Affirmative Action in India: Is backward the new forward?

Sarita Devi (name changed) 38, seems unhappy with her daughter Sonam’s board result – a public examination occurring at the end of the 10th and 12th grade education in India. But she seems far more disappointed that she does not qualify as a Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Class (OBC): “I am only a housemaid, but had I been a member of a backward community, my daughter would have made it to the list of at least a decent university”. Her words are a sounding board to what the reality of many middle and lower class Savarna caste individuals in India face. Here Mridulya Narasimhan discusses the successes and failures of positive discrimination in India.

Reservation against reservation

India’s caste system, for all practical purposes, was created over 1500 years ago for a simple classification of occupations in a feudal society. Those at the bottom of this caste pyramid were in charge of menial jobs and were forbidden to interact with the upper class.

©Marc A. Garrett /Creative Commons License

©Marc A. Garrett /Creative Commons License

India’s constitution of 1950 propagated positive discrimination based on similar quota systems that existed in part of British-India during the 1920s. The idea was to reserve seats in public jobs as well as in the education system to bridge the growing inequalities between these castes. Over the past few decades the stark boundaries between castes have somewhat blurred and people are no longer bound by economic restrictions. But the reservation policy, intended to exist only for a decade, has managed to largely outlive its purpose for the past 65 years.

Thus far, there have been very few attempts to causally establish the impact of reservation in public jobs on the livelihoods of backward classes although a 2010 study by Aimee Chin and Nishith Prakash, based on 16 of India’s biggest states, shows that there is no impact of reservations on Scheduled Castes on poverty and standard of living.

In India most people take up job opportunities in an unorganised or semi-organised setting or in a private organisation so the impact of facilitating public jobs to those deemed as ‘lower caste’ is actually unknown.

There is no mandate for private firms to entertain reservation as a part of their employment policy; however, some choose to take voluntary measures: the Tata conglomerate is one of those with an active agenda of affirmative action. The multinational giant, headquartered in Mumbai, does in-house surveys to assess its Dalit and tribal workforce; they also go to the extent of setting lower requirements for exam marks for Dalit’s.

Tamil Nadu for example, has 69% reservations set aside for Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Class (OBC). With the general population competing for 31% of available seats, general applicants have now started to migrate to the private institutions and MNCs – further skewing the ratio.

©Arpana Sanjay /Creative Commons License

©Arpana Sanjay /Creative Commons License

The general population are concerned with the lower eligibility requirements for SCs, STs and OBCs. It is a vicious cycle – lower requirements are indicative of the fact that those ‘backward castes’ are expected to be less capable than most others. With such an expectation in place, those currently classified as backward continue to perform sub-optimally, defeating the entire purpose of the chance given to them. Furthermore, this tends to decrease overall standards of living of society as even the ‘Savarna’ classes are deprived of opportunities that are tied up in quotas.


Affirmative action: In the affirmative                                                                                                         

Affirmative action has certainly achieved some of it’s basic goals, but has lost its purpose along the way. According to a study conducted in 2009, one-in-fifteen graduates and one-in-ten secondary school students were Dalits. Also, Dalits who had only 1.6% of top-tier civil servant jobs, now account for over 16%. Though they continue to lag behind other groups; this number has grown over the past few decades. According to the Mahmood-Ur-Rahman Committee Report, Muslims constitute 10.6% of Maharashtra’ population but represent only 4.4% in public services. This is evidence of inclusion but the effect on aptitude of candidates still remains inconclusive.

The new wave: The Supreme Court ruling

A welcome change was the Supreme court, the apex judicial authority of India, quashing UPA government’s decision to include Jats in the OBC category. A similar judgement was made in January to reexamine the reservations placed on the Maratha community in India. These judgements tried to emphasise a move away from traditional methods of understanding realtionships through caste differences and instead recognising backwardness “as a manifestation caused by the presence of several independent circumstances, which may be social, cultural, economic, educational or even political. New practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved, moving away from a caste-centric definition of backwardness. This alone can enable recognition of newly emerging groups in society, which would require palliative action.


In the Indian context, judicial oversight and vote bank politics are perpetuating inequality rather than redressing it. But with judgements like those made by the Supreme Court with respect to the Jat community there is still hope that the government will look at social backwardness through a fresh lens.

What India needs at this point is perhaps positive discrimination based on factors other than castes. Any policy, no matter how well-intentioned, that is based on historical injustice, will only lead to injustice for those truly deserving backward sections in India.

And while we wait upon the truly backward to be represented in this country, many like Sarita’s daughter try and make the best of the situation. Sonam is now pursuing her education through open university.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.