Despite mixed results, India’s positive discrimination (PD) programme ensures a minimum level of inclusiveness for disadvantaged groups and keeps discrimination issues in public view. This paper, published by the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, reviews achievements, political and economic outcomes and challenges of the PD programme.Despite its achievements, the PD programme is insufficient: disadvantaged groups need to build stronger political movements in order to demand more from the majority.
PD was instituted in India in the mid-20th century. Its normative justification was that historically marginalised disadvantaged groups could not compete on equal terms and required guarantees to create background conditions of equality. PD serves the Scheduled Castes, (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), “other backward classes” (OBCs) and Muslims. Programmes provide affirmative action for these groups in public employment, central and state legislatures and higher education.
PD policies are rooted in the country’s complex cultural diversity, composed of multi-layered identities encompassing language, region, caste (estimated to total between 2000-3000) and religion. It has been viewed as an interim compensatory discrimination measure that would eventually help entrench universalist norms of citizenship.
While PD’s reservation (quota) system has increased the number of disadvantaged working in the public sector jobs, most of these jobs are concentrated in the lower level of bureaucracy. Other findings are:
- While more SCs are receiving higher education, SC representation in higher-level positions has not increased commensurately.
- SCs elected to “quota” legislative seats have never filled the majority of these seats. The number of SCs elected to unreserved seats remains small. Local legislative results are promising: The number of women and caste members entering local legislative bodies often exceeds the legislated 33 per cent quota.
- Political mobilisation of caste groups has increased; political parties representing caste groups are gaining strength and numbers.
- Caste identities have recently undergone fragmentation and entrenchment. Intra-group differences among OBCs have surfaced, as has upper-caste resentment against the reservation policy.
- The middle class has expanded somewhat to include lower castes. However, SCs still have much lower landholdings than the rest of the population; they do not display the level of occupational mobility of other groups.
- PD has failed to address the economic disadvantages of the vast majority of SCs and STs. Between 1983 and 2004-5, the number of SCs below the poverty line has increased substantially.
While PD in India plays a vital role ensuring a minimum level of inclusiveness of the disadvantaged, PD’s difficulties suggest the following questions:
- How can multiple, interlocking inequalities be factored into PD policy design to redress the current lack of redistributive elements in its strategies?
- How can criteria be devised to address future claims by presently excluded groups?
- Are there fundamental reasons why no other policy design been proposed?
- Do PD’s problems stem from the state’s failure to address background inequalities, including those of access to economic and educational resources?