Reservations: The Indian equivalent of affirmative action

(Courtesy/Indian Student Association)

(Courtesy/Indian Student Association)

Equal representation is a problem that society faces at every turn, especially considering the diversity that comprises the human race. Equal representation means giving all people a voice and giving them the opportunity to be heard. However, different parts of the world have their own cultural struggles that inhibit them from making that a reality.

On Nov. 30, Indian Students Association (ISA) held their fall philanthropy event which focused on reservations in India. The idea of reservations is similar to that of affirmative action: those who are disadvantaged should have the same opportunities as those are advantaged. However, what sets reservations apart from affirmative action is its basis on caste and tribes, not race.

The caste system in India is a social hierarchy with deep historical roots. Indians were classified by the jobs they held, putting the outcast Dalits (the caste below laborers) at the very bottom. In the mid 1900s, reservations were launched to bring justice to castes and tribes that were historically marginalized, since they make up about 25 percent of the country’s total population. India implemented a certain percentage or number of required reserved seats throughout various areas of society, including politics, higher education and employment.

While the intentions were good-hearted, reservations have created a divide in India’s people: the ones that believe in the hard work to reach higher social levels and the ones that believe in the necessity of a level playing field. The debate has caused religious discrimination, devaluation of jobs and political corruption.

Reservations are currently available to Hindus and, for India’s range of religions, this causes a separation in their people. Jobs held by people of lower castes are perceived to have a lower value than jobs held by people of higher castes. With a 50 percent reservation for government seats, politics breeds corruption that twists the intentions of reservations.

“With politicians involved in this, there are extended blocks of voters, so they can get a higher position based off the voters’ caste…(the voters) will obviously vote for what gives them more votes,” Gayatri Sivalenka, ISA’s philanthropy chair, said.

There are gray areas that blur the system’s intentions. However, recent effects have shown the benefits of reservations.

“Poverty declined from 1981 to 2014,” guest speaker Nisith Prakash, an economics professor at UConn, said. “Tribe reservations reduced the depth of poverty...and decreased child labor.” He also discussed how the reservation system increases public goods provisions and brings diversity to the forefront.

In recent years, the system has developed to make reservations for gender as well. Public goods provisions increased when the quota for female political representatives was filled and marked an increase of the number of girls going to school.

That being said, the reservation system has many applications to Indian society, but the ISA board members focused their discussion on its applications to education. The reservation system extends to many areas of education, from acceptance to scholarship eligibility.

“There was a parliamentary bill that passed in December 2012 where it orders bureaucrats to not base scholarships on merit alone to lift backwards castes out of their disadvantaged statuses... This is a very recent, ongoing phenomenon,” Richa Chhaya, ISA Vice President, said.

The issue of reservations brings up a huge question of equal representation: What constitutes a system as a solution or a problem? There are clear, measurable positive and negative effects of the system. From here, it is about measuring the long-term effects, and the long-term answers, of finding ways to give a voice to those who have been silent for too long.


Armana Islam is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at armana.islam@uconn.edu.