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We routinely hear media pundits and celebrities vocalise the popular notion that reservations have encouraged an environment of “mediocrity”. Middle-class Indians frequently lament about the unfairness of the reservation policy and attribute to it a litany of perceived national problems ranging from inefficiency of India’s bureaucracy to poor quality of its medical services to the incompetence of its engineering graduates.

A nation that persistently compromises on “merit” cannot compete at the global level. This is the argument of many members of India’s prestigious IITs and IIMs, who insist that they are “institutes of excellence” and hence must be exempted from reservations. They explain the lack of representation of minorities and OBCs in their faculty by emphasising the focus on “merit” in their selection.

There is widespread support for the view that “merit” should be the sole selection yardstick for access to top schools and jobs. Proponents of this caste-blind approach insist that it is the only way for India to break out of the shackles of the centuries old pernicious caste-divisions. By designating certain castes as “backward”, we are perpetuating the existing distinctions on the basis of caste.

If the aim of reservations is to make up for socio-economic differences, then those differences should be basis of the reservation policy, not caste. This would help end the continued presence of caste in public discourse and allow more targeted allocation of reservation benefits to those who actually “deserve” them, as opposed to the “creamy layer” among the oppressed castes, who tend to be repeated beneficiaries of India’s affirmative action policies.

Further the historically privileged classes cannot be expected to atone for the sins of their ancestors till perpetuity. Reservation policies have been in force for over 70 years and even longer in some parts of India. Generations of students and job applicants have experienced utter frustration at seeing their hard earned positions being denied to them and allocated to those who scored less than them in competitive exams. Isn’t this reverse discrimination?

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