Saturday, April 08, 2006

Why Expanding Caste Quotas at IIT and IIM Is a Bad Idea

This past week it was announced that quotas for members of Scheduled Caste/Other Backward Caste (SC/OBC) at India's top engineering and management institutions are being raised to 49.5 percent. Current students at some of these institutions have been protesting the plan, but there is an Op-Ed by T. Shyam Babu in the Times of India approving of the change, along the lines of the pro-reservations arguments we're familiar with from the Mandal Commission era and before. And while I agree with Babu's sentiments, I disagree with him on whether the quota should be expanded at India's flagship universities.

Here is the crux of Babu's argument:

Even conceding that quota system is not the best way of promoting social justice, one should support it as a remedial measure since everything else has failed in India: Society failed to live by the tenets of civic engagement and a sense of justice, and the state failed to impose even the ideals it stands by. How else can one explain the complete absence of weaker sections in elite institutions?

Are the SCs, STs and OBCs inherently so incompetent and lazy that even a few of them fail to make it to the top? It is true that they are not prevented from entering these institutions because of their social status.

But the discrimination they suffer is more structural in that they live typically in villages, with few avenues of economic mobility and the little education they manage to provide to their children being far below the 'standards' set by elite institutions.

Familiar enough. What's surprising here is just how weak his defense of reservations is -- he begins with an acknowledgment that reservations are not a particularly effective means of pursuing social justice. And his statement that these are necessary because "everything else has been tried" is questionable.

From here one needs to get into some specifics regarding the structure of the Indian government's approach to caste. I discussed some of these particulars in a post two years ago, and it might be worth bringing some of those points forward again. While the book I was citing in that post is a partisan conservative argument against affirmative action in the U.S., I have no reason to doubt the statistics offered by Thomas Sowell are false:

Unfilled seats. Reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC) in schools and government posts remain largely unfilled, whereas reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are generally filled to capacity. Sowell cites a 1997 study that indicates that nationally preferential policies only benefit 6 percent of Dalit families. Moreover, the same study reported that "none of India's elite universities and engineering institutes had filled its quota for members of scheduled castes." This could be read in many ways -- but at the very least, it proves there are problems and imbalances in the reservations system. OBCs are not necessarily 'backward'.

Continued underrepresentation. People from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continue to be absent from white collar positions. "For the country as a whole, members of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes -- combined -- did not receive as much as 3 percent of the degrees in engineering or medicine, though together they add up to nearly one-fourth of the population of India."
This suggests that reservations have not been wholly successful, though perhaps even 3 percent may constitute an improvement over what one might have seen 50 years ago.

Clearly India needs to continue thinking of ways to improve educational facilities in rural areas and Tribal regions, but I wonder whether the reservations for the OBCs is working as it should. Isn't it the case that OBCs aren't specifically underprivileged or systematically discriminated against in India?

More broadly, I'm not convinced that the principle of inclusion couldn't be served as well by adding an economic component to the reservations system: you can be considered for a reservations spot if you're a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe and your family income is below a certain level.

And there's another argument that I didn't bring up in that earlier post, which relates to the special status of India's premier technical, public universities. These have been central in enabling India's (still unfolding) growth as a technology hub, one of the main engines of recent economic growth and the change in India's profile internationally. Those universities need to be encouraged, and their capacity expanded in order to meet the future demand for competent workers and researchers. I worry that expanding caste reservations risks creating an artificial, de facto cap on the number of competent graduates these universities produce. Moreover, many members of higher caste communities will again be going to universities abroad as the slots available to them at India's best institutions shrinks. This will take money out of the Indian system and may lead to a return of the 'brain drain' phenomenon.

I'm in favor of redistributive justice, and I think some measure of affirmative action is necesary, both in the U.S. and India. But the current plan to expand reservations at the top level is a mistake, and smacks of electoral pandering. I would rather see a greater emphasis on improving secondary educational facilities in rural areas in order to enable people from marginal areas of society to be more competitive to begin with.


Varun Singh said...

Babu said - But the discrimination they suffer is more structural in that they live typically in villages, with few avenues of economic mobility and the little education they manage to provide to their children being far below the 'standards' set by elite institutions.

If they typically live in villages, wouldn't it make much more sense to strengthen the primary & secondary education system in the rural India? I've graduated from IIT Bombay and I can say that most of the students there were from urban, middle class India. Students from rural areas are no competition because the education system has totally collapsed there. If they have to make it, they have to migrate to city to study.

Quite simply, its just petty vote bank politics! Almost 50% of Indian population is covered under OBC. Reservations for them would translate to votes from them, atleast thats what they think.

Check out this blog. The author tries to justify the reservation by some statistics. Along with various fallacies, it assumes that the SC/ST students are equally competent. From my personal experience I can say that invariably they are at the bottom of the class. Many of them even fail to earn the degree.

2:53 AM  
Murali V said...

I would like to listen to your views on "Noon meal scheme" in Indian schools.

Similar arguments were voiced when MGR introduced it in Tamilnadu and most educational experts and economists critized him

6:45 AM  
sanjay said...

Today, India has 116 million small farms, needs to support an average farm family size of 6.5 - 7 & returns an average annual income of Rs 25,000. This is below-subsistence & after all the back breaking, atrocious hours spent in harsh conditions. There is immense pressure on rural kids to leave the farm for a "better" life in the city.
Can't say I blame them.

The primary reason why small farmers do not educate their kids is simple self preservation - they want to minimize any chance of the kids running away to the cities. What better way than to ensure that the child has *no* viable employment options due to lack of education?

9:20 AM  
Ms. World said...

I agree with Varun Singh that it is simply a big political move which sounds good but won't yield any major results for the SC & OBC since it it very hard for them (overall) to get on the track to the elite universities. Therefore I think Professor Singh's worries about an "artificial, de facto cap" on the number of competent workers and researchers graduating from the IITs & IIMs isn't really a concern.

In my view, India desperately needs to deal with its below par government schools. I also hate the way poor Indian kids get a raw deal by being taught regional languages in government school. If poor kids can make it to an elite university like an IIT, the language of study will be English. However there are Indian NGOs such as Akanksha and new private English medium schools, and a few government schools conducted in English (parents have to pay extra fees though).

I hope the Indian government or public can make a real change for its future by mandating a system of government schools where teachers show up for work, kids get decent text books, and are taught subjects which would give them a chance to competent with the middle class and upper middle class. I admit that I could be talking about American public schools too.

3:12 PM  
Amrit said...

I've been planning to write about this on my blog, but one thing that deters me is the fact that I find the whole subject very stupid. It's frustrating how the politicians, so openly and brazenly make an ass of an entire nation. Even a kid would know that reservation in the institutes of higher education is just a gimmick -- this is just a step towards dividing the society and getting the votes. If the supporters of reservations are so worried about the welfare of the society, they should work from the ground up. They should improve schooling at the grassroots level. If they want reservations, let them be in public and government schools. They should nip the social injustice in the bud by educating young children, by making sure the rural schools are functional.

They don’t have an ability to punish those who make a Dalit woman walk naked in a village, but they feel all mighty by giving reservations in IITs and IIMs. Nothing is going to happen unless we really mean it.


3:59 PM  
Varun Singh said...

@Ms.World: As of now there exists a reservation of 22.5% seats for SC/ST, in IITs. But not all of these seats are filled up, because IITs don't take SC/ST students who get less than two thirds of the marks of the last general category student admitted. Lets assume there are about 20% of students from SC/ST quota. Not a large number. But now if 50% of the crowd will be from quota, it will definitely dilute the output of these schools.

Interestingly, quite a while ago they introduced similar quota for OBC in the Rajasthan State Medical entrance exam. I don't remember the exact details, but that year the cut-off for OBC category was above the cut-off for general category! It can be explained by the fact that almost 50% of the population is covered in OBC. OBC consists of castes like Jats, who are the dominant ones in some of the districts. But putting up a quota for OBC can surely let in some incompetent students too and worse, at the cost of a more deserving one.

This just shows that there is no apparent need for the reservation for OBC. Moreover, the reservation system based on caste should be abolished in favor of a system based on the economic condition. Personally, I feel India doesn't need any kind of reservations at the tertiary education level. If HRD ministry really wants to bring forward the dalits & rural population, they have to strengthen the primary & secondary education system in the rural India.

Alas, that doesn't translate to votes!

4:00 PM  
Abhishek said...

The irony in all this was illustrated by the fact that the SC/STs are against this reservation. Yes thats right, against it! Proposals for reservation in the private sector for SC/STs have been flying around for quite sometime now and optimists were sure that some kind of momentum in its favour was being built up. Now with the backlash from the industry against the OBC reservation in IITS/IIMs, proponents of the private sector reservation fear that it could have killed off the other one as well.

