Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
  With reservations - 4

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  Sukhadeo Thorat
  Thomas Weisskopf
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  Omprakash Valmiki
  Rajendra Yadav
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Thomas Weisskopf


Costs of reservation

I have found that the main costs resulting from independent India’s PD policies for higher educational admissions are the following — presented also in order of likely significance.

1. Exacerbation of caste and ethnic divisions

India’s PD policies in all spheres — not just in higher educational admissions — focus attention on caste and ethnicity and thereby increase consciousness of peoples’ group identity. This has surely contributed in some measure to the growth of divisive identity group politics, a much-decried feature of India’s political history over the past several decades. To be sure, one cannot plausibly attribute to PD policies a primary role in generating such divisiveness, given the long and sorry history of caste and other communal divisions in India.

PD policies in higher educational admissions are something of a lightning rod, for they spotlight inter-group competition for highly valued access to elite educational institutions. This has no doubt led to growth in resentment against beneficiary groups by more advantaged groups, whose members have traditionally enjoyed predominant access to such institutions. Such resentment is often unjustified and attributable largely to political manipulation, but it has nonetheless aggravated inter-group conflict.

Moreover, the history of India’s reservation policies shows that competitive demands for group preferences have had a strong tendency to snowball, both in terms of making additional groups eligible for reserved seats and in terms of extending the scope of reservations to new spheres, in ways that are increasingly unlikely to be beneficial (more on this below).

2. Relatively poor academic performance

The available evidence shows clearly that the average academic performance of Dalit and Adivasi students is distinctly worse than that of other students, and that their graduation rates are considerably lower.6 It is important to note, however, that the differentials in academic performance and graduation rates for Dalit and Adivasi students, as compared with those of their peers, is not as great in elite higher educational institutions as it is in less elite schools, and that graduation rate differentials have been declining over time.

Furthermore, there is evidence that the gap in performance between Dalit and Adivasi students and their peers is considerably less in post-university career achievements than it is in within-university academic performance (as conventionally measured by one’s grade-point average). The same is surely true as between PD beneficiaries and the applicants displaced by PD. This suggests that a more comprehensive measure of performance than GPA would show less evidence of ‘underperformance’ by PD beneficiaries.7

3. Devaluation of accomplishments

The evidence does show that many Dalit and Adivasi students are stigmatised by the presumption that their enrolment in a higher educational institution is due to preferential admission policies and not solely to their own qualifications. This is usually true, insofar as qualifications are measured by test scores. Since those applicants who can afford it routinely boost their test scores by attending high-quality secondary schools and by engaging test tutors or taking private test-preparation courses, a truer measure of applicant qualifications might well identify more applicants from disadvantaged groups — and fewer applicants from advantaged groups — as being qualified for higher education without any preference. Nonetheless, it is true that a substantial proportion of Dalits and Adivasis enter higher educational institutions less academically qualified — by any standard — than the majority of their peers.

The resulting stigmatisation of Dalits and Adivasis as beneficiaries of PD preference has several negative consequences: (a) their real capabilities and accomplishments will be under-appreciated, particularly if they do not in fact owe their admission to PD; (b) at selective higher educational institutions some people will complain that Dalit and Adivasi students, presumed to be PD beneficiaries, do not belong on campus; and (c) faculty may disserve Dalit and Adivasi students by holding low expectations and patronising them. It is impossible to determine the extent to which such views and actions are attributable to PD policies, rather than to a general predilection toward negative stereotyping of Dalit and Adivasi students; but it is most likely that the first set of factors do play some role — and this must be counted as a cost of PD policies in higher educational admissions.

4. (Not!) Rendering PD beneficiaries worse off

The available evidence does not support the claim, made by some critics of PD, that reservations for Dalit and Adivasi students in Indian higher educational institutions in India actually cause a counter-productive mismatch of those students with excessively challenging educational environments, so that they end up worse off than if they had not had access to them. Evidence from elite institutions suggests that Dalit and Adivasi students graduate at reasonable rates (though their academic performance is most often inferior to that of their peers), and that most of them go on to successful careers. Since a degree from an elite institution carries much greater promise of a good career than a degree from a run-of-the-mill school, beneficiaries of India’s PD policies in higher education are surely better off in the former. It is not so clear that PD beneficiaries benefit from attending one of India’s many mediocre higher educational institutions, rather than eschewing higher education altogether; but it is hard to see how access to such institutions could have an adverse effect greater than some wasted time.

