Reservation as affirmative action

Morung Express Editorial

Reservation is a controversial topic where common ground is hard to find. Opinion is largely shaped by personal experience, whether one is a benefactor or a victim of Reservation. The voice of anti-reservation is getting louder and louder that the word Reservation now carries a negative connotation. Reservation is seen as reverse-discrimination, something which kills talent and devalues accomplishment because people are chosen not on the basis of merit but on the basis of the social or racial group to which they belong. But if that were the case, why and how did Reservation came into being?

Reservation has a negative connotation because of the way it has been used. So, it is helpful to understand the concept of ‘affirmative action’, synonymously used for Reservation in some other countries, to know the purpose of it. Affirmative action is the policy of favouring members of the disadvantaged who suffer from discrimination. It is an act of justice which tries to compensate for past or present discrimination. It is a means to right a wrong. Therefore, affirmative action conceptually has a noble purpose. But it is in its abuse that the purpose is defeated and the noble policy is tarnished.

Students from a school in Myanmar border of Nagaland simply cannot compete with students from a top private school in Kohima in NPSC exam (exceptional cases are there, but not generally). Therefore most of the government officers happen to be from the bigger towns, whose sons and daughters again fill their places after retirement. The cycle continues for generation after generation. Unless there is a helping hand in the system, the past and the present discrimination will continue into the future. Reservation is not the panacea for the situation stated, but it is one way of righting a wrong, or levelling of playing field. It is when the Reservation system does not serve its purpose that things go wrong. Suppose a student belonging to the same community as those students in Myanmar border passed NPSC through Reservation, but he is the son of a high ranking officer settled in Kohima, Reservation has not served its purpose. In such situation, we can say that there is a ‘creamy layer’ which needs to be wiped off. 

Suppose a community which has benefitted from the Reservation for long has started to treat it as a birthright, things can go wrong there too. Reservation system is hard to fix because it has to be dynamic. It needs to be periodically reviewed so that if the objective is achieved, it has to be taken off, or renewed in case it needs extension. The UN realises that affirmative action ‘in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved’.   

Some people hold self-contradictory view that they are against Reservation when they are not in the reserved category within the State (BT reservation), but do not have a problem claiming Reservation at the national level (ST reservation). Many people who benefit from Reservation oppose other kinds of Reservation like Women Reservation when there is clear evidence that gender discrimination is as serious, if not more, than the discrimination by which they are getting benefit of affirmative action. Also, when certain people who shouldn’t be in the reserved category any longer continue to cling to it, it is not justifiable and causes resentment among un-reserved people groups.     
Does Reservation diminish quality of work and destroy merit? Affirmative action is an act of compensating discrimination. To start with, those who suffer discrimination start from a point of disadvantage. It can be historical or an ongoing form of discrimination by which the playing field is not a plain one for them. But to devalue the quality of those who are in the reserved category is to undermine their worth, potential, and intelligence. There is evidence that people who came through affirmative action are able to catch up well and do even exceedingly well.    

The debate on Reservation should not lose sight of the spirit behind it. It is a mark of a compassionate society. But it is something which has to be constantly revisited and refined through a scientific and objective methodology.

Dr. Sao Tunyi works as an Epidemiologist at Directorate of Health and Family Welfare, Kohima. Feedback can be sent to, or visit his blog  



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