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Volume XLIV, No.49

Reservation and Affirmative Action : The JNU Model

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Aswini K Ray

The latest version of India’s periodic political encounter between “social justice” and “equal opportunity” around the policy of Reservation has been in some ways rewarding. For a start, despite the involvement of large sections of youth, and sharply polarised, the exercise has been more democratic in its street version than such encounters regularly enacted by the elected legislators in their Houses. Besides, to the discerning eye, the discourse has spawned a set of implicit democratic consensus which, if creatively encountered, could provide the framework for future public policies on the subject.

Firstly, despite India’s phenomenal economic growth and democratic structure—in fact highlighted by them—large sections of people from diverse ascriptive identities still remain critically disadvantaged, and need extra nursing not only to ensure social equity but also to fuel the next stage of economic growth; the disagreement is around identifying such groups, and measures for their nursing. Secondly, the policy of Reservation, despite co-opting sections of the traditionally deprived groups within the national mainstream, has built-in structural inadequacies by augmenting the “creamy layer” without much horizontal expansion; and, as an inefficient instrument of positive discrimination needs improvement. But attempts to widen the sphere of Reservation is resented by those outside it, thus threatening to undermine the existing consensus around the policy of Reservation itself. Consequently, the need to explore alternative policy-options, with or without Reservation, logically follows from these deductions. In other words, how to innovate public policies that could transform the ‘zero-sum-game’ of the present encounter to a ‘win-win’ situation for the votaries of two equally attractive normative concerns in contemporary India’s anomic politics is the new challenge.

In fact, the general framework of such a model is operational in the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s admission policy for students with its focused thrust to represent the national diversity; it has been successfully implemented for over two decades with periodic revisions based on experience. It is scientific, transparent, and reasonably foolproof, and with few detractors in campus pregnant with opinionated participants on issues ranging from the profound to the profane. If this is an inadequate testimonial to the policy, then the endorsement of the NIEPA to it as a possible role model ought to underscore its credentials. While in the JNU, the this deprivation-index based affirmative action is implemented along with the constitutional obligation of 25 per cent Reservation for the SC/ST category, the scheme is also amenable to modifications to be a possible substitute for it.

The scheme initially involves a political consensus on three scientifically indexed policy-decisions: i) identifying the target-groups based on their shortfall from the national Human Development as the base; ii) assigning the deprivation-point to each group based on the same criterion; iii) fixing a deprivation-limit in a 100-point scale to ensure that the intellectually gifted among the socio-economically disadvantaged sections get some additional leverage without seriously undermining the merit-based selection process. This last decision involves some creative compromise and periodic revision from experience. In the JNU, for example, it has been periodically reduced from 25 to 20 and now 10 but with new groups like women and OBCs included for deprivation-points. Along with Reservation, this policy has resulted in inducting nearly 50 per cent students from disadvantaged social groups in some disciplines, without seriously undermining the overall quality, as proved by their subsequent placements.

In the JNU, the target-groups for deprivation-points include the OBCs, and regionally backward areas, both as decided by the government notifications, and doubled in case of females upto a maximum limit of 10 in any combination. Candidates from the public schools, even when located in backward regions, are excluded. Unfortunately the economically deprived sections had to be excluded from the earlier experience of fake income certificates as its basis; it could now be corrected by a combination of school-fee based criteria along with IT returns to take care of agricultural and urban incomes of parents. The final comprehensive merit-list is computed after adding the deprivation-points to the merit-based score, thus avoiding a separate hierarchy of reserved groups.

The JNU model has two significant advantages over Reservation: one, it enables periodic revision to include (and theoretically, also exclude) new target-groups without restricting the merit-list; and, equally important, it benefits 100 per cent of the target-groups rather than limiting it to the extent of the Reservation. This is the sense in which it could provide the basis for a ‘win-win’ situation to the votaries of “social justice” and “equal opportunities”.

If we were to translate the present system of Reservation to the deprivation-index scheme (DIS), then based on the earlier Supreme Court ruling of a maximum of 50 per cent Reservation, the deprivation-limit in the DIS could be 25 in a 100-point scale. Because since 100 per cent would benefit from the DIS, rather than only 50 per cent as through Reservation, the cumulative deprivation-limit could be proportionately halved, or thereabouts. For the same reason, the SC/ST Reservation at 25 per cent would translate itself to roughly 6.5 deprivation-points. These are only illustrative, and could be more scientifically fine-tuned based on disaggregated statistical inputs of the Human Development of various target-groups, and operational experience.

But the major political fault-line of the scheme is the limit it structurally sets to the range and scope of populist politics around ascriptive identities in contemporary India’s anomic politics. It would restrict such encounter within the sphere of the deprivation-limit rather than the entire spectrum of democratic politics as in the present phase. To some, this may also be among the merits of the scheme.

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