Positive net benefits of reservations in admissions to Indian higher educational institutions are thus most clearly evident in the case of India’s elite schools. This is not only because PD beneficiaries who graduate from these schools are in a position to move directly into high-status professions. It is also due to the fact that elite schools have more resources than others, and they can therefore better afford to invest in facilities and programs that increase prospects of PD beneficiary success. It is far from clear that there are positive net benefits to PD policies in admissions further down the quality and prestige hierarchy of Indian higher educational institutions.

To sum up: The Indian experience with PD policies in admissions to higher educational institutions must be judged a success, especially in the case of the most elite institutions, even though it has involved some real costs — particularly in heightened social and political disharmony. Thus positive discrimination policies in Indian higher education have done some real good. Yet they could surely have done and still do better, as I suggest below.


In order to gain some perspective on India’s experience with PD policies in higher educational admissions, it may be useful to compare the Indian approach with that of the United States — in terms of the three key elements discussed earlier. First, the preferential boosts involved in India’s reservations for Dalits and Adivasis are considerably greater in magnitude, on average, than the preferential boosts implied by the PD policies applied by U.S. higher educational institutions in favour of African, Hispanic and Native Americans. Second, the selection processes used by admissions committees in U.S. colleges and universities are considerably more holistic and nuanced than those used in India, which typically involve only scores on a single critical examination. Third, U.S. colleges and universities typically provide greater support – both academic and financial — to PD beneficiaries than do their Indian counterparts.8 That PD selection procedures and support programs in higher education are significantly stronger in the U.S. than in India is hardly surprising, given that they both require the investment of resources and that the U.S. is a much wealthier country than India.

In each of the three respects just described, PD higher educational admissions policies in the United States are more conducive to good academic performance by PD beneficiaries, and hence more likely to generate positive net benefits, than are the corresponding policies in India. One can therefore assert with some confidence that the net benefits of PD policies in higher educational admissions have been greater in the U.S. than in India.

More to the point here: there is good reason to suspect that India’s PD policies could achieve more favourable consequences if they were modified in the direction of U.S. policies in each of the respects I have highlighted. If the magnitude of preference in India’s PD policies in higher educational admissions were lowered — whether by raising the minimum qualifications required for admission to reserved seats, or by replacing reservations with preferential boost systems having smaller magnitudes of preference — then there would be fewer beneficiaries but a significantly higher proportion of success stories.

In rejecting Mandal II, I do not wish to suggest that the OBCs it targets deserve no assistance. Most of their members are indeed among India’s less privileged and less advantaged citizens, and
there is a strong case for governmental action seeking to
reduce the huge socioeconomic inequalities that separate them
from India’s ‘forward’ castes and classes

The passage of time has in fact seen an improvement in the average level of qualification and preparedness of PD-eligible applicants to higher educational institutions, relative to their peers, as greater numbers of Dalits and Adivasis enter the Indian middle class and as more of their children benefit from an improvement in access to good secondary schools. These trends, to be sure, are slow to manifest themselves; one need hardly reiterate that much, much more could and should be done to improve both primary and secondary education for disadvantaged groups in India. The evidence does show, however, that over the past few decades the gap between the average entry test scores of PD beneficiaries and that of other students admitted to higher educational institutions is diminishing. This suggests that reductions in preference magnitudes might not greatly reduce the number of beneficiaries, while holding the promise of generating gains in the proportion of success stories — and hence also in net benefits.

Over the past several decades there has been some improvement in the quality of performance by Dalits and Adivasis in India’s elite higher educational institutions — not only because they are tending to be better prepared on entry but also because experience with positive discrimination has led these schools to develop programs to assist PD beneficiary students in their studies. Much more could be accomplished by developing admissions procedures that would be better capable of identifying Dalit and Adivasi applicants with a high potential for succeeding in a new and challenging academic environment. If additional resources were invested so as to increase both the sophistication of selection processes and the support (of all kinds) provided to PD beneficiaries, then that should pay off in achieving a higher success rate and hence greater net benefits from positive discrimination.

To the extent that PD policies are successfully applied, they tend to reduce persistent inequalities between PD-eligible and other groups in a society. Indeed, in the long run, PD policies should reduce caste and ethnic divisions to the point where there is no longer a case for positive discrimination. It is encouraging that the under-representation of Dalits and Adivasis in highly desirable positions is in fact (slowly) declining in India; but it is obviously still far from disappearing. Thus the strength of the case for PD policies on behalf of each of these groups has diminished somewhat over time; but it remains strong.

