For some decades now, it has been the policy of the government - at all levels - to reserve places of opportunity and power for specific sections of the population, notably the scheduled castes and tribes, and more recently other caste groups as well as women. Because this policy is intended to overcome a legacy of injustice and to provide all in this country with a broad measure of equal opportunities, it behooves us to periodically ask if the policy is working, and if yes, whether it has worked sufficiently that it may no longer be needed.

Are reservations working? Despite some positions remaining vacant for lack of suitable candidates from the reserved backgrounds, it is fair to say that reservations have ensured the first step towards equality - access. This is most visible in the political arena, where legislators from reserved constituencies and panchayats are immediately able to access the levers of state power. In other areas too - e.g. in the lower and middle rungs of the civil service, and in government-aided and funded educational institutions - the numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds has risen. If access alone were the measure of the policy's worth, then it would surely seem to have made progress in these arenas.

Such access has been contentious. Many, usually from high-caste backgrounds, believe that it is undeserved, and often at the expense of more meritorious others. Also, it is argued that many opportunities from affirmative action have not gone to the truly deserving or needy, but instead to the already privileged few from reserved backgrounds. On the other hand, many others - usually from the reserved backgrounds - point out that even such access has not resulted in significant social and economic gains for hundreds of millions of our citizens. The argument for and against reservations has tended to pit these views against each other.

But when measured by the full intent of reservations, these two opinions are not opposed to each other. In fact, it is precisely because both views are correct that we must persist with reservations. This can seem paradoxical, but it should not be.

It is an important element of affirmative action that merit alone is insufficient. A policy based only on merit would not recognize past - and continuing - injustices that may hinder the realization of their full potential by disadvantaged groups. In many cases, what we see as merit is the product of many years of social and economic opportunities, so that those who have not had these opportunities may appear to lack merit. Therefore, it is necessary that some positions be awarded to those who would be disqualified if relative merit were the only criterion. To argue that some individuals of high merit are being unfairly disqualified by reservations is to miss the point.

It is an important element of affirmative action that merit alone is insufficient. A policy based only on merit would not recognize past - and continuing - injustices and disadvantages. Therefore, it is necessary that some positions be awarded to those who would be disqualified if relative merit were the only criterion.
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If merit is often the product of economic opportunity, why not use economic need itself as the criterion for affirmative action? This is often offered as the better alternative to reservations in their present form. Those of privileged backgrounds argue repeatedly that they would tolerate a policy based on economic need more readily than the present one. But this misses a vital quality of caste - that it is not merely a series of economic barriers thrust upon the lower classes, but also a set of social hurdles. The injustice that is sought to be corrected is not purely economic, and policies that begin by treating it as such will be incomplete in their justice.

Nor is such injustice a thing of the past. Routinely today, millions of our citizens whose upliftment is sought by affirmative action must endure reservations of another kind. They cannot drink water from the common wells, because those are reserved for others. Their children cannot sit alongside others in government-run schools; places at the front of the class are reserved for others while they must sit at the back, near the door, or in some grotesque cases outside the actual instruction room. They cannot enter the places of worship in their own villages and neighbourhoods, because those are reserved too. Their landlords can claim sexual rights over their women and bondage for generations, because even their bodies are not their own. Their dead cannot be cremated or buried at the same grounds as others, because even in death some things are reserved for others.

Not surprisingly, this depravity gives rise to another argument used in favour of dismantling reservations. Efficacy. Reservations are not working, it is argued, so take them out. This argument misses the premise of affirmative action. Affirmative actions of state policy are intended to ensure that access to public opportunities are not hijacked by the same prejudices that may prevail in the private relations of civil society. They raise the bar in the public sphere and are not put in place as time-bound guarantees or a panacea for social equity. Revocation of reservations cannot automatically follow merely because other progressive developments have not gained ground in civil society.

Anger at reservations is common, but such anger may be better channeled when it is targeted at the real problem. The few tens of thousands of jobs or college places that are subject to state policy on reservation are miniscule in comparison to the daily deprivations that hundreds of millions of citizens endure. The simple truth is, reservations - nearly all of them on the basis of caste - happen far more as a social custom (i.e. denial of access to water, or having children made to sit at the rear of classrooms, etc.) than through state policy. Those reservations of opportunities by custom are the larger phenomena; if we're going to be angry about reservations, we should begin by first attacking those. Only when we have made significant progress in erasing reservations that stem from social customs can we honestly focus on the much smaller issues of college positions and government jobs.

But that day is not here yet, and while we await it affirmative action must continue.