Caste-based Reservation and Discrimination: An Equitable Social Order?
Based on an open-house discussion, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay is planning to introduce a mandatory course on caste awareness and racial discrimination to increase awareness and eliminate the caste-based and racist slurs that have entered into colloquial language. Indisputably, the statutory provisions of reservations based on caste and economic status have been created to facilitate in reduction of the social and educational gaps as envisaged by the enabling provisions of the Constitution of India. The presupposition of OBC, SC, or ST candidates spoiling the merit is not appropriate. The transformations are happening and the comparable performance by reserved category candidates indicates their competency upgradation and forthcoming change in the social order that is free from discrimination and has equity and access at its core. Sensitizing the community about the relevance of caste reservation for the deprived classes of society on social and educational fronts has to be talked about continuously along with checking the discrimination for a healthy society.
It is interesting to know that the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay is planning to introduce a mandatory course on caste awareness and racial discrimination. The need for such a course is the outcome of certain surveys carried out to understand the difficulties faced by the students facing discrimination. The disparaging remarks, caste, and racist slurs are humiliating for the beneficiaries of reservations. Offering a formal course on caste awareness and discrimination is likely to enhance inclusiveness among students, in particular, and society, in general. Unfortunately, caste being an inherited attribute is still a key consideration in India. It is a peculiar discriminator as compared to the gender, race, religion and other identities being in debate in the rest of the world.
An interesting fact about it is that despite a series of efforts made from time to time, the caste system is not getting annihilated. In a democratic setup like ours, the political and economic forces resuscitate the caste system periodically and ward off the efforts toward caste obliviousness. At times, it is alleged that for a few influential ones, the caste is the basis for hoarding the opportunities for their communities. In a mammoth population of nearly 130 crores in India, these caste-centric actions and processes are observed to be practised incessantly whether it is the village, town, or city, and are predominant in places where decision-making is discretionary and not merit-based. In fact, social norms like marriage within the same caste/community happen to be one of its prominent cultivators, nevertheless, exogamy is rising but has a long way to go.
Boxing every child at the time of birth in the caste of parents is beyond the control of any individual. Howbeit, scorning anyone on account of his/her caste is devoid of humanity and excruciating for the concerned. Consequentially, this strengthens the commitment of discriminated ones towards their caste and the caste concerns keep flourishing.
Indisputably, the statutory provisions of reservations based on caste and economic status have been created to facilitate in reduction of the social and educational gaps as envisaged by the enabling provisions of the Constitution of India. But these are seen to create heartburning among those who are not eligible for it as it leads to a lessening of opportunities for open category candidates. The reserved category candidates are perceived to get preferential treatment and the candidates belonging to OBC, SC, and ST become the primary target. This deepens the divide and these category candidates develop hesitancy in mixing with unreserved candidates. Two distinct groups of reserved and unreserved get formed on their own which is not a good thing for society at large.
Quite often those availing reservations are perceived to be ‘killing the merit‘, nonetheless, the extent of sacrifice of merit needs to be assessed. The impression about the insufficient worthiness of reserved category candidates calls for understanding the various facets of it.
One of the aspects related to reservation is the performance of candidates availing these benefits. This can be seen by comparing the performance of caste-based reserved category candidates and the others. Category-wise cut-off marks of the candidates picked up for job or admissions ought to be seen for analyzing the inter se performance gap.
Let us take the most prestigious and sacrosanct Civil Services Examination (CSE) and Engineering Services Examination (ESE) conducted by UPSC, and a few other instances for holistic evaluation. Currently, the applicable vertical categories include SC, ST, OBC, EWS, and General (or Unreserved i.e. those not covered under the first four indicated herein). Among these, the categories of SC, ST, and OBC are caste-based while EWS is an economy-based category.
