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Reservations in India : a Historical Perspective

How reservation in India has evolved?

Reservation is the process of setting aside a certain number of seats in government institutions for the backward/unrepresented communities. The constitutional definition of ‘backward’ has not yet been clear, and hence people from different communities from time to time want to materialize this ambiguity in their favour. The reservation is generally provided on the ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ basis, but sometime on religion too, for example ‘Muslims’ get it under a category called BC (M). Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) are the main beneficiaries of this system.

The main objective of the system is to create a level playing field for all the communities.

Interestingly, the demand for reservation started not by oppressed classes but by Brahmans against Brahmans in Mysore in 1883 – Brahmans of Mysore against the Aiyar and Ayyangar Brahmans of Madras and Smartha Brahmans of Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, Muslims and OBCs formed their own party under the name of ‘Prajamitra Mandali’ in Mysore in 1917. They demanded reservation in Mysore government jobs as most of the government jobs were held by Brahmans. Finally, in 1918, the British government accepted their demand and reserved 75% of government jobs to Muslims and OBCs.

British government was well aware of the divide between the different communities in India. They introduced  “Communal Award” in 1933. As per this scheme, a separate electorate system was devised for Muslims and Hindus. They further extended this accord to Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Dalits. The depressed classes were given a number of seats to elect from reserve constituencies where only they can vote.

The Communal Award was highly controversial. Mahatma Gandhi was against this decisive electoral system and fasted in protest. However, many renowned intellectuals saw it as a positive step towards development and upliftment of depressed classes.  The architect of Indian Constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar supported this policy. He wanted equality not only in terms of social aspect, but also in terms of political and economic aspects. Finally, after long discussions, both Mr Gandhi and Mr Ambedkar agreed to have a single Hindu electorate – seats were reserved for Dalits within it, what is known as ‘Poona Pact’.

British government introduced reservations in 1908 for a number of communities and castes which had little share in administration.

Post Independence: Mandal Commission

Post independence, the newly elected government introduced reservations in favour of SCs, STs, and OBCs. Initially, the government introduced the reservation policy only for 10 years for socially and economically downtrodden castes. The first Indian PM Nehru hoped that 10 years would be enough to bring the backward classes to mainstream society, but it didn’t. Since then, the reservation system kept getting extended every ten years.

Till 1970s, the reservation was restricted at 22%. However, one of the most important change occurred in 1979 when the Mandal Commission was established to access the socially and educationally backward classes. The commission estimated that 52% of population belongs to OBCs and 1257 communities were identified as backwards. While submitting the report in 1980, commission recommended changes to existing quotas, increasing them from 22% to 49.5%. The recommendations were finally adopted in 1990 under the leadership of then Prime Minister V. P. Singh.

Also Read: Constitutional view of Reservations and a demand for justification

Has it served its Purpose?

The various reservation schemes have partially served their purpose.

 Industry  Reservation Class  1960  1991  2003
 Government Jobs  SC  2,18,000  6,41,000  5,40,000
 Government Jobs  ST  1,80,000  2,03,000  2,11,000

The above data shows a positive trend where percentage of employees belonging to SC has increased from 15 to 17% during 1978-2004. Similarly, the percentage of employees of ST has also increased from 4.7 to 6.9%.

There is limited available data on assessments about the impact of reservation in higher education. However, the estimated data from 1981 to 1990 shows a positive growth as the SC students’ enrollment rose from 3.3 to 7.8% and 0.8 to 2.7% in the case of ST students.

Thus, during the past fifty years, share of SC and STs in the government services has improved quite significantly. Interestingly, reservation is fairly proportionate to the required percentage in Group C and D jobs, but disproportionately in the case of A and B categories.

Judging a broader impact is hard, as India is still a developing country, and government jobs constitute merely 2% of total jobs available in India. Hence, assessing how much it has helped a particular community shall remain a challenge. No Indian state has yet tried to access that their job quotas have any positive implications on broader scale. Thus, there is a need for an honest assessment of how much ‘reservation’ has helped SC/ST/OBC, and also who else has been left in this reservation scheme. So that government can make a effective reservation policy for the ‘other’ left communities.

Keep watching this space for more on reservations……by The Indian Iris Research Team

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