Mahendra Kumar Mahavar, a tailor’s son, grew up with neither IIT nor JEE as part of his vocabulary. Then in class 12, Mahavar saw friends signing up for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) to gain admission to the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). So he, too, filled out a form and promptly enrolled in coaching classes.
He scored five marks short of the cut-off. Still, Mahavar got in under the 22.5% quota for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes at the government-run universities. The Rajasthan native arrived at IIT Delhi two years ago, a campus where he learned a lot—from electrical engineering to buying his first pair of jeans.
Here on campus, the very presence of lower-caste and low-scoring students such as Mahavar has been debated for decades. But these days, the 20-year-old finds himself strangely united with the mainstream.
Late last month, the Supreme Court halted a government mandate that public universities set aside even more seats for members of other backward classes (OBCs). Before the court’s decision, Indian colleges and universities, including all seven IITs and six Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), were making preparations to increase capacity, add classrooms and build hostels for campuses where reserved seats would make up half the student body.
The government had recommended that 27% of seats for the other classes be set aside without displacing anybody else.
Mahavar joined much of the campus last week in jubilation over the court ruling. Even last year, he participated in protests against extending reservations to more people.
“Because of quotas, students who are in this category, even intelligent ones, end up studying less for the entrance exam. They think they will get in anyway,” said Mahavar.
Since the court’s decision, many students across IIT Delhi are asking a question that has been posed since India’s independence: Can caste-based reservations correct historical wrongs?
The Union government has already pledged to work with legal experts to try and reverse the court’s ruling. But much of the movement against caste-based admissions comes from students themselves when politicians are reaching out to help them. For example last week, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi met students at IIT Kanpur as part of his election campaigning in Uttar Pradesh.
At IIT-Delhi, visitors don’t have to look far for reaction, although Mahavar was the only “quota student” who agreed to speak to Mint on the record. “The protests last year were to show our emotions, our support. Even quota students participated,” said undergraduate student Atul Garg.
Earlier this week, he and two friends, Nikhil Narayana and Devesh Gautam, gathered after class to chat before heading to laboratory experiments.
All three, who grew up in middle-class families, don’t see how the government will keep its promise that general seats will not be reduced to make way for more quota seats. “It is not possible to build (new) infrastructure in one year,” said Gautam. Added Garg: “Five students share one piece of equipment in the lab right now. After the order, 10 students will share the same equipment. Quality of education gets diluted.”
The argument repeats itself across the country, not just in terms of discontent with quotas but also as a reflection of the near-impossible admission process into India’s few elite professional and public institutes, from medical schools to engineering colleges. At least 2.5 lakh students took the IIT-JEE exam held on Sunday. According to Career Launcher’s website, a career counselling and coaching institute, about 2% of the test-takers will gain admission.
Yet, the odds are stacked even greater against poorer—usually lower-caste students—say advocates for increasing the number of seats. On this campus, such advocates seem to consist mostly of professors and administrators.
“In these colleges especially, it is not a level-playing field. They require specialized coaching and end up self-selecting wealthier people,” said Sujoy Chakravarty, an assistant professor in economics at IIT Delhi.
Indeed, attending coaching institutes around the country have pretty much become the norm for aspirants of both IIT and other regional engineering colleges. One of the better-known ones, Bansal Classes in Kota, Rajasthan, for instance, charges Rs40,000-50,000 per year for its typical two-year course. Mahavar said his uncle helped obtain a fee waiver for the young man’s coaching classes.
Once they make it into an IIT, students’ lives are far from easy. In addition to keeping up with the intense academic course load, they brace themselves for questions about their marks and ranking; at IIT, that question follows the ones about name and place of origin. An honest answer that suggests a rank that is less than the bar for everyone else, means the label “quota student” gets attached.
“They tend to stick together,” claimed Gaurav Garg, a final-year student at IIT, about quota students. Garg said that sometimes votes for hostel positions held by students also get split on caste lines, a trend reflected in India’s elections as well.
But Mahavar, who tries to stay within a budget of Rs2,000 per month, said he has never faced any discrimination or hostility in his two years on the campus. He maintains that his college education ensures he will not have to follow his father’s blue-collar line of work.
“In my area, while a few families have many members in colleges and jobs on reserved seats, there are many who have never had a child attending college,” said Mahavar.
Although now that Mahavar has benefited, he said he didn’t want his children to have to rely on such caste-based programmes.
Some students at IIT have suggested similarly restricting quotas to one generation. Others say the special seats should be based on family income. And many just want admissions to be a pure meritocracy.
The divisive discussions, of course, and their passionate nature spill off the campus too. In Kanpur, 18-year-old Rohan Yadav is nervously counting down the days to the All-India Engineering Entrance Examination. For once, he’s grateful for Team India’s sorry performance—the cricket world cup final is scheduled for 28 April, and his exam on the next day.
According to Uttar Pradesh, Yadav is an OBC—a classification the Supreme Court has just shut out of a special-admissions category. Yadav is hoping to get into one of the National Institutes of Technology. Not quite an IIT, but for the best schools among these, competition can be even stiffer. Career Launcher estimates that 5.5-6 lakh applicants will sit for the engineering exams accepted by 100 institutes, but the top 20 schools will only admit between 5,000 and 6,000 students—a rate of 1%.
Yadav is not counting on the reversal of the apex court’s decision in time for his test. So, he spends his days cramming, memorizing, and praying. He asks aloud: In the debate over reservations, has the focus shifted away from education, away from caring for students?
“With so much bad feelings,” feared Yadav, “I don’t know what the behaviour of others will be towards such students.”