We Don’t Need No Reservations

If you are in India, and have been reading the newspapers or watching the tele over the past month or so, you couldn’t have missed all the action on the subject of “reservations” (read: quotas).  Enough and more has been said on the issue already, and I don’t have much to add to it.  But, I could not resist sharing with you my good friend Atanu’s insights on this controversy.  Atanu is also an economist of repute, so it helps to have an informed opinion!

On the quality of education we offer, Atanu writes :

I have heard the claim that the Indian education system must be wonderful because the IITs produce so many wonderfully successful NRIs (non-resident Indians), especially in the US. They bolster their argument with the specious reasoning that it is harder to gain admission into IITs than into Ivy league schools, and that Narayana Murthy’s son had to use an Ivy league school as a safety school.

Sure it is harder to get into the IITs than into the top American schools. That does not mean that the IITs are in any way better than those American schools. It is a Herculean task to get into a Mumbai local during commute hours, compared to which using the Paris Metro is a piece of cake. Congestion is not an indicator of quality. When supply is severely limited relative to demand, there will be a mad scramble to get some.

On average, fewer than two out of every one hundred who appear for the entrance exam for IITs get admission. If you were to choose the top two percent of any population, the average quality of that group will be a few sigmas higher than the population average. The IITs turn out good students because those who get in are good to begin with. Then for four years, these way-above average kids compete fiercely among themselves for grades. Finally, from this bunch of super-achievers, those with the highest grades and potential are snapped up by the best American universities. By the time these graduate out of the American universities, they are the crème de la crème who have self-selected themselves for intelligence, drive, ambition, and vision. We read about them as the Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires, and pat ourselves on the back for having a wonderful educational system.

On the issue of reservations, Atanu opines :

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.

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.

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.

As usual, Atanu’s series of posts on this subject not only offer a rich insight and understanding of its elements, but also propose effective solutions to combat the problem. 

Read about it…  Write about it…  Sign a petition… Do some thing!

Join the Conversation


  1. Mr Atanu’s arguments against reservations are convincing indeed. Economic criteria and support at an earlier stage of education would be appropriate. The caste system perpetuates inequity and should be abolished pronto.

  2. No! Let’s join the self-proclaimed snobs protesting with slogans “Remember your place”, polishing shoes and cleaning premises? Let’s pretend not to see it at all! Damn Reservations!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.