Reservations for OBCs in India:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
[Parts of this FAQ
appears in the article titled "The Furore Over Reservations: A Primer"
in the June 2006 issue of Siliconeer Magazine]
1. Who are the OBCs?
OBC stands for Other Backward Classes.
A community is classified as "OBC" if it qualifies as "backward" based
on a complex set of social, economic and educational criteria, as
specified by the National Commission on Backward Classes (NCBC) .
"The OBCs comprise, by and large, the lower rungs of the Sudras who, in
the past, suffered from varying degrees of ritual prohibitions applied
to the a-dvijas (literally, those not twice-born) and remain till today socially and occupationaly disadvantaged". 
"OBCs, by profession, being small cultivators, agricultural laborers,
artisans and also being engaged in weaving, fishing, construction work,
etc. and these occupationsbeing common to SCs and OBCs, the status of
OBCs cannot be treated as very much different from that of SCs ....OBCs
constitute a majority of poor and backward population which produced a
variety of goods and services, but on terms and conditions unfair
to them." 
“In absolute size, the OBC poor outnumber SC as well as ST poor
population and account for more than half the poor population in the
category of (residual non-SC, non-ST) others in both the rural
and the urban areas and 31.5 percent (rural) and 38.2 percent (urban) of entire poor population.”
Specifically in terms of defining OBCs in the context of reservations,
one of the key observations of the Mandal Commission was that
quantifying social, educational and social levels of each and
every community in India would be a logistical nightmare and would
invite large-scale corruption. The commission pointed out that many
empirical studies indicate that there is a strong correlation
between social, educational, and economic backwardness and membership
in certain lower castes. So the commission suggested that instead of
evaluating all the communities, it would be more practical to consider
such castes as potential candidates for being classified as OBC. Once
this has been done, one can then look at these castes more closely and
determine if their social, economic and educational levels are below a
certain predefined threshold.
Defined thus, OBC is a dynamic notion.
For instance, if a community X improves dramatically in social,
economic and educational indicators, it ceases to be classified as OBC.
Note that this implies
that evaluation of a community’s backwardness should be done
periodically to determine if it still qualifies as being OBC. For a
candidate to qualify for an OBC reserved seat, it is necessary that
they belong to an OBC community, but such membership in an OBC
community is not a sufficient condition. The candidate would also then
have to show that her family’s economic and/or educational levels
are also not too high, in order to avoid the “creamy-layer”
2. But are the OBCs really discriminated against? Don’t they already hold a significant amount political power?
The answer to the previous question should also provide an answer to
this question. Since OBC communities are by definition those
communities that have dramatically low social, economic,
and educational levels, one can plausibly argue that their dismal state
is a consequence of systemic discrimination. As for political power,
yes, lower castes are in power in the states of both U.P. and Bihar,
but most of the administrative machinery including the police force is
under the control of upper castes.
Would a poor upper-caste person be able to avail of reservations? Why
isn’t the criterion for determining who benefits from
reservations purely economic?
The suggestion of using only economic criteria to address caste-based
inequality is like saying that we should not address gender
discrimination as an issue primarily concerning women, since men are
also sometimes oppressed. While it is true that there are poor people
among the upper castes too, reservations are specifically intended to
address massive, systemic, historical subjugation of
entire communities. Reservations are not meant as a tool for eliminating economic disparities across the board.
That said, economics do play an important factor in determining
whichcommunities are OBC and deserve reservation. As stated earlier,
OBC stands for “Other Backward Classes,” and in
accordance with the Mandal Commission recommendations, for a community
to be classified as OBC, it must meet a complex set of social, economic
and educational criteria. While this cannot ensure that every single
individual who qualifies for reservation is truly
“oppressed,” the procedures
are designed to ensure that the bulk of the beneficiaries are socially
as well as economically backward. The fact that most OBCs also happen
to be lower castes is simply a reflection of how the
upper castes control a disproportionate share of the nation’s resources.
Why should the son of an IAS officer benefit from reservations? In
general, why should the “creamy layer”, or the well-to-do
members of OBC communities get reservations?
As we pointed out in the answer to the first question, membership in a
community identified as OBC is a necessary, but not a sufficient
condition to qualify for the OBC quota. Specifically,
the National Commission of Backward Classes provides a list of
persons/sections who are excluded from reservation because they
constitute the “creamy layer” of the society. Sons/daughters of
individuals who are classified as falling under the “creamy
layer” cannot be considered eligible for reservation. The
“creamy layer” spans various categories, including
constitutional posts (president/
vice president, supreme court/high court judges, etc), Class I/II
officers (in Indian central and state government services), certain
employees in public sector undertakings, high-ranking armed force
officials, doctors, engineers and other professionals who possess a
high level of income/wealth, property owners, and others whose
income/wealth is above a certain level.
5. What happens when a caste / community classified as OBC advances socially, economically and educationally?
As described earlier, OBC is a dynamic notion. The evaluation of whether given communities qualify
to be designated OBC is to be done periodically
and if a community advances such that its socio-economic and
educational levels are on par with state or district average, it ceases
to be classified as OBC. The Supreme Court has mandated that a revision
of this list needs to take
place at least once every 10 years.
