Reservations, is a great technique to bring people at par with each other, by giving additional opportunities in education and employment to people who are unprivileged or backward. It sponsors equality. Many developing countries have tried this as a prescription for inclusivity. But if reservations fail to achieve the mission that they are set out to achieve, and the oppression of the backward citizens continues in the hands of the more privileged ones, obviously something is not going right. Reservation, if it promotes equality, is welcome. But if it polarises the society, it is no less than a disaster. Further, if reservations are used as tools enabling manipulations, then these should be treated as criminal activities.
In India, reservations are now in the third generation. No specific data has been captured to prove or disprove whether reservations have had any genuine impact. It must have benefited a large number of unprivileged citizens but it has not achieved inclusivity to the extent as desired. It is also suspected that influential people have pocketed its benefits. The percentage of poor in India, if at all, is increasing. The question the citizens ask is where the benefits of reservation are being delivered and sunk.
Reservations have an interesting history that many may not be aware. It started from the First World War. The British rulers’ promise of freedom to India after the First World War, was somewhat resisted by the lower castes for the fear of being discriminated against, by the people of higher castes. To mitigate this problem, the British made provisions for granting enhanced opportunities for depressed people. Initially, His Majesty of the Council had the discretion to decide who was eligible for considerations under the depressed category.
Morley-Minto reforms, Montagu-Chelmsford reforms and the Simon Commission were some of the initiatives that happened in this context. The Government of India Act 1935 formalised the definition of scheduled class in the form of explicit lists and removed the ambiguity inherent in the discretionary nature of the erstwhile definition. In short, the story of reservations started with an attempt to diffuse the class distinction created by the ancient Hindu caste system. It has now acquired a completely different connotation.
Pioneering the Reservations Paradigm
The drafters of the Indian constitution visualised that a major chunk of population, because of living in remote areas, might remain devoid of benefits that would be available to other citizens of free India. To neutralise this handicap they introduced reservations in education and employment. In their opinion, this approach was easier than extending the reach of the facilities to remote locations. And they believed that in due course of time the backward classes would be propped up to a level that equals the others.
Some strange reawakening prompted the Janta Party government under Bharat Ratna Morarji Desai to enlarge the span of reservations. Mandal commission was established in India in 1979 with a mandate to identify the socially or educationally backward, based on additional parameters. The commission brought in 11 socio-economic and educational indicators to determine backwardness and introduced the term ‘Other Backward Classes (OBC)’, as a yet another class distinction in the country. The commission’s report of 1980 recommended that for accommodating the OBC class, the reservation quotas might be increased from the erstwhile 27 per cent to 49.5 per cent. This was of course disputed and resisted, and in the agitation that followed, a self-immolation too took place in Delhi.
Consequences of Reservations
It may not be wrong to conclude that reservations, by being in effect for 65 years, have achieved whatever potential they had in this approach. From now on, a different outlook is required. And if they have still not achieved the mission, then again a change is required in this paradigm.
Compromise on Equality
Youth of today are heavily disappointed with the whole gamut of reservations. According to law, up to 50% opportunities are reserved for backward classes and OBCs etc. In addition, 10 to 20 percent are reserved by professional institutes for local population. A major chunk of the balance is consumed by the cronies and powerful people. So what is left for the average citizen, who has no advantage of reservations or cronies?
If this is what the youth of tomorrow is going to feel, reservations must be terminated before the monster becomes a menace in the society. It should not be allowed to distort and disorientate the level playfield that is so much necessary in democracy. The situation is explosive to the extent of mass unrest and violent confrontations.
Adverse effects on Professionalism
On the professional front, reservations have encouraged individuals of dubious capabilities or potential to be placed in important positions. Many of such individuals have failed to come up to the level of professional standards that are required for the positions that they take. This is obvious from the fact that politicians now advocate for reservations in promotions, a process that is globally dependent on performance. And the same politicians never expose themselves to the services of doctors employed under the reservations quota? It is distressing to observe that the entire gamut of reservations works against the principles of professionalism. Would a prudent administrator prefer degradation in professional levels in the times of fierce competition?
Political Motivations for Reservations
It is also rather surprising that politicians continue to favour reservations and even advocate its furtherance, in spite of its miserable delivery. The fact that no one speaks about reduction in reservations is a clear indication that no one expects reservations to achieve anything. There are no targets, only measures. Then what makes the politicians favour continuance of reservations? The answer is simple. They use it as a ploy to entice gullible citizens during elections.
Reservations for the Future 
One must not forget that in the scenario of increasing population and diminishing resources, our leaders have to ensure that reservations must achieve what they are meant to achieve. Otherwise, they may lead the country to where the masses of the reserved categories eclipse the competent professionals of the non-reserved classes. Freedom, equality and the rule of law are the three canons of democracy, and they should override all other considerations, including reservations. Otherwise, we may rather change the stand that India is a democracy. Or we may downgrade our aspirations for GDP growth or prosperity.
The way in which the underprivileged societies must be brought at par is not by reservations alone, but by empowerment so that they can survive in the modern hostile environment of competition with grace and without humiliation. Equality should mean equality in competition too.
The parameters that entitle an individual for reservation must be defined very carefully and these must be moderated as the time passes. These should certainly not be arbitrary. Probably, the only parameter for inclusion should be poverty status. Certainly, caste, religion and the 11 additional factors included by the Mandal commission should be drastically rationalised in accordance with the following recommendations.
- For citizens Below Poverty Line
- Twenty Five percent of existing seats in educational institutes partly or fully funded by the government, up to high school level must be reserved for up to two members of a poor family.
- Not more than 5 percent quota should be imposed on completely privately funded institutions.
- Ten percent quota for professional openings and employment must be reserved for BPL for only one person of the family.
- These benefits should remain available to the families only once in a block of 10 years.
- For citizens Above Poverty Line – People above the APL level should not be allowed reservations benefits of any sort.
- For citizens falling between the APL and BPL levels should be provided with additional 10 percent quota (making it the total to 35 percent) in educational and employment opportunities.
- There should be no reservation for promotion to higher positions.
- There should be provisions to remove people from the reservation list periodically as well as on achievement of a level of prosperity. These rules are only meaningful if the country has a computerised database of the population expected to fall under the BPL or APL levels.
Continuing reservations without a time limit only indicates the government’s conviction that the system is not expected to improve things. Logically speaking, as the government progressively provides facilities in backward areas, the considerations for reservations must reduce. If we continue treading on the path of reservations as we are doing now, we might remain immersed in the whirlpool of arguments and counter arguments, and other countries will fly past us; something for which the 5th generation will not forgive their predecessors.
If we expect our youth to perform, we should provide them with the right environment, which means level playfields, to function in.
 Voltaire – It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong