Reservations in the Indian educational system — Part 2

Previous post: Part 1.

I find it hard to comprehend very large numbers. For instance, when I consider that India has 1.12 million schools (primary and secondary), I am dumbstruck. I have to translate it down to relative numbers because the absolute numbers are beyond me. So, I would roughly estimate that out of population of approximately one billion people, about 200 million are in the school-going age. If you have one school per 200 kids, that means India must have approximately a million schools. Now the number of schools makes sense to me.

What continues to evade comprehension is how they define what constitutes a school. If you have a place which does not have even a single blackboard or a teacher, no classrooms, no toilets, no playground, and no discernible educational facilities, would you still call it a school? Is that school a state of mind, an abstraction that exists in the imagination of some government bureaucrat?

According to a study done by an education think-tank (NUEPA), “Elementary Education in India: State Report Cards 2005-06″ (PTI report, July 2007), nearly 90,000 elementary schools do not have a blackboard. Of these, around 22,000 do not have teachers.

Besides blackboards, thousands of the schools also did not have buildings, drinking water facilities, toilets, boundary walls and playgrounds. As many as 1,02,227 schools — or 9.54 per cent of the total schools imparting elementary education — had only one classroom, the report said.

If you have a bladeless knife without a handle, can you meaningfully claim to have a knife at all?

This is the most damning indictment of the Indian state controlled education system – it fails in the most elementary task of providing elementary education to tens of millions of children. Given this failure, is it any surprise that it fails in the more challenging task of managing the later stages of the process?


What I find most disturbing is the lack of understanding among the policymakers about which problems have to be solved and in which order. In any system, there are multiple problems. Harder than solving the problems is figuring out which problem to solve first. Getting the sequence right is absolutely critical.

In any sequential process, an error earlier in the process propagates and gets magnified later in the process. Fixing a failure earlier in the sequence prevents the propagation of the failure and involves much less effort than in later stages. If a person does not have the opportunity of getting a proper elementary education, the person is forever handicapped. Regardless of how natively talented the person is, she will not be able to make much use of any other educational opportunities she is presented with later in life. Reserving seats for her in institutions of higher learning only serves to compound injury with insult. It says to her, “You are not actually capable of competing. The others are more talented than you. So we will do you a favor and reserve you a seat.”

I think thoughtful people should be more concerned about the fact that someone – anyone irrespective of which group they belong to – is denied basic education than with the matter of which group gets what sort of reservations. That individuals numbering in the millions are denied, either by design or by incompetence, basic education is what should keep us awake at night.


A Rant about Ignoring the Individual

Let me underline one matter. I am concerned about and interested in an individual, not a group. I think that an individual is the proper unit for policy considerations, not groups. Policies that are made with reference to groups are immoral, wrong-headed, and stupid. Unfortunately, groups have always been the target of most, if not all, public policy debates.

I think it goes back to the leaders of India. They never appreciated individual freedoms and individuality. Perhaps they were merely stupid. Or perhaps they were smart enough to realize that treating people like sheep makes them easier to be herded. Gandhi was especially astute. He focused on groups and exploited them. He went so far as to rename a group as “the children of god” – which necessarily implies that the rest are the devil’s spawn.

Gandhi’s heirs are the current crop of Nehru’s spawn, and they and their handmaidens continue that policy of naming groups and pitting one group against another. The chief handmaiden of the Gandhi family, Dr Manmohan Singh, went so far as to explicitly state that Muslims have more claims than non-Muslims. He did not say that any individual who is disadvantaged due to circumstances beyond her control deserves a little help from society; no, he said that Muslims as a group have a higher claim to resources than non-Muslims. That Dr Singh said that is astonishing enough. What is truly staggering is that most people did not even notice the immorality of his stance. His statement is the most potent combination of stupidity, immorality, cynicism and insanity that could be uttered by anyone who is probably not actually stupid, immoral, cynical and insane.

End of rant.


Foundational Education

Let’s consider a counter factual. Imagine sufficient resources (financial and institutional) were available so that every child had an opportunity to get a basic education. By basic education I mean the ability to read, write, think logically and be numerate. Unless a person is mentally handicapped, the outcome of having the opportunity is predictable—everyone becomes sufficiently educated to be at least minimally productive. Let’s refer to this as “Foundational education” to indicate that without this foundation, an individual can neither function even minimally in society nor go up the education system at all. I am assuming that everyone needs foundational education and is capable of acquiring it.

