Uproar over caste quotas for colleges

Observations on India

It began tamely enough in April with columnists wringing their hands in the Sunday papers, gained heat with student demonstrations that provoked police brutality, and became really serious when striking doctors brought India's emergency services to a standstill. In mid-May people were on hunger strike; by the month's end the Supreme Court was wrestling with the problem and the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was pleading with the country to give him time to sort it out.

The debate in India over the proposal to extend "quotas" in higher education - the share of further education places reserved for disadvantaged groups - has exposed two of the country's rawest nerves: its continuing vulnerability to the politics of caste and the poor state of its education system.

Under the new scheme put forward by the Congress party - the senior partner in the ruling coalition - universities and colleges will reserve 27.5 per cent of their places, from next June, for "other backward classes" (OBC), an unwieldy jumble of 3,743 castes and subcastes that accounts for about half the population. And this arrangement will operate alongside the share of 22 per cent of places already reserved under the constitution for "scheduled tribes" and "scheduled castes", the lowest ranks in Hinduism's social hierarchy.

Congress has presented the move as part of its mission to champion aam aadmi, the "common man", but sceptics suggest that it is no more than "vote bank" politics - next year will bring elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, populous states with large OBC constituencies where Congress is out of power. This is likely to please many voters there.

The burgeoning middle classes, however, are not pleased; seeing their share squeezed, they complain that the new quotas spell the "death of merit".

There is no doubt that good higher education is already in short supply in India, where access is marked by what sociologists are calling "hyperselectivity". In a country of more than a billion people, for example, there are 2,000 places per year for the first stage of medical training in government-run colleges, while 300,000 well-qualified aspirants have to compete for 4,000 places across the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to study engineering.

Given India's growing role in the globalised world, the problem is acute, and industry is alarmed. Sanjay Labroo, whose Asahi glass company is a major supplier to the booming car industry, has warned of the threat that the quotas pose to "the few pockets of excellence we have built". It is certainly not hard to find examples of things that threaten to go wrong: if the quotas were already in place, for one, this year's top student at the Guwahati IIT, a Tamil Brahman called Ashwin Subramani, might well not have got into the college in the first place.

Many remain convinced, however, that something must be done about the desperate under-representation of poorer Indians in higher education, and that affirmative action of this kind is the only way forward.

Yet there is also a view that the government may not be tackling educational inequality at the right level. Vimala Ramachandran, an education researcher, says the schools system is "dysfunctional", with chronic shortages of teachers and schools. What is the point of gestures at higher education, she asks, when millions fall at the first hurdle? "The only ones to benefit will be the 'creamy layer'," she says - a reference to the elite among the lower castes.

Having unleashed a tide of anger and disappointment at virtually every class level, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must be regretting having played the caste card.