The identification of groups to be favoured by preferential selection processes is the most critical decision to be made in adopting policies of positive discrimination. Since integration of the societal elite is arguably the most important objective of PD policies, the eligibility of any particular ethnic community for PD should be positively related to the degree to which the community is in fact under-represented in society’s most desirable positions. This is bound to be highly correlated with the extent to which the average socioeconomic status of community members is below the societal average. But relatively low average socioeconomic status does not alone justify positive discrimination on the basis of caste or ethnicity. A PD policy is warranted to the extent that members of a disadvantaged group have been (and continue to be) mistreated and marginalised on the basis of their group identity — as distinct from their socioeconomic status.

The extension of reservations to more and more groups — by various state governments in the 1970s and 1980s, and then by the central government in the 1990s via its adoption of key recommendations of the Mandal Commission — has generated a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the whole policy of positive discrimination in India. For one thing, it has brought PD benefits to members of groups with considerably weaker cases for preference than the Dalits and the Adivasis. This has sharpened social tension and political contestation around issues of ethnic identity, in a context in which the demarcation of groups as eligible for PD benefits is already quite difficult and can be rather arbitrary. Moreover, the extension of reservations has resulted in a much higher fraction of the whole population becoming eligible for them; this fraction is now in the neighbourhood of 50 per cent at the national level and considerably higher in some states. This raises the salience of concerns over the extent to which PD policies may conflict with notions of merit and efficiency, and it stirs stronger resentment among those ineligible for PD.

Should seats now be reserved for OBCs in India’s elite higher educational institutions, as proposed by the national coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? This proposal — labeled ‘Mandal II’ — would add a 27 per cent quota of reserved seats for OBCs to the 22.5 per cent quota already reserved for Dalits and Adivasis in these institutions, bringing the overall reservation fraction to almost 50 per cent (as is now the case in public sector employment at the national level). As noted earlier, quotas for Dalit and Adivasi students often go unfilled because of an insufficient number of applicants meeting the minimum qualifications. Limited available evidence on OBC reservations in higher educational institutions at the state level suggests that OBC quotas are most often filled, since OBC applicants tend to be better prepared for higher education than Dalit and Adivasi applicants.9 Thus one would expect that, under Mandal II, the proportion of PD beneficiaries entering elite educational institutions would rise to a level in the neighbourhood of 40 per cent.

I believe that reservation of as many as 40 per cent of the slots available in an elite educational institution for formally less qualified but potentially successful PD beneficiaries is likely to result in the inclusion of too many beneficiaries who do not really have the potential to succeed, and the displacement of too many non-beneficiaries who would be much more likely to be successful. Moreover, such a major increase in the percentage of reservations would dilute the resources available to provide human and financial support to PD beneficiaries, which — as noted earlier — is critical to the generation of satisfactory rates of success.

Instead of elevating the proportion of reserved seats in elite educational institutions to a very high level by making eligible a vast new array of OBCs, I believe it would be much wiser to limit the reservations to groups who are indisputably among the most marginalised in India. Dalits and Adivasis are explicitly recognised as such in the Indian Constitution. Any other group aspiring to reservations should be able to demonstrate a comparable degree of marginalisation at the hands of mainstream Indian society.10 Whether or not any other groups are judged to meet this standard, it would behoove policy-makers not to define PD admissions policies in terms of quotas proportional to population, but instead to structure such policies around more modest preference magnitudes, more nuanced methods of selection, and more support for those selected.

In rejecting Mandal II, I do not wish to suggest that the OBCs it targets deserve no assistance. Most of their members are indeed among India’s less privileged and less advantaged citizens, and there is a strong case for governmental action seeking to reduce the huge socioeconomic inequalities that separate them from India’s ‘forward’ castes and classes. My point is that positive discrimination is only one of many possible policy tools that could be enlisted in the struggle to bring about greater equality of opportunity in unequal societies. PD policies have costs as well as benefits; and they should be applied where they are most likely to generate significant benefits and give rise to limited costs. In this respect, I believe that PD policies have already been over-extended in India; and further extension (unless combined with judicious contraction) will be counter-productive. To deal with most of the many kinds of inequalities that still plague Indian society, policy-makers should look to different kinds of social and economic policies that can be deployed alongside positive discrimination.11

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 notes

Thomas E. Weisskopf is Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan. A dissenting economist and a founder of the Union for Radical Political Economics, he has lived in India in the 1960s, teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute. He has worked extensively on affirmative action in the US and India