Looking at the final cut-off marks of the last candidate selected by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for the CSE for the years 2019 and 2020 shows that the marks obtained by the last selected candidate of reserved categories i.e. EWS, OBC, SC, and ST are lesser than the cut-off marks of General category. Further, the comparison between reserved categories shows that candidates from the OBC category perform better than the candidates from EWS, SC, and ST categories.
Similarly, the cut-off marks of ESE as disclosed by UPSC for the years 2020 and 2021 show that these are highest for General candidates followed by OBC, EWS, ST, and SC in decreasing order for Civil Engineering in 2020. The order is slightly changed in 2021, the descending order being General followed by EWS, OBC, ST, and SC in 2021. The cut-off marks for other disciplines like Mechanical Engineering are the highest for the General category followed by EWS, OBC, SC, and ST in 2020 but in 2021 the descending order of cut-off is General followed by EWS, OBC, ST, and ST category candidates. In the Electrical Engineering discipline, the cut-off marks drop down in order of General, OBC, EWS, ST, and SC candidates in 2020 while in 2021 the cut-off marks in decreasing order are as for General, OBC, ST, SC, and EWS candidates. Lastly, for Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering discipline, the cut-off marks in descending order are: General followed by OBC, EWS, SC, and ST in 2020 and 2021 both. Going by the cut-off marks, the comparable performances of the candidates from different categories are evinced. In certain instances, like in UPSC – CSE, the performance of caste-based OBC category candidates is conspicuously better as compared to the EWS category which is not caste-based.
Here are a few more stray cases to emphasize that any presupposition of OBC, SC, or ST candidates spoiling the merit is not appropriate. Introspecting the faculty recruitment process, the category-wise cut-off marks in a department of a central university show that the cut-off marks for unreserved (UR), OBC, and SC for the post of Associate Professor are 141.5, 270.5, and 237.5 respectively. Similarly, in the Ph.D. admission in a state university, the category-wise cut-off marks in different subjects are seen to be higher for the OBC category as compared to the UR category in 14 out of 35 subjects in which admissions are made. The statistics show that the reserved category candidates are striving hard to exhibit exemplary performances.
Thence, it is damning to witness caste-based discrimination on account of reservation in admissions and employment. Developing any ill-will against fellow citizens about something that is inherited by them is not in the larger interest of harmony in society. Also, the deprivation faced by such communities in the past has culminated in huge socio-economic and education gaps as compared to those from well-off communities.
It is worthwhile to recall the following observations made by a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna observed in a 106-page judgment in Writ Petition (C) Nos. 961 of 2021,967 of 2021, 1002 of 2021, 1021 of 2021, and 1105 of 2021 in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India on 20th January 2022,
“Merit cannot be reduced to narrow definitions of performance in an open competitive examination which only provides formal equality of opportunity. Competitive examinations assess basic current competency to allocate educational resources but are not reflective of excellence, capabilities and potential of an individual which are also shaped by lived experiences, subsequent training and individual character. Crucially, open competitive examinations do not reflect the social, economic and cultural advantage that accrues to certain classes and contributes to their success in such examinations”
“High scores in an examination are not a proxy for merit. Merit should be socially contextualized and reconceptualized as an instrument that advances social goods like equality that we as a society value. In such a context, reservation is not at odds with merit but furthers its distributive consequences”
The transformations are happening and the comparable performance by reserved category candidates indicates their competency upgradation and forthcoming change in the social order that is free from discrimination and has equity and access at its core. Sensitizing the community about the relevance of caste reservation for the deprived classes of society on social and educational fronts has to be talked about continuously along with checking the discrimination for a healthy society. Let the level playing field be prepared for all sections of the society in due course of time.
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About the author
Prof. Onkar Singh is the Vice Chancellor of Veer Madho Singh Bhandari Uttarakhand Technical University, Dehradun, He has been the Founder Vice-Chancellor of the Madan Mohan Malaviya University of Technology, Gorakhpur (U.P.). He is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Harcourt Butler Technical University, Kanpur (U.P.).
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