Reservations don’t make access to resources easier for lower-caste students

Social stigma, lack of awareness, bureaucratic hurdles prevent students from making use of quotas

A greater share of upper-caste students believed that lower caste and tribal students are not good enough and that the disadvantages of quota system outweigh its advantages. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
A greater share of upper-caste students believed that lower caste and tribal students are not good enough and that the disadvantages of quota system outweigh its advantages. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Students from backward castes and tribal communities are often disparaged for not being good enough and using the reservation system to gain admissions. A recent paper from the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research shows students from these strata strive just as hard for seats in colleges and government jobs, but despite that face a social stigma.

The paper’s conclusion is based on a 2013-14 survey of 1,049 young men who finished high school from government schools of a similar quality in Delhi. Of these, 41% were eligible for quotas in education and employment.

However, only 27% of those eligible used their benefits at least once, says the survey titled Double Jeopardy? Caste, Affirmative Action and Stigma, conducted by Ashwini Deshpande, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics.

That means 73% of those eligible for benefits didn’t make use of them. Why?

About 17% of the people eligible for reservations cited stigma as the reason for not making use of quotas. Of this, 10% said they did not do so as they “did not want the stigma of reservation”, while another 7.4% wanted to “show that they could do without government help”.

Even if these students weren’t concerned about social stigma, access to these reserved seats is not easy. Survey data shows one in four of those eligible could not use their quotas as they did not know about the scheme while another 22.2% were obstructed by bureaucratic difficulties.

Social Stigma

The reasons why some students indicated social stigma as the reason for not opting for quotas is the stereotyped judgment they often suffer at the hands of their peers. The survey has some data to back that.

A higher proportion of upper caste students believed that students on quota are incompetent and not hard-working. A greater share of upper caste students also believed that lower caste and tribal students are not good enough and that the disadvantages of the quota system outweigh its advantages.

To see if there is a difference in the scores obtained between caste categories in the previous exams that qualified them for admission to colleges, the paper also looked at a sample of 471 graduate and postgraduate students of 17-25 years drawn from some colleges of Delhi University.

Data showed that average scores of backward caste and tribal students were lower than other categories, implying that they were more likely to have been admitted through quotas. However, there was no significant difference in terms of hours put into studies per day. Also, 79% of students did not take any private tuition in addition to their classes, with no significant difference between caste groups.

Thus, it would be unfair to imply that backward caste students have it easy because of the quota system.

If anything, experts believe poor performance among backward category students may not always be due to lack of adequate study preparations, but because of the disadvantaged backgrounds they come from.

For instance, the education levels and occupation of parents plays a major role in influencing the academic performance of the children. The survey reveals that approximately 15% of the scheduled caste mothers in the sample were illiterate, as against less than 1% in the case of upper caste students. A greater proportion of upper caste students also reported their father to be engaged in ‘business’ or being a ‘businessman’.

“There is a fundamental discrimination in access to better education or jobs. The disparity in access creates a handicap for backward castes. To say they have easy access just because of reserved seats is not true,” said Vikas Rawal, professor of economic studies and planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

It is also a myth that reservations affect productivity adversely. A 2011 paper by Deshpande and Thomas Weisskopf of the University of Michigan shows that reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in the railways have not harmed productivity. In fact, reservations for senior railway posts may have increased productivity, underlying the thesis that diversity boosts output.

But then, reservation is not the only factor generating this stigma. Discriminatory attitude towards people from lower castes is a reflection of underlying social beliefs.

A previous Plain Facts story detailed how caste-based discrimination might be at play in private sector recruitment, where candidates with upper caste surnames had a higher probability of being called for job interviews.

Therefore, eliminating or weakening the quota system will not reduce any of this prejudice, the paper states.