Why Expanding Caste Quotas at IIT and IIM Is a Bad Idea

This past week it was announced that quotas for members of Scheduled Caste/Other Backward Caste (SC/OBC) at India's top engineering and management institutions are being raised to 49.5 percent. Current students at some of these institutions have been protesting the plan, but there is an Op-Ed by T. Shyam Babu in the Times of India approving of the change, along the lines of the pro-reservations arguments we're familiar with from the Mandal Commission era and before. And while I agree with Babu's sentiments, I disagree with him on whether the quota should be expanded at India's flagship universities.

Here is the crux of Babu's argument:

Even conceding that quota system is not the best way of promoting social justice, one should support it as a remedial measure since everything else has failed in India: Society failed to live by the tenets of civic engagement and a sense of justice, and the state failed to impose even the ideals it stands by. How else can one explain the complete absence of weaker sections in elite institutions?

Are the SCs, STs and OBCs inherently so incompetent and lazy that even a few of them fail to make it to the top? It is true that they are not prevented from entering these institutions because of their social status.

But the discrimination they suffer is more structural in that they live typically in villages, with few avenues of economic mobility and the little education they manage to provide to their children being far below the 'standards' set by elite institutions.

Familiar enough. What's surprising here is just how weak his defense of reservations is -- he begins with an acknowledgment that reservations are not a particularly effective means of pursuing social justice. And his statement that these are necessary because "everything else has been tried" is questionable.

From here one needs to get into some specifics regarding the structure of the Indian government's approach to caste. I discussed some of these particulars in a post two years ago, and it might be worth bringing some of those points forward again. While the book I was citing in that post is a partisan conservative argument against affirmative action in the U.S., I have no reason to doubt the statistics offered by Thomas Sowell are false:

Unfilled seats. Reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC) in schools and government posts remain largely unfilled, whereas reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are generally filled to capacity. Sowell cites a 1997 study that indicates that nationally preferential policies only benefit 6 percent of Dalit families. Moreover, the same study reported that "none of India's elite universities and engineering institutes had filled its quota for members of scheduled castes." This could be read in many ways -- but at the very least, it proves there are problems and imbalances in the reservations system. OBCs are not necessarily 'backward'.

Continued underrepresentation. People from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continue to be absent from white collar positions. "For the country as a whole, members of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes -- combined -- did not receive as much as 3 percent of the degrees in engineering or medicine, though together they add up to nearly one-fourth of the population of India."
This suggests that reservations have not been wholly successful, though perhaps even 3 percent may constitute an improvement over what one might have seen 50 years ago.

Clearly India needs to continue thinking of ways to improve educational facilities in rural areas and Tribal regions, but I wonder whether the reservations for the OBCs is working as it should. Isn't it the case that OBCs aren't specifically underprivileged or systematically discriminated against in India?

More broadly, I'm not convinced that the principle of inclusion couldn't be served as well by adding an economic component to the reservations system: you can be considered for a reservations spot if you're a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe and your family income is below a certain level.

And there's another argument that I didn't bring up in that earlier post, which relates to the special status of India's premier technical, public universities. These have been central in enabling India's (still unfolding) growth as a technology hub, one of the main engines of recent economic growth and the change in India's profile internationally. Those universities need to be encouraged, and their capacity expanded in order to meet the future demand for competent workers and researchers. I worry that expanding caste reservations risks creating an artificial, de facto cap on the number of competent graduates these universities produce. Moreover, many members of higher caste communities will again be going to universities abroad as the slots available to them at India's best institutions shrinks. This will take money out of the Indian system and may lead to a return of the 'brain drain' phenomenon.

I'm in favor of redistributive justice, and I think some measure of affirmative action is necesary, both in the U.S. and India. But the current plan to expand reservations at the top level is a mistake, and smacks of electoral pandering. I would rather see a greater emphasis on improving secondary educational facilities in rural areas in order to enable people from marginal areas of society to be more competitive to begin with.