Caste protests spotlight India′s contentious quota system | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.02.2016
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Caste protests spotlight India's contentious quota system

Members of India's Jat community recently organized week-long violent demonstrations demanding job and education quotas for their caste. DW takes a look at the nation's controversial quota policy and its social impact.

Protesters belonging to the Jat community recently went on a rampage in the northern Indian state of Haryana, torching buildings, blockading traffic on the main highway connecting the state with the national capital New Delhi, and cutting off water supply to the city by seizing a crucial waterway.

The Jats, currently listed as upper caste, are demanding that they be given quotas in jobs and education similar to those enjoyed by the country's lower castes. And they only called off their protests late on February 22 after the state government accepted their demands, pledging to introduce a bill on quotas for their community in the next assembly session.

But to fully understand the Jats' demand, one needs to take a look at the quota policy - known in India as the "reservation system" - which the Indian government has implemented since the country's independence.

India's post-independence constitution, adopted in 1950, mandates "positive discrimination" for the uplift of those who were traditionally oppressed and neglected as a result of the caste system - a religion-sanctioned, segregation system that divides people into different social groups based on their birth or, in some cases, their occupation.

The SC, ST and OBC

While India currently has thousands of castes, they are all categorized into four different groups. Three of these four - namely the scheduled castes (SC), the scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward castes (OBC) - are the beneficiaries of the country's affirmative action programs, while those with no claim to the quotas are grouped under one category.

The SCs were historically among the most repressed communities, and shunned by the upper castes as "untouchables." For centuries, they constituted the lowest segment of India's caste-based hierarchical society.

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Delhi - Jat protests lead to water shortage

The ST groups, on the other hand, were tribal communities living in remote forests with little contact to outside world. The SCs and STs have been granted quotas of 15 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in all government jobs and higher education institutions - meaning that those jobs and college seats are filled by members of those castes.

Although the reservation system was originally envisaged for the SCs and STs, in the early 1990s the Indian government extended it to the OBCs following a recommendation by a government-appointed committee. This quota currently stands at 27 percent.

In addition to the slots reserved for these communities, the SC, ST and OBC groups can also compete for non-reserved government jobs and higher education seats.

Pros and cons

But since its conception, the reservation policy has been a controversial subject in India, with both supporters and opponents arguing passionately about the benefits and costs of the system.

Proponents say quotas reduce inequalities and expand job and education opportunities to the previously deprived groups.

For instance, Gauri Khandekar, an India expert and deputy director of the Brussels-based think tank Global Relations Forum, says that despite the system's drawbacks, the caste-based affirmative action policy has proven to be quite potent in the case of India's severely marginalized communities. "If not for positive discrimination measures, these opportunities wouldn't be available at all for quite a few people," she told DW.

Even though there is a lack of extensive research on the impact of the quota policies in improving the lot of the lower castes, data show the share of these communities in government jobs has seen a significant rise.

Critics, however, contend that the policy perpetuates and reinforces caste-based identities. "The system of quotas has produced a number of rather perverse and unforeseen consequences," said Sumit Ganguly, an India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington. He told DW that in today's India, a far better and fairer system would involve reservations based upon income and resources rather than caste.

Opponents also claim that the quotas only benefit a minority of privileged people among the lower castes, and not really those who lack the ability and resources to compete with well-off sections of society.

Another unintended side effect has been the strengthening of "identity politics" between the different groups, said Christian Wagner, an India expert and senior fellow at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Politicization and polarization

While reservation systems may be a useful instrument to overcome socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities, such quotas always lead to polarization, especially in a heterogeneous society like India, Wagner noted, adding that caste is nowadays regarded as an important instrument to mobilize a group's interests.

Observers like N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the Chennai Chapter of the India-based Observer Research Foundation, believe the move to grant quotas beyond the constitutionally-mandated reservations for "untouchables" and hill tribes in the 1990s led to a huge politicization of the issue, with many political factions seeking to create caste-based allegiances among the electorate.

Compounding the problem is the dominant role caste plays in today's India. Although it may not be an important factor for many Indians living in the country's big cities, caste-based discrimination still persists across the country, with caste continuing to heavily influence people's identities in rural communities. And over two-thirds of India's population still lives in the countryside.

In light of this, there has been growing resentment among the upper castes, given that the quota policy effectively lowers the requirements lower caste candidates need to be admitted into highly competitive colleges and government jobs.

Indien Demonstration von Studenten in Rohtak Haryana

The Jats want quotas in jobs and education similar to those enjoyed by India's lower castes

Fewer opportunities

The latest caste-related unrest by the Jats occurred against this backdrop, and it followed similar protests by other upper caste communities such as the Patels in the western state of Gujarat.

Given that less than 10 percent of India's workforce is employed in the organized sector, said analyst Wagner, it is not surprising that even middle and higher castes are seeking reservations for themselves in order to benefit from the quotas and secure stable jobs.

Analysts also criticize that Indian governments have laid more emphasis on expanding the scope of reservations, than on providing quality education to all by improving the standard of government-run schools.

Many statistics show that large segments of Indian society still have fewer education, health and employment opportunities, said Wagner. The expert believes that the quota system could only be scrapped if there were an enormous expansion of the education system coupled with a massive increase in employment opportunities for the poor. "But this is not very likely," he noted.

Impact on development

Experts such as Moorthy say the latest protests are also bound to distract the Indian government's developmental efforts in the short and medium term, with issues such as the acquisition of land for setting up industry potentially acquiring a caste-related dimension.

To prevent such a development, analysts call for increased efforts to boost economic growth in the states impacted by the caste-related riots. Analyst Khandekar, for instance, points out that both PM Narendra Modi's "Make in India" campaign - designed to promote the country as a manufacturing hub - and the plans to build smart cities are just taking off, with the worst-affected northern Indian states featuring strongly in them.

She also added that economic expansion in India will eventually lead to changes in the social attitudes in the country. However, analyst Ganguly warned that if protests like the recent ones continue apace, Modi's grand hopes of promoting rapid economic growth are "likely to go up in wisps of smoke."

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