The middle-class (and above) in India can afford the cost of foundational education (FE). The children of the poor cannot. Public resources are required for them. Imagine an efficient and effective system of aiding the poor exists.

I believe that individuals vary in their abilities and their preferences. Not everyone wants to be a brain surgeon and not everyone is capable of becoming one. Besides if everyone were to become brain surgeons, we’d have an acute shortage of rocket scientists. What we need is a system which allows an individual to climb as high up any educational ladder—accountant, brain surgeon, computer programmer, dentistry, engineering, forensic medicine, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy—of her choice that she is capable of and wants to.

Moving on with our counter factual scenario, let’s now imagine that our individual is interested in becoming an engineer. So she appears for a test that evaluates her ability and preparedness for undertaking engineering studies. Happily she is found to be capable, and she gains admission into an engineering school. In this story, we imagine that there are no capacity constraints in any field of education: if someone is capable of undertaking the study, he or she has the opportunity.

What about the cost of this higher education? If she has her own means (through her parents, say), paying for education is not an issue. But if she needs financial assistance, student loans are available. In our imaginary system, the benefits of education exceed their costs. So repayment of the loan is not a problem.

In this system, there is no need for reservations. The system has the capacity to supply to the demand for any kind and any level of education.

Now back to the real world of India today. To start with, there are a huge number of people who don’t have access to the foundational education. Around six percent actually pass high school. And then this small percentage faces the incredibly hard task of scrambling for a limited number of seats in colleges.

To take one example, consider the IITs. To a first approximation, no one gets to go to the much-celebrated IITs: two out of every hundred who aspire actually get to study in one. Quite possibly, the top 10 percent of those who compete for IITs are fully qualified for it. But there are just not enough seats.

It is a dismal situation. But what is worse is the response of the policymakers. Instead of expanding capacity, they do the brain-dead thing: introduce quotas and reservations that are based on group identity.

Reservations in educational institutions based on caste and religion are bad for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the individual. It is immoral to discriminate against an individual based on any characteristic that is not only outside his control but is also immaterial in a given context.

Second, it induces inter-group rivalry and hostility. This imposes enormous social costs.

Third, it distracts attention from the real problem. The real problem is that the system is unable to meet the demand. This problem is solvable provided the political will is there. The hoopla over quotas and who is getting how much makes people lose sight of what needs to be done.

In the next bit I will go into how we can create a system which is not supply constrained and therefore has no need for reservations.

Next post: Part 3.

Author: Atanu Dey


18 thoughts on “Reservations in the Indian educational system — Part 2”

  1. Atanu, thanks for this excellent piece!

    I am raising here a point, which has been raised earlier by many commentators on this forum but never got addressed by you.

    No doubt our elementary education is in a mess. However, it is wrong to say that elementary education is shackled by state. Pretty much anyone can and does open a private elementary school in India. For example, criteria for getting a government recognition for a private elementary school in UP are ridiculously low. All you need is a 240 sqm area, a blackboard, a High School pass teacher and you are all set. Moreover, there is no need for you to get even a registration if you have less than 100 students. There are absolutely no safeguards to prevent you from charging extortionary fees for most horrendous quality of education. Elementary education sector is a dream world for a free marketer.

    Per your logic, this situation should have long been cured by the invisible hand of market. However, in practice we don’t see this happening. If at all, market has failed even more miserably than state in addressing elementary education imbroglio.


  2. Atanu,
    Must say Lurker here is 100% correct.
    Education is perhaps one of the few areas where market forces effect a system negatively, ie without proper control mechanisms it is directionless ans exploitory. Basic, elementary or secondary education, is far too important, to be left alone to people, whose sole aim is to make money out of a need. Without any form of control, speak guidance it then becomes a numbers game as you have very astutely pointed out.
    Regarding reservations, I am with you all the way!
    Subho Naboborsho!


  3. @lurker

    If at all, market has failed even more miserably than state in addressing elementary education imbroglio.

    Do you have any data to substantiate this assertion?

