The Politics of Reservations

In the† July 2009 Pragati, you can find my article on the politics of reservations.
Whenever supporters of reservations have to make the case for extending reservations for another 10 years, they are faced with a dilemma. If they admit that reservations have achieved their goal, then why do they want them extended? And if they admit that they have not achieved their goal, then why are they persisting with a failed policy for over 60 years? The generally accepted solution to this is to claim that reservations have had some effect, and the policy would be even more effective if it had been properly implemented, and for that they need to extend reservations in time and scope.† This is what I meant when I compared reservations to Yossarian’s liver in Catch-22 – if doctors can confirm that it is a disease, they would have to treat it. If they pronounce him cured, they would have to discharge him. Because the problem was invariably in between, Yossarian could stay indefinitely in hospital.

Here, I would like to respond to some points that were made by Anubhav Agarwal, who made these points as twitter replies. The points here have been edited for readability:

  1. Won’t it be an ambitious generalization to assume no trickle down effect inspite of caste fragmentation?
  2. I never said that there has been no trickle down effect. I said that when you consider the enormous costs.† The biggest cost is that reservations†provide an incentive for politicians to take control of resources so that they can†ration them out.†††If education were cheap or if jobs were freely available, why would Mayawati’s voters see her as the saviour? So, she has an incentive to pursue policies that restricts opportunities available to the poor, so that she can be seen as fighting to bring those opportunities to them.

  3. Also, how many of the target castes would be able to afford private education?
  4. James Tooley has done research on this topic in Hyderabad. He has found that even the poorest parents send their children to unrecognized private schools in preference to government schools, even when they are available. He has also measured outcomes and found that children who go to these schools did better in terms of actual outcomes (as in learning of the three Rs, etc.)† than those who went to government schools did. Private education is expensive only because the government imposes so many regulations on them that they are unable to function legally. Unrecognized private schools are filling this gap and providing cheap and good education to the poor. Fortunately, our government has swung into action with the “Right to Education Bill”, which will enable them to close down those private schools.

  5. On reservations in the private sector, please have a look at this article
  6. I will, but the biggest beneficiaries of reservations in the private sector will not be the scheduled or backward castes. It will be the labour inspectors who will now have even greater opportunity to inspect employment records, collect bribes and make life hell for the companies. The additional costs imposed will make it even more difficult for private companies to operate, resulting in even fewer employment opportunities, thus achieving Mayawati’s dream.

  7. One last point: Doesn’t the failure of reservations include failure of many other policies?
  8. Yes indeed, see above.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Reservations

  1. But in the absence of a political will to reform education, wouldn’t the social costs of not implementing reservations far exceed the costs of having them and therefore be justified?

  2. Not really, unless you think that Mayawati style politics is net positive for the Dalits. I know that many people do think so, but I think that they are extremely deluded. In addition, I believe that the “upliftment” of the “OBCs” is not a positive in any sense.

  3. huh?..either you didn’t get me or I don’t get you. So, let me try it once again. Do you believe there are social costs, like political stability for instance, to not having reservations?. I ask that because you seemed to have ignored those while you focused on the costs of having reservations…And if the costs they offset be greater than these later costs, wouldn’t they be justified? Assume other prescriptions, like yours, are infeasible for the moment because they lack traction in the political ideas space..

  4. As I have already mentioned in this post, I believe that it is because of reservations that the political class does not have the will to carry out reforms, because it benefits from keeping the poor backward.

    Leaving that aside, if you mean that we get political stability through reservations, then you might have a point. Reservations have the utility that we are throwing crumbs at the middle class among the SCs/STs, keeping them happy, thereby preventing them from inciting the actual poor to revolt.

  5. I think it’s a bit odd that you should think people can be manipulated so in making political decisions but not when it comes to making economic decisions (what I gather from your other posts)..

    Anyway, we are each tempered by our own experiences. I come from a village in the Krishna-Godavari delta–A region not so stark in social inequalities as perhaps several other regions. My family has been land owners and wielded all the political power in the village up until a decade ago. I’ve seen the transformation, both in terms of political assertiveness as well as economic progress, brought on by reservations. Even my father, who I think is overtly casteist, grudgingly admits to their benefits. I doubt if all this is an exception.

    About reforms…if you do believe government policy needs to address social inequalities, this paper says the more efficient policy “grants preferred access to positions, but offers no direct assistance
    for acquiring skills”…in short, reservations make for a more efficient policy than, say, your solutions in the Pragati article..

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