The Great Indian Reservation System – Understanding its Past, Present and Solutions

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The Supreme Court, while looking into the constitutional validity of the Maratha reservation, mentioned that it will examine whether the landmark 1992 judgement in Indra Sawhney v Union of India case requires to be revisited. The potential reconsideration of the 11-judge ruling, popularly known as the Mandal case, could change the structure of reservations that has been in existence for decades.

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This topic of “The Great Indian Reservation System – Understanding its Past, Present and Solutions” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is the reservation?

  • Reservation is the process of facilitating people in education, scholarship, jobs etc. that were faced with historical injustice.
  • Reservation is the form of quota-based affirmative action.
  • Reservation is governed by constitutional laws, statutory laws, and local rules and regulations.
  • Reservation system in India constitutes a number of initiatives like reserving access to seats in the legislatures, to government jobs and to enrolment in higher educational institutions.

Why reservation?

  • The reservation is undertaken to resolve the historic oppression, inequality, and discrimination suffered by those communities and to give them a place.
  • It is meant to achieve the promise of equality enshrined in the constitution.
  • The main objective of the reservation system in India is to improve the social and educational status of underprivileged communities and thus improve their lives.

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What is the historical background?

  • The reservation system in India dates back to the 2nd century B.C. where the upper class enjoyed some added privileges.
  • The idea of a caste-based reservation system was originally conceived by William Hunter and Jyotirao Phule in 1882.
  • The reservation that exists today was introduced in 1933 when British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald presented the Communal Award. (Click here to refer static mind map).
    • This made a provision for separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, and the Dalits.
    • The communal award was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi, whereas, B.R.Ambedkar supported it.
    • To address the situation, Poona Pact was signed. According to this, the country would have a single Hindu electorate, with seats reserved for Dalits.
  • In the 1990s, the recommendations of the Mandal Commission were implemented in government jobs. (Click here to refer Fundamental rights mind map).

What are the constitutional provisions related to the reservation?

  • Part XVI of the Indian Constitution deals with
    • Reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in federal and state legislatures.
    • The constitutional authority of the President to set up commissions to assess and suggest remedies for the welfare of SC and ST sections.
  • Article 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution – extends benefits of reservation to socially and educationally backward classes.

Why reservation demand has been growing rapidly?

  • Agriculture crisis: The Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh believe that reservations provide a solution to the rural distress faced by them especially the crisis in agriculture.
  • Unemployment: is also one of the major factors influencing the demand for reservation.
  • Privilege: The agitation for reservation also arises from the fear of losing privilege and the inability to cope with change.
  • Salaries and Wages: Wages in the private sector are much lower than in the public sector. Salaries of government jobs are most attractive at the entry-level.
  • Demands of Upper castes: Previously advantaged castes like Brahmins, Chettiars, and Rajputs have begun to feel severely disadvantaged as they don’t get any quotas even if they are economically disadvantaged. Thus they want to integrate the economically disadvantaged groups among them in the reserved category.

What are the arguments in favour of reservation?

  • Historical injustice: Caste based reservation is a necessity in India because of historical negligence and injustice caused to those backward communities.
  • Level Playing field: Reservation provides a level playing field as it is difficult for the backward sections who were historically deprived of education, skills, and economic mobility to suddenly start competing with those who had access to those means for centuries.
  • Meritocracy Vs Equality: Meritocracy is important, however, it will have no meaning without equality. The caste-based reservation also minimized the gap between upper and lower castes to a great extent.
  • Administration quality: A study revealed that reservations have not affected the efficiency of administration, but enhanced quality. The best example is the Indian Railways in which the SC/ST employees comprise more in number, and the results have been better.

What are the arguments against reservation?