Also Varun Singh is right. I read a story in today's ToI about this reserved category student in IIT Delhi, Satish or something who was asked to leave after spending 6 years in trying to unsuccessfully complete his course. The Dean of Student Affairs, IITD, gave further numbers on the avg reserved category GPA etc which much lower than the general category.

Like religion is the last refuge of the scoundrel, reservation is last refuge of the politician. Politicians realise this is the easier to wave this false flag than to actually engage in real socio-economic development.
The only one to have gained from this reservation bs is the creamy layer. Everyone else has lost out:
1. meritorious students, dont have a reservation cert, too bad!
2. economically backward high castes
3. economically backward low castes, supposedly for whom this whole thing was created. They don't stand a chance against the creamy layer monopolizing the qoutas.

4:16 PM  
Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Murali -- I actually don't know all that much about the noon meal scheme, though I might say something about it once I've read a bit more. In principle it seems like a good idea.

Ms World -- nice to hear your comments... sounds like you had a chance to observe the school system first-hand while you were in India a few months ago.

There was an article just today about the Schedule Castes' opposition to the current measure. It is here.

And there was also this article on the insane competition for entry into IIT. It's more competitive statistically than Ivy League universities in the U.S.

5:12 PM  
mohit said...

My views on the whole debate:

I have come up with a couple of solutions... (which are yet to be subjected to the rigourous scrutiny of an economist for flaws!)

1:37 AM  
Zulfi said...

Well I am surprised to say the least, how comprehensive the reservation benfits the hindus( bania, jats, yadavs, THESE ARE SOME OBC) at the expense of non-hindus. This is certainly the sorry state of India. I don't find any other country which discriminates people on religion basis like India, where 50% reservation is availble for followers of one religion. To top it, if a SC/ST convert to Islam or Christianty this benefit is taken off from him.
No more to say .
Sare Jahan se Achcha Hindustan hamara ............Once upton a time

5:19 AM  
Banerjee said...

Zulfi says:
"To top it, if a SC/ST convert to Islam or Christianty this benefit is taken off from him."

Not true. I've met quite a few Christian SC/ST students who have used the benefit.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous said...

Want a reservation??? Then why not start reserving all the basic amunities also... If the minsiters want to implement the reservation they should make the resrved people mandatory to buy their food, take medical treatments, or be it any other ammunities to be served by another reserved person. Let the ministers our HRD minister fall ill and be served by a doctor coming from reservation...Then I feel he would be able to understand the neccesity of reservation...

If at all reservation is the only way left then reservation at schools should be encouraged so that these students become competitive enough to qualify into higher educational institutions of the country. I strongly condem this step of Arjun Singh.

11:36 PM  
Illogical Truisms said...

Good post, Amardeep.

3:13 PM  
Bedevilled said...

This reservation is not a small issue, it is a phenomenon of allowing, protecting and promoting underperformance. Our vote hungry politicians never tried to bring competency in SC/ST/OBCs. Just for the sake of votes, they doled out seats in government institutes and seats in Government Offices. Instead of reservation, government should help them getting good education and thereafter succeeding in getting good job on their own.

If the government succeeds in implementing quota in private education, it will definitely bring quota in Private Job sector.

Its effect would be that our quality will go down and foreign companies would stop giving their projects to Indian companies. All the much talked buoyancy of Indian Economy will go away.

Hence, i request everyone who is reading this to participate in protest against this policy.

We need great co-ordination if we want to succeed. For it is necessary to form an online group first where we can discuss things. I have created this yahoo group solely for this purpose. Please join here and do ask your friends also to join so that we can spread nation wide awareness. Yahoo group link :

10:08 AM  
Sangeeta Kapoor said...

These lower caste people are good for nothing. They don't even have the guts to compete openly and so need reservation to hide their incapabilities. If they think they deserve to get jobs why don't they compete with us the same way we do. I myself belonged to a poor family and just because of my hard work I have changed my financial status while my friends who belonged to lower caste and quite rich families (rich because their parents got good jobs due to reservation) are still there where they were because they wanted reservation in everything and never worked hard. Please stop begging for free stuff , get up and go to work. Only you are responsible for your state, don't blame up for that.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous said...

What "merit" are we talking of anyway ? Scores in entrance exams at age of 17?

Take the claim of "merit based" entrance to all IIMs and dozens of other institutes.

The CAT exam is based on the SAT exam in the USA . It has been proved beyond doubt that the SAT test is culturally biased . Blacks and hispanics do poorly at it year after year .

