Reserving seats is not enough
Indian Express, January 4, 2001
Reservation of seats in educational institutions and posts in civil service for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) is a subject which invariably generates a lot of debate. While some semblance of proportional representation is desirable to correct for the deficiencies of the past, there is very little analysis of how reservation has helped these groups to compete with others on their own merit. Quite often when certain qualitative changes are discernible in the performance of these groups, they are not even noticed let alone studied for future guidance or evaluation. Two recent examples come to mind.
The first relates to the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) nationwide. UPSC recommends candidates belonging to SCs, STs and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) based on a relaxed standard. In the Civil Service (Main) examination, for example, SC/ST and OBC candidates are selected to fill the available quota without any cut off mark. In addition, those candidates belonging to these groups who qualify at the normal standards are selected against the general vacancies. Therefore the numbers of candidates belonging to these groups who are selected are higher than the quotas. That may not be an undesirable development. But what is significant is that in recent years the number of such candidates selected against general vacancies has declined. During 1983-87, one in eight SC candidates had been recommended against general vacancies. However, during 1994-97, the ratio fell to one in sixteen. A similar phenomenon is observed in the case of STs, with a rate of 2 per centobserved in 1994-97, down from seven per cent in 1983-87.
It could be that the more qualified amongst these groups are gravitating towards the private sector for better opportunities, which in turn would mean that the discrimination against these groups is reducing a welcome development. Or it could mean that the additional 40 per cent quota for OBCs has raised the threshold limit for general categories thereby reducing the number of SCs selected against general vacancies. Alternatively, it might be that the quota system has blunted the motivation of these groups to improve their performance. While all these are theoretically possible, the reasons are not known for sure.
The second feature is the entry of SC/ST candidates in the IITs. Here too there is reservation for SC/STs. However a different system is followed. Those in general category are called according to merit. The cutoff mark for the SC/ST candidate is then put at 60 per cent of the cutoff for the general category. The SC/ST candidates obtaining marks higher than these cutoffs qualify. In 1996 111 qualified thus, out of a total of 419 whereas in 2000 132 qualified out of 526. In addition the IITs have a zero year program, wherein SC/ST candidates with marks above the 60 per cent are given a scholarship for one year, boarding, books and tuition at the IITs. At the end of the year, they are examined and, if found fit, admitted to IIT without having to give any fresh JEE examination.
In case of SC candidates, the sum total of those who qualified according to merit and were admitted to the zero year was upto the quota level. However, in the case of STs there was a shortfall. Nevertheless the number of SC/ST students at IITs at any time is far less than their quota. Why is it that a number of SC candidates selected for the zero year program do not avail of the opportunity to study at IIT? It could be that the students feel that they can gain admission to other engineering colleges without having to spend one extra year for graduation. Or it could be that they feel that even after the one year coaching they will not be able to handle regular classes and exams thereafter.
The most peculiar feature is that the data for a careful evaluation of the progress of the SC/ST communities in these two major examinations is available with both the UPSC and the JEE board. In neither case have these agencies undertaken to analyse the different aspects of the problem. Maybe research is not part of their charter. But what is more intriguing is that even the National Commission for SC/STs has not done any such analysis. That is partly due to two reasons: they too are not chartered to conduct any research. They are merely a pressure group and a grievance redressal body. Further they do not have the data collected by the UPSC and the JEE board, the latter two agencies being extremely reluctant to share their data. And finally, researchers at universities are simply unaware of the issues that can be studied. The real losers in such a scenario are the SC/STs. While political pressures will assure that their quota is filled they will not do much to improve their qualitative levels in the longrun.