Busting Reservation Myths One at a Time | Zeeshan Husain

There are a number of myths surrounding Affirmative Action policies, mainly reservations for SC-ST and OBC communities. One encounters these in various spaces, mainly private.

Myth 1: Castes used to exist only in early times. No one follows the caste system in present times.

There is a substantial amount of data to show that various caste-based practices including Untouchability exist in present times as well. Scholars like Ghanshyam Shah et al. have documented various forms of Untouchability in rural India across eleven states in 2001-2. Navsarjan Trust (2010) has studied many villages in Gujarat to document ninety-eight types of Untouchability practices. Similarly, Smriti Sharma (2012) has studied violence against Dalits like murder, arson, destruction of property, rape, etc. A number of ‘honour killings’ happen when a non-SC woman marries an SC man. This clearly shows how cruel caste is when it comes to women.

Myth 2: We all are equal. All groups are equally rich and equally poor.

There is a huge amount of data from government, NGOs and individual researchers which show that there are persistent and systemic disparities between SC-STs and the rest of the population, regional variation notwithstanding like standards of living, poverty rates, health status, educational attainment, and occupational outcomes.

Myth 3: Reservation leads to loss of merit in educational institutions as most reserved category people get lesser marks.

Merit is not an objective thing, rather a subjective concept. Examination results are widely considered as a proxy for merit, but are often not good measures of true underlying ability or talent. Martha Nussbaum (2012) points out how the debate over race and intelligence quotient (IQ) in US helped in knowing that IQ tests show a partial truth. Ashwini Deshpande (2013) tells us from her personal experience that students with higher marks need not be necessarily brighter. Bowen and Bok (1998) document the long-term results on the lives of beneficiaries of AA who successfully graduate from the elite universities in US. They find that the successful blacks do very well in life despite having lower grades than their white counterparts. Added to these is the discrimination which students face since schools. A study by G.B. Nambissan (2010) shows that active discrimination starts within schools against SC students. There is evidence to show that students from SC-ST-OBC backgrounds get abysmally low marks in viva-voce for higher studies even in premium institutes, despite having good grades in written test.

Myth 4: Children of rich SC-STs join colleges. This increases elitism among SC-STs.

This statement is biased in two ways. Elitism, or the reproduction of privileges, is present in every social process irrespective of castes. Secondly, there are researches like those of Marc Galanter (1984) and Stuart Corbridge (2000) which have observed that reservations have only partly been successful for the deprived among the SCs and STs. Also, there are many other researches which show that ST-SC students joining colleges are from both middle class and poor strata of society. A research by Marianne Bertrand et al. (2008) shows that students coming through reservations are mostly poorer than Hindu ‘upper’ caste students. This research also tells that after reservation, students got good jobs which changed the economic condition of their families for the better. These two findings resonate with the William Bowen and Derek Bok’s (1998) study of benefits of AA in the context of US.

Myth 5: There is no discrimination in labour market as people get appointments, salaries and promotions as per their respective merit.

For the past two decades, a number of researches have  showed that even private sector labour markets are not prejudice-free. A work by S. Madheswaran and P. Attewal (2007) indicates that SC- STs have lower salaries as compared to non SC-STs, with the same education. Another research by S. Thorat and P. Attewal (2007) shows that even résumés get rejected if the name of the applicant happens to be that of a Muslim or a Dalit! Similarly works by Newman (2007) and S. Jodhka (2007) found out that employers are very much aware of social identity of the applicant, while professing deep allegiance only to the ‘merit’ of the candidate. It is because of these factors that thinkers like S. Thorat (2005) support reservations in private sector.

Myth 6: People from quota background reduce work efficiency.

There are studies by Thomas Weisskopf (2004) and Scott Page (2007) which prove the contrary. For example, Deshpande and Weisskopf (2011) have studied productivity of Indian Railways (IR) between 1980-2002,as IR has SC-ST employees. Three findings are worth mentioning: a) the productivity does not decrease with the increase of SC-ST employees b) accident rate does not increase with the increase of SC-ST quota and c) increase of SC-ST employees at officer level (A and B groups) slightly increases  the efficiency. Thus we can safely say that quotas never decrease productivity, rather they help in the larger cause of equal distribution of resources.

Myth 7: Women are marginalised as well but they don’t get reservations.

Few people know that even women get reservations, not in jobs and education but in local bodies, both rural and urban. Panchayati Raj Institutions and Nagar Palikas reserve one-third of the total seats for women, along with SCs and STs. This came up in 1993 through the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Various studies have shown slow but gradual betterment in the governance of developmental activities after the reservation of seats. There is also the debate on the introduction of 33% reservation for women in Lok Sabha.The  Odisha assembly recently fixed a 33% quota for women.

Myth 8: Diversity of social groups is a constraint in development.

Pluralism is a value in itself. Our existence depends upon the way we cherish differences and learn from it. Diversity of social groups actually helps, as Scott Page (2007) says, in the creation of better groups, firms, schools and societies.

The article is based on the book Affirmative Action in India (2013) by Ashwini Deshpande.

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