  • The majority of lower castes have stepped up the social ladder and are now on an equal status compared to the general population. Hence, there is no need for reservation anymore.
  • A reservation only provides a limited and short-term solution to the historical injustice issues.
  • Reservation is obviously a tool to address social and educational backwardness, however, it does not have solutions for all social and economic ailments. There are much better and innovative ways to solve those issues. However, reservation prevents the leadership to come up with viable solutions.
  • As the reservation grows larger, it becomes a mechanism of exclusion rather than of inclusion. Because, nowadays, the previously advantaged communities have becoming disadvantaged to a large extent due to the reservation conundrum. Many upper castes are still plagued by poverty and illiteracy. Why equality and justice don’t work for them?
  • Reservation brings down the economic growth rate of the country as it reduces the efficiency of its labour.
  • Reservation agitations may cause social unrest as it was at the time of the Mandal Commission (1990).

What are the concerns/challenges in the reservation system?

  • Castes that should be actually benefitted are not being benefitted, instead, others are reaping the benefits of the reservation system.
  • The reservation system has just become an instrument for politicians to gain vote banks.
  • Agitation for reservation resulted in several deaths, affected transport and the loss of many working days in schools and workplaces. Example- Jat agitation in Haryana.
  • One community after another will start demanding reservations due to the success of others. Many of these communities are politically and economically sound and hence placing the whole community in the reservation system is unethical.

What is the Court’s stand on the reservation?

  • In Indira Sawhney Judgement 1992, the Supreme Court declared that the total reservation for SC/ST and other backward classes or special categories should not exceed 50%. Therefore the decision by the Maharashtra government after passing the law is likely to be challenged before the court.
  • In 2014, the then Maharashtra government had granted 16% reservation for the Marathas. But the reservation was stayed by the Bombay High Court.
  • In 2017, the Supreme Court had said quota in jobs and education in Rajasthan has exceeded the 50% limit and it cannot be increased further.
  • Moreover, the petition challenging the Tamil Nadu reservation policy is pending before the Supreme Court.

What are the solutions?

  • Create a reservation system according to economic status.
    • Reservations based on caste and not on the basis of the economic condition are unethical and unacceptable.
    • Fair and just reservations should be provided to uplift the people with poor conditions of life, those who don’t have meals to eat, clothes to wear, and no home to live in.
    • They shall be made on the basis of factors such as gender (as women are more disadvantaged than men since primitive times), domicile, family education, family employment, family property, family income and if any disabilities and traumas.
    • The process of the reservation should be such that it filters the truly economically deprived individuals and bring them all to justice.
  • Provide an opportunity for students to earn while they study.
  • Bring about revolutionary changes in our education system at the grass-roots level to improve education quality. Because reservation at subsequent stage will never be of any use if quality education hasn’t been provided to children at the primary stage.

Thus reservations are the exact opposite of development and equality. We don’t require reservations based on castes or religion but only to actually provide support to those who have fewer resources, and merit should be provided equal and due importance in admission procedures as well employment opportunities. This way we would be successful in eliminating caste discrimination and unite the economically rich together in supporting the economically poor, regardless of their castes. As Justice Ravindran in the Ashok Kumar Thakur vs Union of India case rightly said, “when more people aspire for backwardness rather than of forwardness, the country itself stagnates”.

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Prof kishore

Good attempt. Better track a record of SC shaping Law pertaining to Reservation in higher education u/15 (4).
Progress be compartmentalize in SC judgements in a slot of every 20 years. Give readers citations only. From Champkam Dorairajan till latest.
However, appreciate your excellent narration.

Sana thasneem

good ! and there were more info’s about the reservation!

Nisha Rajappan

Very nice article, crisp and powerful, included all possible areas and provisions. Thank you


reservation boon or bane


Wow ! what an eye opening essay about reservation and the attempt to highlight the flaws of reservation are fantastic . Yes we need Reservations based on financial status of people not on the basis of caste

Sanjeev Gautam

Most SCs (99%) will also qualify for the reservation under financial status.


May all of the new generation read this article so that they can introduce a change into our society…

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