    I am not denying the possibility of a market failure here, but to assert that the state is doing a better job is a leap of faith. It’s difficult to write all I would like to on this in a comment, but let me make an attempt.

    For starters, there is imperfect information on the quality of the education offered by the schools, private or public. The effects of this on the market for elementary education includes price and quality dispersion. Achieving uniformity across the board is impossible, and may not be desirable either.

    Think about the process that the parents go through in searching for and selecting a school for their children. This is costly, and the costs would vary across the parents. Some parents will be more willing to bear higher costs for information than others. Some will be able to get better information at a lower cost. In the extremes we will have informed and uninformed parents, and the market will be segmented accordingly into good and bad schools. These segments will include public schools, too. There is extensive literature on this subject, and not restricted to the market of elementary education . To begin with, read J. E. Stiglitz. “Equilibrium in Product Markets with Imperfect Information”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 69, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-First Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (May, 1979), pp. 339-345.

    I must add that quota/reservations will adversely impact the market for elementary education by reducing the incentives to get information on the school, leading to more lemons. After all, what do I care what sort of elementary or high school education my child gets, if I could get her into the IIT on the basis of the caste she inherited from me?


  4. Along with policy, money and infrastructure theres a huge issue of outlook and attitude.
    Parents who value a good life, impart certain traits into their kids like teaching them how to learn, live and enjoy life.
    Schools/Teachers/Infrastructure is a secondary factor.
    Family and social attitude are the primary factors.
    Most successful folks are life long learner and ‘formal’ education is a means towards an end.
    Its a one size fits all yardstick created and has some utility but by no means is everything.
    One has to know when to use that metric to scale your self and others and when to ignore it.
    A confused(if not sinister) fella Clearthink was ranting on point of education if there are no jobs in a previous post. That reflects the horrible sentiment that an institution giving you a paper=> you should should be set for a job.
    The situation happens in the other direction too where people w/o a paper or certain kinds of paper are not evaluated by an appropriate yardstick in those scenarios.
    The flexibility is quite less in India, as well as the drive reduction thats goes along with it.
    These two things feed off each other.
    A serious example of that is non-english medium students start to have a lower drive, fairly early in life.
    Many 15 year olds have a, “thats all I will be able to do” attitude that many 50 year olds dont have in other societies.


  5. Atanu,

    I do not have hope that government will take proactive action in the next decade (unless we have sensible chief ministers) who drive education. Politicians have strong incentives to maintain status-quo.

    Most Indians settle to the thought of fate for everything not happening the right way and do not even attempt to raise the voice / solve the problem when governments do not deliver.

    Unless this attitude changes, improvements will be slow and could take long long time.

    My only hope is private educational institutions, philantraphists and charity organizations could make a difference in primary and secondary education.

    Back of the envelope calculation reveals the cost per student to be in the range of Rs 5000 – 10000 per year for quality education. This could be brought down further with innovative use of technologies.

    We need a renaissance movement to substantially improve education, living environment, basic amenities, etc.

    What is the status of your education initiative?


  6. I dont think market forces are very successful in sectors like health and education. All recent discussions in US are about failure of market in providing quality education and healthcare to masses.

    Even today, who stops people from opening schools; hospitals in villages? I have not seen any improvement in my native place which is a taluka headquater in last 35 years. Even today, people need to rely on State Transport buses to go to nearby villages.

    I have some other opinion on reservation. First of all, these institutions are run by public money. And i totally disagree the way talent is measured in India. It completely favors students studying in cities and whose parents can afford coaching classes. How many students from village schools even make it to IIT/IIM? Do you think they are not talented? Can’t they be given some extra training and make equal? I totally disagree with caste based reservation but i strongly support giving few extra points to students from villages, municipal schools etc while preparing merit lists?

    I am sure India as a whole still negotiate with developed counties on pollution norms, child labor etc based on the argument that we are still developing country and can not accept developed world standards so soon. Can’t we use the same argument for reservation within our country?


  7. @taran_72
    “but i strongly support giving few extra points to students from villages, municipal schools etc while preparing merit lists?”

    If you see atanu’s (and many other plans)
    the end goal is not to tell others what the qualification to entrance should be…
    But the fundamental question that Dey and others are trying to address is,
    Lets assume there’s a demand to learn skills, how is/isn’t that demand being fulfilled ?