If a student who is eligible for admission to IIM on the basis of his CAT score, were to take the same CAT exam in which he/she cleared in a language that he/she did not understand then he/she would be at a disadvantage compared to someone who was schooled in that language . Not knowing that language does not mean you lack the capacity to clear that exam.

Approximately 25 % of CAT test is about English! Another 25 % is about English Comprehension!!!! There you are !!!! About 50 % so called aptitude test is a hoax for someone who is from a non-english speaking background .

This is how the CAT like the SAT is discriminatory .

See the full form of SAT …Scholastic Aptitude Test . The problem is aptitude testing is not so simple . There is no test on earth which can reliably tests aptitude .

Aptitude tests such as the SAT have a historical tie to the concept of innate mental abilities and the belief that such abilities can be defined and meaningfully measured. Neither notion has been supported by modern research. Few scientists who have considered these matters seriously would argue that aptitude tests such as the SAT provide a true measure of intellectual abilities.

It was found that people could be coached to better their scores at SAT . The name SAT …Scholastic Aptitude Test could not be correct . So under such valid criticism the name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test, since a test that can be coached clearly did not measure inherent "scholastic aptitude", but was influenced largely by what the test subject had learned in school. Even the College Board which conducts the SAT has beaten a hasty retreat.This was a major theoretical retreat by the College Board conducting SAT, which had previously maintained that the test measured inherent aptitude and was free of bias.

About ten years back , however, even the redundancy of the term assessment test was recognized and the name was changed to the neutral, and non-descriptive, SAT. At the time, the College Board announced, "Please note that SAT is not an initialism. It does not stand for anything."

The framers of these SAT tests assumed that intelligence was a unitary inherited attribute, that it was not subject to change over a lifetime, and that it could be measured and individuals could be ranked and assigned their place in society accordingly. The SAT evolved from these questionable assumptions about human talent and potential.

More and more people are questioning the validity of SAT . In the past MENSA used to accept high SAT score individuals . For the past decade it has stopped accepting SAT scores .

The whole exercise of deciding merit based on CAT scores discriminates against those from lower socio-economic status.

Though many non-IIM institutes have started accepting CAT scores, the application fee of these institutes is still inexplicably high.

The CAT is primarily an exam of Math and English. Logical and Analytical Reasoning is nearly absent (except for some verbal reasoning which again depends on knowing English well!!!!).

CAT is a clever way to keep those from lower socio-economic strata away Institutes funded with tax payers money .

So claims of “Merit” based on CAT scores is hollow and discriminatory against those of lower socio-economic strata.

Dhirubhai Ambani had a poor command over English . He would not have made it through CAT. So what "merit" are we talking of?

1:07 AM  
Anonymous said...

It is a matter of great shame that most of you people are taking it lying down. Please leave the comforts of your home and get on the streets to protest against this sick reservation policy. The government will not see your blog. If you are interested in making a difference then get on the streets and fight the enemy. Only 1000 students protesting reservation, what the hell. Is this the number of students that oppose reservation? If you oppose it then show it.

5:14 AM  
Anonymous said...

It is a matter of great shame that most of you people are taking it lying down. Please leave the comforts of your home and get on the streets to protest against this sick reservation policy. The government will not see your blog. If you are interested in making a difference then get on the streets and fight the enemy. Only 1000 students protesting reservation, what the hell. Is this the number of students that oppose reservation? If you oppose it then show it.


5:14 AM  
Anonymous said...

Dear Meritorious guys,
Reservations have been around in the South for sixty years and that too upto 70% and that regionis much better than the North. You guys never protest against Capitation fee colleges,regular question paper leaks and medical colleges with ghost faculties and non existing associated teaching hospitals coz all the beneficiaries are "meritorious secrions" of society!!. Affirmative action is not a charity bur a solemn pledge made in the constitution.(I bet if any meritorious guy has even touched that document. He is busy sorting out his documents in front of US embassy to begin life long licking in alen environment after getting his degree at Govt expense or start exploiting ignorent Indian masses backhome)Long live reservations till we have more egalitarianism in the North also like it happened in the south decades ago.

1:18 PM  
memoryking said...

Liked your blog.Here is mine

"One Billion people.6 IIM’s, 7 IIT’s .Close to 200 seats in a typical IIM and 500 in a typical IIT.One group stands for senseless establishment of quotas. The other group senselessly opposes it. What is going on? Have we lost all our marbles? "

1:36 AM  

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