may be the year’s most important decision.

The other woman is from Tamil Nadu, and two weeks ago, the Indian Supreme Court ordered that she be admitted to medical school pending the outcome of a broader court review.

“When I came to know that I could not get into any medical college, I was really shocked,” C.V. Gayathri, the Indian student, said in an interview. “I didn’t speak to anyone for a week. I cried. I was very depressed.”

Although the outlines of the two cases are similar, differences between how the world’s two largest democracies have chosen to redress centuries of past discrimination are striking.

While affirmative action in the US is now threatened, the programme in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need.

Indeed, the caste-based affirmative action raises questions, not only for India and the US, but also for nations like Brazil and Malaysia that have adopted similar anti-discrimination programmes. Without diligent judicial oversight, experts say, the efforts can help perpetuate inequality rather than redress it.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 69 per cent of university admissions are now set aside for what the state has determined to be “backward castes”. Many of those favoured with these set-asides (quotas) have controlled Tamil Nadu’s government and much of its resources for generations, but they claim special status by pointing to a caste survey done in 1931. (Gayathri, 17, is a Brahmin whose parents are civil servants with modest incomes.)

Five prominent university officials in Tamil Nadu said in interviews that those given set-asides at their institutions were generally the children of doctors, lawyers and high-level bureaucrats.

The result is that rich students routinely get preference over more accomplished poor ones who do not happen to belong to the favoured castes. None of the officials would allow their names to be used for fear of angering the government ministers who benefit politically and personally from the programme.

The caste system was created in India nearly 1,500 years ago to organise occupations in a feudal agricultural society.

Over the last 30 years, however, the country’s economy has been transformed, much of its populace has moved from villages to sprawling cities, and once distinct castes have been scrambled. That has led to the erosion of historic differences in education and increased income mobility within castes in India, recent studies have found.

“Caste is no longer an economic restriction,” said Viktoria Hnatkovska, an assistant professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, and a co-author of several studies on the changing role of caste in India.

Nonetheless, quotas have transformed the taint of “backwardness” into a coveted designation.

The Gujjars of Rajasthan, for instance, held violent riots two years ago to protest the government's refusal to declare them as “most backward”. Politicians win elections by promising to bestow this one-time curse, which has led to a dramatic expansion in those considered backward decades after the designation had true economic meaning.

Indeed, caste awareness among the young is sustained in part because of set-asides, so a programme intended to eliminate the caste system is now blamed by many for sustaining it.

“When I was filling out my college application forms, there was this box for caste,” said Sneha Sekhsaria, 25, of Calcutta. “I had to ask my dad what our caste was, and he had to think about it for 15 minutes before telling me that we were in the general category.”

The general category meant that she received no preference, a fact that Sekhsaria blames for her failure to qualify for medical school. She went to dental school instead. “Being a doctor was always my dream, but I got a dental degree instead and that’s OK,” she said.

But she remains bitter that some of her friends who scored more poorly than she did on entrance exams were able to become doctors even though she and others in her circle were entirely unaware that they were “backward”.

Nonetheless, the benefits that flow from caste quotas have made them popular, and supporting them is one of the few issues on which the present government and the Opposition agree. Within the next few months, the Indian Parliament is expected to overwhelming approve a constitutional amendment that would allow caste-based quotas not just in educational settings and in government hiring but also in government promotions.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly tried to curtail the scope of caste quotas, but Parliament has passed amendments in response to protect and even expand them. The court has ruled that quotas should not exceed 50 per cent of university admissions, but Tamil Nadu has ignored this restriction and a case challenging the state’s larger quota has been pending since 1994.

In the meantime, the court has ordered the state to provide extra slots to at least some students who contest the higher quotas, including Gayathri, who has been admitted to Tirunelveli Medical College.

In an interview, Salman Khurshid, the Union law minister and minister for minority affairs, said that wealthy beneficiaries of caste quotas should acknowledge that they no longer need set-asides and voluntarily bow out of the system.

Some rules forbid the wealthy — or “creamy layer” — from taking advantage of quotas, but those rules have not been implemented in many states and are widely ignored in others.

D. Sundaram, a retired professor of sociology from Madras University and a long-time member of Tamil Nadu's now-disbanded Backward Classes Commission, defended the state’s quotas by saying that even three generations of wealth and power cannot reverse centuries of backwardness.

“The system has not been in place long enough,” Sundaram said.

To be sure, many Dalits and people from tribal backgrounds are still overwhelmingly poor, and even many critics of the caste-based quotas acknowledge that set-asides for them may still be worthy.

Ravi Kumar, general secretary of a Dalit political party in Tamil Nadu, agreed that many of those who benefit from the state’s vast caste-based quotas are wealthy and powerful. But his party supports quotas, also known as reservations, for the wealthy “because if we opposed them they would stop all reservations”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said that caste-based quotas would gradually become less important as the quotas themselves make public universities less attractive to the most talented students. “The talented people will simply migrate away,” he said.

But that is no comfort to Sekhsaria, whose family ended up spending a large amount to send her to a private dental school after she was turned down for a government medical school, where the fees are modest.

“Of the thousands of reasons to hate the government, reservations is definitely one of them,” she said.