    My position differs a significantly on basic assumption, but not necessarily on routes .

    @Amit the Asha fan
    stop dontating to asha, I say that as a former donor to asha, i dont buy in their BailGobar.
    First lets pick on why did the intentialy ambigous North American Male shows up all the time in their crap docs/ In case you are too damn lazy… US life is ~80(including HUGE IMMIGRANT FLOWS).


  8. Notsure, take a chill pill and stop making ASSumptions about me and who I donate to, based on a URL. Does it change the facts about Kerala and its literacy rate?


  9. @Amit,
    Fine you’re smarter than i was in not donating to Asha.
    But take a reason pill and explain why you would post an article containing delibrate lies about life expectancy
    And Guess What Even before Independence the 2 princely states that were joined to create kerala had higher than national average of literacy not this was not some namboodriPAAD efffect, which did stink kerala into not being utilize its human capital


  10. Notsure, I’m not sure about the smarter bit – I don’t know you, and I’m not on a “I’m-smarter-than-you” ride. I am interested in exchanging ideas, learning more and looking at positives; and least interested in ideological wars, or looking for negatives. YMMV, and that’s fine – different strokes and all that.

    My reason for mentioning that article was the high literacy rate of Kerala – which stands out among Indian states. I came across it, read it, it made sense, I found it interesting and hence I mentioned it. The focus was education and literacy, and not life expectancy. I’m not qualified enough to tell what part of that article is truth and what’s false (that’s what discussion is for), and I’m sure there are aspects of that article – as well as *reasons* for Kerala’s literacy rate – that are open for debate and discussion.


  11. The article deliberately starts out provocatively lying life expectancy, which has been the hallmark of idealogical war. Again you have to ask why was that part of the literacy article?


  12. Notsure, don’t want to go too far on a tangent, but the article seems to be written in 1998, and quotes research from late 1980s. I checked the CDC website, and the stats for 1988-89 (US male, life expectancy) seem to match the ones quoted in the article. For what it’s worth.


  13. @Rational Fool:

    >>If at all, market has failed even more miserably than state in addressing elementary education imbroglio.

    >Do you have any data to substantiate this assertion?

    >I am not denying the possibility of a market failure here, but to assert that the state is doing a better job is a leap of faith. It’s difficult to write all I would like to on this in a comment, but let me make an attempt.

    OK. Let me take back my statement and modify:

    “Record of private sector in education has also not been exactly glorious.”

    Do you agree to it now?

    Now if you have read Atanu’s series on education, you would have noticed that again and again he comes back on this thme that unshackle the education sector from state control and market will take care of the rest. The point is where are those state shackles in primary education? This sector is already a free for all. Go ahead and open as many private schools as you like. No body is going to restrain you. Yet the same argument is repeated by Atanu every time that all we need is to unshakle the education sector from government control. Many commentators here have pointed out on several occasions that there are practically no state controls on primary and secondary education. However, without addressing those objections, the earlier claims have been repeated here again. It is as if an argument is lifted from from an economic textbook and applied here without bothering to check if these conditions really apply in India. Atanu has so far been silent on what state controls he finds in primary and secondary education that need to be lifted. If you look closely, you will hardly find any. However since economists agree that freeing primary education from state control is the solution then that MUST be accepted as THE solution, regardless of the fact whether there are any state conrols or not.

    Repeating something over and over again does not make it an argument. That’s why I had requested Atanu to go through some of the objections raised on this topic earlier and address them as they apply to India.

    ~Manish Saxena


  14. @lurker

    “Record of private sector in education has also not been exactly glorious.”

    Do you agree to it now?

    As an economist, I understand terms like efficiency, optimality, incentives, etc., but the word glorious seems to be not in my glossary 🙂

    If the goal were universal (elementary) education, I don’t think the private sector/market alone can accomplish this, without any form of assistance from the state. After all, education is costly to supply, and therefore there’s a price at which the market for elementary education would clear. There is no guarantee that at this price, every child can afford to “consume” education. If universal education were the desired goal, the state must step in to fund this goal. There, I reinvented the voucher system!

    Any state intervention in education beyond this would be inefficient.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: