Reservations about Reservations

I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops. — Stephen Jay Gould

The criminal neglect of education, in my considered opinion, is the most important charge upon which the policy makers of India stand indicted. An entire generations of Indians have lived and died since independence—a reasonable estimate would place the number around 500 million humans—about half of whom were illiterate, not just uneducated. The lost potential is stupefyingly mind boggling. How many Ramanujans and Einsteins have they condemned to obscurity and waste, how many did not even see the insides of a school or learn to read, write, reason and do arithmetic?

The answer would break the heart of any thinking human being.

It is time for a full disclosure. My interest in education is not merely academic. I want to transform the current system, which is outdated, outmoded, irrelevant, inefficient and ineffective. Shameless plug follows: if you are interested in working with me in creating the educational system of the future or know someone who may be interested, do get in touch.

Back to the criminal neglect of education. Not only did they—those who were in charge of Indian policy—not create an educational system that works, they are now busy figuring out a way to sabotage a system that seems to sort of work. I am talking about the recent announced policy of increasing the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, and for other backward classes (SC/ST, OBC—as they are termed) in the institutes of higher education. I have expressed some of my views here (see Indian Reservations, and Imagine No Reservations). This piece is an elaboration of the basic theme. My assessment is that it is madness. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, observed old Euripides. I worry about the upcoming destruction of the Indian educational system, which if carried out efficiently enough, effectively dooms India.

Here is a recapitulation of my argument from the previous pieces. Reservation in higher education institutions for SC/ST and OBC candidates is idiotic. The better alternative is to help disadvantaged people—those who I label “sufficiently poor”—with resources so that they can afford an education. If that is done, then even the poor will have equal opportunity to be able to compete and find their place in the world. Assuring equality of opportunity is mandated but equality of outcome is not only not mandated but is an objectively silly goal to aim for.

There are disadvantaged groups and many of these groups have been historically discriminated against. An absolutely valid argument can be made that these groups need help to redress past injuries and injustices. The question is not if they have to be helped, but rather how. Are reservations in higher education the way to go? The answer is no if even after securing admission they are ill-prepared to make use of the opportunity.

I have spoken to faculty members at IITs who have recounted that most quota candidates have to face an uphill struggle and many give up after a few years. It is not that the quota candidates are intrinsically inferior; fact is that they did have the disadvantage of not having had a decent schooling. The only quota candidates that actually do well are those from the upper middle class. One medical college dean revealed that as a last resort, he gets quota students who don’t make the grade to swear that they will not practice medicine and will only take on administrative jobs (there are job quotas there, too), and only on that condition does he pass them so that they exit the system without loss of face.

Let me once again stress: the children of disadvantaged groups are not naturally incompetent. It is the lack of opportunity in the earlier stages of the educational system that handicaps them in the later stages. The playing field has to be leveled at an earlier stage of the game. The solution therefore is not reservations at the higher education level but assistance at the school level.

The question of why reservation in higher education for disadvantaged groups is irrelevant is plain if you do the arithmetic. Even if you do 100 percent reservation in the elite institutions, at most you will have something of the order of 10,000 seats. This is an insignificant number relative to the total number of students in the disadvantaged groups—which is of the order of tens of millions. Indeed, compared to the potential demand for higher education, the actual supply is laughably insignificant.

The IITs attract 300,000 potential students and admit around 5,000. To a first approximation, nobody gets into an IIT. The wide gap between the supply and demand is bridged by a system which has evolved into a grotesque caricature of competition. To enter one of the IITs, there is an exam called the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). The objective of the exam is not to test whether a student is qualified to study at an IIT but rather to weed out about 98.5 percent of the candidates because the IITs are capacity constrained. This leads to enormous economic loss, and at time loss of human lives.

Let’s dwell on the JEE for a bit. Markets work, as we economists are prone to declare at the drop of a hat. Given the supply constraint, the market response is an entire industry which prepares students to do well in the JEE. So there are coaching institutions which charge an arm and a leg to help a student do well in the JEE. It gets surreal when you realize that to get into one of the more successful coaching classes, you have to appear for an admissions test. So, here is the deal: you have to pass an admissions test to get into a coaching class which will prepare you for the JEE so that you can get into an IIT. What next—that there will be second- and third-order coaching classes? That is, you will have to appear for a test to enroll in a class that will help you take the admissions test to get into a coaching class which prepares you to pass the JEE.

Here is the economics of this surreal system: an IIT education is worth, say, Rs 100 lakhs (around $220K). But the total private cost is only Rs 5 lakhs. So the “profit” is Rs 95 lakhs. So even if you have to pay Rs 5 lakhs to increase your chances of getting into an IIT, it makes sense. That is therefore what the market delivers: high priced coaching classes. About one hundred thousand go to coaching classes and of these about 5,000 make it to the IITs. The 95,000 who don’t make it have to lump it, and some even take the extreme route of killing themselves. Why? They realize that their parents have spent money they could not afford to send them to coaching and they failed their parents.

Let’s take stock. The supply of higher education is severely limited. The reason for this supply limitation I will go into in a bit. The demand is high. The competition for admission leads to economic waste, for starters. Then there is the even more expensive skewing of the objective of the students: they are often not spending time and resources to understand the subject or because they like it, but because they want to do better in the admissions test than their competitors. Instead of producing thinking, cooperating humans, the system forces too many to focus on a narrow objective and to develop a maniacal zeal to study for a test that is more of a test of narrowly defined skills rather than an overall test of fitness to pursue higher studies. This exercise, I am sure, damages many students’ personalities so that they become anti-social and un-cooperative. They become incapable of group cooperation in solving problems. I have met too many IIT graduates who are perfectly dreadful people to hang out with. They are self-absorbed, narrow-minded, money-grubbing uni-dimensional idiots. I should hasten to add that there are notable exceptions to this characterization, of course.

The issue of reservation in higher education is not really complex. It is rather simple if one thinks about it for a while. Einstein observed that the universe is ultimately comprehensible. Compared to that, the economic system of a nation is child’s play. Although apparently confusing, India’s failures are totally comprehensible if one bothers to look at it with some degree of care. Just investigating thoroughly only one aspect of the economy would reveal the fact that ultimately it is the combined result of a small set of conditions. I will explore to its logical conclusion just one simple fact: why is education in India so supply constrained. It will become apparent that there are systemic problems which can be addressed. Like a good detective story, the plot line is simple. The system is the way it is because it leads to gains for those who are in charge. Once we have considered the facts, the solution will be obvious.

For now, here is the hint: barriers to entry. What are they, why do they exist, and how can they be removed? That I will do in the next piece. Stay tuned.

Author: Atanu Dey


28 thoughts on “Reservations about Reservations”

  1. Atanu,

    To add to what you have said, I frequently mention to my friends that in terms of creative output our population of 1000 million is probably no more than that of an advanced nation of 50 million people. Now, you can argue with the number, but I suspect this is not far of- I have just benchmarked this with the population of some nations. The sad part is it need not be so. I am equally passionate about education and reforming it even if I do not have enough of an alternate complete framework to suggest.

    Ending discrimination is a critical pre-condition both to enhance access to opportunities and address the need for restoration of the dignity of the deprived communities. Sadly, I have advocates of this discrimination in some sections of my family, even today. This retrograde attitude is also the outcome of inadequate education! Reforming this state of affairs is cirtical to our construction of a productive and creative society in India.

    I agree that reservation of seats in capacity constrained higher education is not the right solution. MASSIVE investment in primary and secondary education is one of the critical elements of the strategy; although I do believe this will have to be supplemented with other action.

    Will look forward to our post on eliminating the barriers to supply!


  2. Nice blog and nice analysis.

    One sentence requires clarification though

    “I have met too many IIT graduates who are perfectly dreadful people to hang out with. They are self-absorbed, narrow-minded, money-grubbing uni-dimensional idiots. I should hasten to add that there are notable exceptions to this characterization, of course.”

    Were you saying that “self-absorbed, narrow-minded, money-grubbing uni-dimensional idiots” is the rule, and others are exceptions ?

    Just a minor quibble. Keep writing.


  3. >>Like a good detective story, the plot line is simple. The system is the way it is because it leads to gains for those who are in charge.

    I agree 100%. I too think that if things go the way it is currently planned by those in charge, we will end up being a mass of clay that they can mould into whatever they want.


  4. Education as in days long gone by, used to be reffered to as the basic 3 “R”s = Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmatic. The fundamentals of education. NOT Batchelors / Masters / Doctorates / Academic titles.
    Higher education was a pursuit of higher knowledge nothing to do with education as such. However, in today’s highly competative job market people with so called “higher” academic titles (mostly devoid of the skills) are able to secure jobs lower than their qualifications would normally permit. i.e. an engineer gets the job of a mechanic, a doctor that of a nurse….nobody is actually helped..the downward spiral continues. So, getting a “degree” is no longer about getting a “higher” education but rather about being able to get a job. Purpose of higher education thereby being defeated.
    Everything (in this instance) Atanu says I have to agree with. Close the IITs, IIMs and open more basic educational institutions including vocational training colleges. High time the poor stopped financing the cheap (hi-tech)labour export to the west (US and UK)!
    Our specific problem regarding education in India is very deep rooted. We (as a nation) went from Pataliputra to Patna without a fight! Think about that! From having the first University, the first Library, the first Academy of Performing Arts, Kama Sutra, Upanishads…..the list is ENDLESS…..and today? A nation of beggers, a billion “weak”…we excel in supplying the world with doctors, engineers, and all other “highly qualified” but docile servants……disgusting!!

    And the battle for a level playing field continues……..


  5. The quote “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong” is what comes to mind through all of this. I think you’ve correctly pointed out the core of the problem, ie: the criminal neglect of basic education for the bulk of the population.

    I am enraged by the mainstream establishment’s utter disregard for the real issues at the core of this debate. I am further enraged by politicians who twist the core issues to play to their support base. I look north and see how succesfull the Chinese have become with just a simple dedication to basic primary education and primary infrastructure. Why can’t we achieve the same?

    This war for the ability to get education to our nation is not over. I hold out hope that new technology will also help.


  6. This article’s freaking brilliant. As an IITian myself (top 100 AIR, I’ll add, just to ward of any ‘envy’ accusations), I loved the take on the IITs…we have just been the replacement for the IAS in the Brit period. Yeah, brilliant and exclusive and prestigious and so on, but ultimately just tools (for Brits then, for Americans now).

    I have always worried about the vast gap between the quality of education in the IITs (and the few other top colleges) vs the vast majority of colleges in India. Is the guy that gets rank 5001 in the JEE that much more “stupid” than me that he does not deserve a high-quality education? Is the improvement of other educational institutions going to dilute the IIT degree all that much?

    I really liked the way this article focuses the issue on the supply of higher education, rather than the demand for it.


  7. Atanu,

    Very valid points well-made. Thanks for that. Bettering education should be the first and foremost of everything WE do.

    On crib I have is: you mentioned poverty as the most important criterion. I differ. These reservations go a long long way in getting a whole community out of the doldrums. I have gone to KGP myself, seen plenty of my friends from poor villages coming in with or without reservations, striving hard and being very successful. They served as a role model for a whole generation of people in their down-trodden villages. I have experienced first-hand the electrifying effect it has on junior kids from the community.

    Reservation has and would continue to have a much necessary and last impact on society in India (as well as societies all around the world). Of course, 50% reservation is going quite a bit overboard.


  8. Atanu,

    I have very little to add.
    In my opinion there are two components (not necessarily mutually exclusive) Social discrimination and economic backwardness.
    At the time of writing constitution reservation was meant as an instrument against social discrimination.
    This might have meant sense but to me there is one problem with this approach, which is framing any policy requires collection and correct interpretation of the data. I am not sure that any indicator which measures extent of social discrimination can be properly devised and therefore besides certain measures (for example land distribution) policies such as reservation will remain intrisically flawed.
    The only solution that I can offer is a new reawakening of Indian society.
    More than ever India needs Swami Vivekananda and Guru Narayan. This however is hardly a policy framework.

    Wrt. IITians, while I accept there is certain hubris (or spring) in IITians, I don’t think that IITians are much different from overachievers from different field.



  9. I just listened to Chidambarm’s arguments on NDTV against the doctors’ demand of “evaluation of efficacy of reservation”. He says it every one of “us” has seen that BC’s have benefitted from reservation in TN AP and Karnataka.
    Prannoy Roy , true to his pro-congress bias asked him no questions. But I have a question. If BC’s have actaully benefitted from reservation then why do their next generations need more reservations ?



  10. Hi Atanu

    It is ridiculous that the education system is hostage to the politics of the quota system.It is obvious that the fools in power have no deep understanding of the system, its complexities and how to redeem it. Staying tuned for your next post.




  11. In this article, there appears to be somewhat direct co-relation between the finacnial forwardness and doing good academically. “…The only quota candidates that actually do well are those from the upper middle class. ”

    The society, for whatever reasons, looks like an incestuous one wherever so-called upper-castes (also “creamy layer amongst SC/ST) corner the major chunk among themselves by way of merit.

    The same thing may be repeating when one argues that “creamy layer” amongst SC/ST is getting benefitted from reservations. So is it the manisfestation of merit in this select group of people.

    Does it say anything about merit argument? Can we say that merit herein means to overcome the parameters of achieving merit by sheer power of financial cocoon?

    It is told that access to primary education is the answer to the skewness in the system but is anybody interested in it?

    Can one guy from Govt. school can be on equal footing while competing with Public School guy?

    The answer to above may be obvious but is it the right answer.
    Is this because the access to opportunities is skewed towards better-offs or because of the networking effect wherein one gets benefitted if one is related to/ belongs to better-offs.


  12. You might be interested in these figures: 6-7% of all 17 to 23 year olds in India enroll for undergraduation. To me there is a severe lack of opportunity for eveyone and I hate the grand vision of MHRD which wants to make this figure 10% by 2007 and impplement reservations.


    TO BE ANSWERED ON 14.12.2004



    Will the Minister of HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT be pleased to state:-

    (a) the average annual number of candidates getting enrolled against under graduate courses at present;

    (b) the percentage of such students to the total population of the country;

    (c) whether the Government has set any target to increase this number; and

    (d) if so, the details thereof and the time by which the target is likely to be achieved?



    (a) & (b): An average of about 78.50 lakhs students were enrolled annually through formal system of education for undergraduate courses in universities/colleges during the last four years, apart from enrollment in distance education. This is about 6-7 % of the population in the relevant age group of 17-23 years.

    (c) & (d): The aim of the Government is to increase the enrollment against undergraduate courses to 10% by the end of Xth Plan period (2002-2007). This includes both formal and distance education.


  13. Atanu,

    Do you think that creating a new economically backward group will be pragmatic ?

    For someone who has been living with socio economics , I need not tell you about monpolistic forces that tend to undermine the free market trade. Don’t you think that governmental regulation has helped in preventing this.

    We can look at our dynamics of the caste system in the same perspective . Any such effort to create an equilibrium would always have to combat the dominant forces .If not for legislation what will be effective alternative here ?

    However, I would not support the idiotic extent to which the current caste based reservations have been ?

    I do not know the answer for these questions , but cannot definetly agree to what has been your proposal ?

    I think reservations involves multitude of issues , each of which has to be given proper weightage before we can arrive at a clear solution .



  14. Hello Atanu,
    I understand the agitation against the reservation thing proposed by our govt.But is it necessary to present your views in a rash manner.Though the analysis done is commendable;i wonder why people like you are worried?Being an “iitian”,you will establish yourself outside.Then all this hooplah over the quota will be drowned.
    You know what instead of writing such articles,do some action which can prevent the reservation in long term.This is not an issue of one day or month or a year.If you really want to do something stop lecturing and work out something for the cause of it.I hope you will take it in a positive note.Even in reservation,there are multitudes of aspects are there to ponder upon.


  15. Hi Atanu,
    I fully appreciate your efforts in making such a nice and exhaustive article. Reservation is providing crtuches to youth of the country. It is just a political gimmick which our politician are using from time to time to reserve their seats.


  16. This is regarding the lot of tussle on reservation to backward class students in education.
    It is heartening to see the unity of the people fighting for and against. But one of the saddest thing in this that both the sections are too leftist or rightist and it is very hardly few people who seems to be centrist, keep mum or their view are not covered or explicated in any of the forum or all type of media.

    We hardly see any leaders who express any centrist views. The leaders who advocate for reservation for the backward people in general and keeping their own caste people in specific or look like are forgetting one thing. Any reservation in the present form is not really going to help the people those who actually to be uplifted from the present economic and social status. To strengthen my view just i want to put the following points:
    a) If one person of his family from any category for that matter, got the benefit of the reservation, should not be allowed to use the reservation policy again. For example if one of the backward or schedule caste person got the opportunity to get enrolled in Engineering or medical should not be allowed to use the opportunity of his / her kin.
    b) Though I am advocating for reservation for oppressed based on caste, I am not discouraging to have a reservation policy for economic backward people from the so called higher castes.
    c) If not more and more kith and kin of Engineers, doctors ,IAS officers and MLA/MPs to name few, will easily outsmart the people of their own caste / class people which can not be denied by the so called advocators / protestors.
    d) If economically backward peoples are not given opportunity to come up in life the ultimate aim of reservation is meaningless.
    e) Being one who got opportunity to get Engineering admission by reservation for OBC, I am prepared not use the same opportunity to my kin.
    f) The suitable ways and means to be identified to implement this.

    I hope the silent souls will atleast accept the fact and come forward to show the administrators and politicians that there is another view which is ideally be the centrist.


  17. reservations have become socially divisive nowadays making us wonder that are they not a process of starting a new type of apartheid regime based upon caste and majoritarianism. also franlkly speaking they are morphing into a clear process of discrimination against the majority population; thats by denying 30-40% so called forward caste population an equal oppurtunity in the national resources and DALIT POPULATIONS who are also economically disadvantaged an equal oppurtunity by making them compete with elite of their own caste. economic criteriae in deciding the backwardness of a caste are neglected and they are also neglected when deciding who is worthy of upliftment even amongst the dalits. so, a separate caste group of elite dalits is being created who make fool of their own caste men by dangling practically inaccessible carrot in front of them. they are the ones who will usurp all resources. but future and history will not be kind to them.


  18. Let’s look at the reservation issue logically. Was reservation a cause? NO, it was an outcome of something else. So what prompted reservation? A many centuries old “reservation” system authored by some ‘Manu’. I am sure this reasoning will make sense, logically. So does targeting the effect without taking into account the cause make any sense? Hence let us tackle the cause first.
    Hey here is deal for the Upper Castes. The reservation can be scrapped, once the Shankaracharyas of all the Mutts and priests of all prominent temples approves entry of OBCs / Dalits into the sanctum sanctorum and not only that they should be willing to ordain OBCs / Dalits as Shankaracharyas or priests. No reservation please, India is a democracy. So let’s clean our respective backyard first, let the UC (the great Youth For Equality can represent the UC) get approvals from the godmen and we will convince the politicians. We have to hurry as we have a daunting task compared to UC, convincing few hundred godmen would be far easier than thousands of politicians. Any takers!
    By the way, how many Indians are Nobel laureates? Ok let’s forget Nobel. What is quality level of the researches done by Indians (including US based Indians)? What kind of citation statistics do Indian researchers have? Actually records of Indians are pathetic, far worse than South Korea and China. Mind you most of the researches are done by UC few by OBCs and Dalit’s contribution would be miniscule. My question is what kind of Merit is it which can’t even produce a single Nobel laureate except for a handful who did schooling in India before independence?


  19. The so called “talented” guys, what would you guys be giving to a patient in an ICU to survive? Life saving drugs or vitamin tablets? The SC/STs and OBCs are in the ICU.Reservation is the life saving drug and the “primary education” bogey is the Vitamin tablets that you are prescribing.Now,now,now – dont you guys start of lamenting that the future of this great nation is going to die before your eyes if it is not saved by you “talented guys”. What the hell were the generations of the “talented guy’s” , “talented forefathers” doing for ages and ages without making this great nation stand on its legs? Ofcourse they were crying hoarse that they were “talented” themselves and that other’s were rubbish and that the SC/ST’s and other’s (obc’s)would do well to first learn to have a glass of gruel and sweat it out to allow the “talented” to ride on their backs.

    Oh my God,let the “talented” have 100 lacs of Govt. money spent on each of them for their glittering IIT degrees and they will be benevelont enough to advocate spending a few 100 thousand rupees on “basic primary education” for the hordes of SC/ST’s and OBC’s, for otherwise they may find a NO VACANCY board in their travel agent’s office for the next flight to USA on the day that the ink is still fresh on their final answer paper.And thus the great ambition of saving this great nation with their “talent” would have proved to be a mirage.

    Every damn guy knows that the IIT’s has all these years taken and produced “talented” guys.But where has the worth been proved for the benefit of the downtrodden people?Can the “talented guys” quantify and substantiate reasonably and clearly their direct contribution over the years?


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