December 10, 2019
December 11, 2019


Affirmative action (‘AA’) policies can be either group-based (such as reservation for SCs and STs) or class-based (such as reservation for economically weaker sections, or ‘EWS’). In this note, I shall put forth reasons for why reservation should not be based on economic criteriain India.
The enquiry of whether to adopt EWS reservation as a policy depends on the rationale behind AA. There are different rationales- including efficiency and even diversity, such as in the USA- in different countries depending on their national context.Michele S. Moses looked at various rationales in France, South Africa, India and USA to argue that justifications for AA should be rooted more in social justice, than economics of efficiency, and additional rationales should be based in the national context. So while other nations could adopt a different rationale, in India, owing to its caste based social structure, she said that“India is concerned with forward-looking social justice along with remediation (for past wrongs)”.[1] Therefore, the discussion on economic criteria for reservation cannot be divorced from the question of caste in India.
Caste forms a crucial part of group identity in India, and in a distinct manner for upper caste elite that aspire to protect their social status, assets and cultural networks in newer forms.
The primary problem with an economic or income based approach to AA is that due to the evolving forms of discrimination, it does not erode at the mere increase in economic status, and it can get sharper as the upper caste perceive their dominance to be under threat. Research has shown that discrimination has continued to existin wage, jobs and employment in both urban and rural areas despite AA laws.[2] As long as maintaining a hierarchical and graded social structure accrues material benefits and higher social status to the advantaged groups, they will strive to adapt it to new forms.This macro level structured discrimination overpowers the improved economic status achieved by some members of the SCs/STs. Therefore, policy-makers and the government needs to establish a clear distinction between affirmative action for equal opportunity, such as reservation, and anti-poverty policies, and it must be borne in mind that neither can supplement the another.Economic redistribution cannot be achieved through reservation, which is a policy tool for increasing representation of whole groups in public employment.William Darity Jr on examining group based AA versus class based AA stated that the objective of AA is to make institutions and employment more representative and diverse, and not redistribution, though that might be a concomitant effect.[3]
Caste politics has made the country overly reliant on reservation for all forms of inequality without a deeper conceptual understanding of how reservation is not just an ordinary AA meant for uplifting poor. As Dipankar Gupta expressed reservation is about creating such resemblance among people from different groups that they are not stopped from acquiring socially valuable skills because of accident of birth, and he added that, ‘…on no account should the removal of poverty be made synonymous with reservations. Reservations are only meant to create a measure of confidence and dignity among those who didn’t dare dream of an alternative life.’[4] For those with a lower economic status, but not an SC and ST,the struggle is not dictated by accident of birth but by incapability to convert their traditional benefits into jobs in the urban market and similar assets of modern time, and neither have they had the history of discrimination, humiliation and alienation. Therefore,the blockades faced by them can be cured without intervention in the form of reservation as their inabilities in accessing resources are not stemming from any group based or social aspects and they are not the victims of group-based exclusion and inadequate representation in public services.
Destroying or lessening this caste monopoly helps to create a middle class section among castes that are largely poor, a fact that is sometimes used as a charge against caste reservations, but in fact it is inevitable and progressive to the extent that it breaks up the correlation of ‘caste and class’. This itself will not end casteism but it may be a necessary condition for doing so. A programme to end economic exploitation and reduce/abolish poverty must be a different one and it is necessary to take up such a programme along with caste-based reservations, but such a programme does not negate the latter’s value.Caste reservations themselves will tend to aid, indirectly, the process of fighting economic exploitation.[5]
Despite assertions that the reservation basis should shift from caste to income as the former has run its due course, there are studies of hiring practices that show that in the so-called posh cities and formal sector jobs where merit is espoused as the primary criteria, the social identity of the applicant plays a significant role in job selection and call back interview. Moreover, by blaming reservation for the SCs and STs as decreasing opportunities for the poor upper castes, the state can easily deflect its responsibility to look at the real causes of poverty, and implementing effective anti-poverty schemes covering aspects such as poor infrastructure, wage gaps, malnutrition, growing unorganised sector and poor government schools. In so far as employment, using reservation as a poverty alleviation scheme ignores the reality that the formal sector comprises less than 10% of the employment sector and that those caught in the vicious cycle of poverty have more to do with abysmal wages, job security, work place safety, bonded labour, ineffective agrarian policies to support farmer crisis, and poor quality of free schooling given to them by the state.
The next question is which criterion might be most appropriate for measuring economic status. There are several aspects that should be looked at and picking up a selected few is a highly politicised process and also nearly impossible to implement with accuracy. Unlike caste which is permanent and inter-generational, economic status is volatile and transient. There are an immense number of difficulties in measuring economic status and several different criteria will have to be included to receive the accurate picture of each household, such as access to drinking water, access to free healthcare, ownership of assets such as land and cattle, graduates/post graduates in the family and so on. India as a nation has a history of forgery and manipulations by the middle castes and upper castes to rope themselves into such projects and thus, those deserving such state support will attain no benefit.The fixing of the poverty line by the state itself has garnered enough controversy and criticism, for us to have any faith that the EWS would not become a mere political tool to ensure upper caste votes.
However, these two policies are not exclusive and to end the correlation between caste and class in India, a class-based approach within the group based approach, or a caste-conscious economic gradation/prioritisation could be followed. For instance, a certain percentage within the reserved category could be set aside where priority would be given to those who are both socially and educationally backward groups, and economically backward.[6] Another example is of concessions, education subsidies and other forms of financial support which can be targeted towards those SCs and STs who are not well off.



[1]Moses, M. (2010). Moral and Instrumental Rationales for Affirmative Action in Five National Contexts. Educational Researcher, 39(3), pp.219-223.
[2]Thorat, S. and Madheswaran, S. (2018). Graded Caste Inequality and Poverty: Evidence on Role of Economic Discrimination. Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 4(1), pp.17-25.
[3] Darity Jr., W., Deshpande, A. and Weisskopf, T. (2011). Who Is Eligible? Should Affirmative Action be Group- or Class-Based?. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 70(1), pp.238-268.
[4]Gupta, D. (2019). Towards Affirmative Action. India International Centre Quarterly, 33(3/4), p.60.
[5]Omvedt, G. (1990). Twice-Born Riot against Democracy. [online] Economic and Political Weekly. Available at: https://www.epw.in/journal/1990/39/perspectives/twice-born-riot-against-democracy.html [Accessed 16 Aug. 2019].
[6]K. Borooah, V., Diwakar, D. and Kumar Mishra, V. (2014). Caste, inequality, and poverty in India: a reassessment. Development Studies Research, 1(1), pp.292-293.


Manisha Bhau is a fourth year law student at the National Law University, Delhi.

In content picture credit: thehansindia.com

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