Modi’s bill leaves out the oppressed castes from reservation in private colleges

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  • Narendra Modi government’s reservation bill, which got approved by India's Parliament, sets aside 10% of seats for the poor including those from upper castes in private colleges.
  • However, the proposal does not mention reservation for the historically oppressed castes
  • ‘Economically weaker’ will be determined based on annual family income of up to ₹800,000 (US$11,000) and other indicators like land holdings
  • Only minority educational institutions need not reserve seats
India had mandated, so far, that higher educational institutions in India have a designated quota for affirmative action for its backward and scheduled castes and tribes with the exception of private institutions. However, that is about to change.

The Narendra Modi government’s reservation bill, which got approved by India’s Parliament on Wednesday (January 9), has spelt out that private colleges, whether or not they are aided by the state, will now need to reserve 10% of seats for ‘economically weaker’ sections among upper castes.

But the bill does not specify any such affirmative action for the historically-oppressed castes or backward castes within the Hindu caste system. ‘Other backward castes’ (OBCs) make up about 52% of India population, according to the last count done by the Mandal Commission report in the 1980s. The historically marginalised scheduled castes and scheduled tribes made up about 25% of the country’s population as of the government’s census in 2011.

Only educational institutions run by minorities will be allowed to operate without reserving seats for the poor, according to the bill. It’s unclear which minorities will be included.

While the exact definition of economically weaker sections for private educational quotas for colleges is vague from the bill, it states that it will be based on family income and other indicators of economic disadvantage that will be notified by the government. Elsewhere, all other reservations sought in the bill will make eligible anyone with an annual family income up to ₹800,000 (US$11,000). Given India’s average per capita income is under $2000, that ceiling is likely to cover almost all of middle class in India.

The move is expected to rile up millions of middle-class Indians who complain about lack of seats in educational institutions every year, even where there is no reservation for lower castes.

But the anger may really boil over from the country’s scheduled castes and tribes, which have been at the bottom of the social pyramid for centuries. They form as much as 24% of the country’s population. Most of them have been identified as backward on almost all counts of development including their economic status.

Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy told Al Jazeera that the income bracket under the reservation bill “would include the Indian upper middle class, which makes the proposal doubly ridiculous."

Leaving them out of reserved access in private education may trigger political backlash, from a sizeable population, for the government that will be seeking reelection in less than five months.

Perception game

India’s middle class, mostly made of people with the most social privileges if not more, have historically fumed at any kind of affirmative action. But contrary to that perception, even the state-backed premier institutions like the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) have struggled to fill their seats reserved for lower castes.

Earlier this year, government data showed that out of the nearly 11,000 seats across all the IITs in India, a whopping 274 seats went unfilled since 2013. In 2017, the IITs reported 121 vacant seats.

Even in private primary schools, which are required by law to reserve admissions for poor children under the India’s Right to Education Act, as much as 7% of such reserved seats go empty because of lax monitoring and apathy.

These numbers show that the opposition to any affirmative action in education may be based on perception than ground realities.
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