INDIA: Caste quotas fail the very poorest

Sitting in his spacious, colonial-era bungalow, recently white-washed and sparkling in the scorching sun, Ratan Lal, an assistant professor of history at Hindu College, seems a typical professor of the prestigious college of the University of Delhi. But it was not always so.

When Lal came to Delhi in 1991, he says he was regarded as just "another village idiot".

"I would never have qualified for a seat in a Delhi college if there was no quota for students belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes."

Scheduled castes and tribes are groups listed under the Indian constitution as being particularly disadvantaged. Federally funded higher education institutions 'reserve' some 7.5% of places for scheduled tribes, 15% for scheduled castes.

Since 2008, an additional 22.5% of places have been reserved for other socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged students, or so-called Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in a bid to promote affirmative action.

With 50% in his final year examinations at school, Lal was at least 10 points below the cut-off mark for most students but the reservation meant he had a choice of subject.

Although there are still no official data on the number of students helped through reservation since it was expanded in 2008 - amid protests from higher castes - university academics and administrators agree it has helped many of the less privileged.

"Scheduled Caste students have entered the best government colleges through reservation. Many SC students are poor, have little awareness and lack communication skills," says Suman Verma, Joint Dean of Students at Delhi University in charge of reservation admissions for the past six years. "Left to themselves, they would never qualify for the best colleges."

Most reserved category students opt for the humanities. The demand is highest for Sanskrit, Hindi, geography, history, sociology and political science.

"These subjects help reserved category students prepare for Indian administrative services which also have reserved seats," Verma says. "But these students don't do well in technical subjects such as economics, maths, commerce and science," adding that he receives numerous requests for change of subject from SC/ST students in their second year of college.

Meanwhile, poor English - the medium of instruction in most institutions - poor schooling and difficult family backgrounds are blamed for the failure of many students to graduate.

"The government has invested little for remedial courses, extra tutorials or classes to improve communication of reserved-category students. Many students are also complacent after securing seats and don't give their best," says a senior official at the University of Hyderabad, a federally funded university, who spoke on condition he was not named.

But the official referred to the setting up of India's first tribal university as "affirmative action in its true sense".

Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, or IGNTU, was the first in the country to cater to the aspirations of India's forgotten tribal children. It was established in the central state of Madhya Pradesh in 2008 to promote education and research among tribal communities.

In its first year, the university admitted 282 students, 171 of them tribals. The majority of the students are the first generation in their families to attend college.

Among them is Shanti Chura who topped the first-year commerce class: "I dropped out after Class XII (final year of school) because I could not afford to travel several kilometres everyday to the nearest college. But when the university opened, I immediately applied," Chura says.

The university's Vice-chancellor, CD Singh, says: "Tribal students in little-known hamlets can never dream of going to college. We need more colleges and universities in tribal dominated districts to ensure affirmative action reaches those who need it the most."

Meanwhile, recent data from the country's premier engineering institutions - the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs - suggest the effects of reservation have been limited to the better-off among the reserved communities.

Two of every three OBC students selected to the elite IITs in 2009 would have made it without any quotas, according to the data.

"Our experience has been that the more privileged of the SC/ST have benefited most from reservation in higher education," says S.S. Murthy a professor at IIT Delhi. "To be able to compete you need resources which are not available to kids in villages and small towns."

Murthy collected data from the first-year class at IIT Punjab: "Out of a class of 50, there were perhaps three or four students who had not enrolled for coaching classes."

He refers to expensive private crammers that charge hefty fees to help students crack competitive entrance examinations, including for the IITs. Murthy found the more privileged of the reservation students had attended the best coaching institutes alongside other candidates

Details of scores in the last test year revealed that some 1,300 of 1,930 OBC students admitted to the IITs secured marks in the Joint Entrance Examination that would have guaranteed them seats even without quotas.

"All these [reserved] seats have definitely helped. But it is very small in comparison to the total population of SC/ST. The poorest among the SC/ST are still out of the education loop," says sociologist Professor Dipankar Gupta.

Now the reservation on the basis of cast should be stopped and instead given on the basis of economic condition. This would be of more help for the future of India.

Ramchandra Pawar