As envisaged by the Mandal Commission, and as proposed to be
implemented now, the policy of reservations is not the blunt instrument
that it is falsely portrayed to be. It is a fine-grained program
that will not result in an ever-increasing number of
‘reserved’ places at the table, but will more than likely
always stay below the target threshold of 27 percent because it is
designed to use overlapping measures of social and economic deprivation
and fluid notions of identity and group belonging — dynamic
measures that are subject to continual readjustments to minimize
economic and social disparities as society changes.
Are reservations the best way to ensure better representation of
socially disadvantaged groups? Are there studies showing their
Yes, it is true that the disadvantaged should have access to high
quality primary education. Yes, imaginative solutions should be found
to overcome the centuries-old practice of caste-based discrimination, but none of this precludes reservation as a corrective measure.
Reservations cannot take the place of comprehensive societal changes,
but they constitute a very important, necessary step in the process of
compensating for centuries of discrimination. Reservations promote
integration in the upper strata of society — by increasing the
access of highly disadvantaged and under-represented communities to
elite occupations and decision-making positions. In this manner,
reservations result in greater empowerment of hitherto disadvantaged
A study on the impact of three decades of reservations in higher education for the SC/ST community in India
shows that “reservation policies at all levels of higher
education both redistribute SC and ST students upward in the university
quality hierarchy and attract into universities significant numbers of
SC and ST students who would not otherwise pursue higher
education.” This study also found that while such reservations
were mostly availed of by the more well-off section of the SC/ST
population, this was not surprising due to the immense challenges faced
by the poorest of the poor in persisting through school in order to
reach higher education. In addition, the average socio-economic status
of the SC/ST students was significantly lower than that of other
students, thus suggesting that reservation policy did not benefit
well-off SC/ST students at the expense of less-well-off applicants from
the rest of the population.
7. How about relying on merit to determine admissions? Is that not a neutral criterion?
Merit is the product of socio-economic conditions and is intrinsically tied to financial advantages and social support systems enjoyed by students in communities of privilege. Given the vast and dramatic differences between students of upper and lower castes in terms of their access to good schools, tutoring facilities, financial support, and other forms of social capital, we cannot but evolve policies of compensatory preference. Relying exclusively on “merit” based assessments will have the result of favoring the status quo and shutting out students whose inherited socio-economic environments do not facilitate academic achievement in the same way as that of upper caste students, with whom they are nevertheless expected to compete.
Further, it is a false claim that students who enter universities through the reserved category are undeserving or unqualified compared to those coming through the general category. Students who make it through the reserved category still have to meet rigorous qualification criteria. Reservations only play a role in determining which subset of qualified people get access to the limited number of available seats.
It is also a little odd to assume that someone who was admitted into, say, a medical college under a reserved category and completes the requirements for his or her degree would not make a good doctor. Because degrees are granted only after students successfully fulfill all academic requirements of the program, it is hardly relevant whether someone initially gained admission through reservations or not.
8. Don’t caste-based reservations result in further promoting casteism?
Reservations do not enforce or promote casteism. Rather, they are an acknowledgement of its brutal reality, and attempt to provide corrective measures to compensate for the centuries of oppression faced by lower castes, and the resultant inequalities of contemporary society. Opposing caste-based reservations for the sake of “equality” is disingenuous, since this argument is in denialof the fact that caste-based inequality already exists. Very much like apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the United States and post-Civil War segregation and exploitation of blacks, the caste system not only drastically exploited Dalits and other lower caste groups, it also concentrated advantage in the three upper-caste groups. Despite accounting for only around 10 percent of the population, upper castes in
India control virtually everything. Nearly sixty years after independence from British rule, upper-caste individuals continue to hold an overwhelming majority of academic, administrative and executive positions, including over 95 percent of the appellate judicial positions. The upper castes also control more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. Even within the upper caste groups, Brahmins, less than three percent of the population, occupy nearly all the upper rungs of federal administrative structure and most of the senior academic positions. To question this extremely lopsided distribution of
power is the ethical responsibility of all Indians, but in particular that of all upper caste Indians.
During the civil rights movement in the deep South, the white racists argued that the movement was creating schisms between blacks and whites, and that the violent reaction of whites was essentially a result of agitators from the North creating dissatisfaction among blacks who were otherwise quite happy with their situation. Protests by upper-caste Indians (who constitute less than 15 percent of
Indian population) against the attempts of Indian government to make elite educational institutions accessible to those who have suffered under the millennia-old tyrannical and brutal caste system are also equally disingenuous.
9. Is not the government pandering to vote bank politics by announcing these reservations? Instead, would it not be better if the government worked for the national interest?
This question involves a clarification of what constitutes a democracy. A democratically elected government is necessarily accountable to the people who elected it. In so far as the OBCs constitute a sizeable portion of Indian society, reservations that are meant to ameliorate their socio-economic condition do serve the greater common good. If the accusation is that the government announced 27
percent quota for OBCs to get re-elected, then the government is guilty as accused. Of course, every elected government wants to get re-elected. That is what democratic politics is all about.
As for the national interest, this concept has mostly been used to further whatever is in the best interests of the country’s elite, and unless one defines precisely what it is supposed to mean in a more substantive way, one cannot build a reservation policy based upon it.
10. We are talking about reservations for the OBCs in particular. What percentage of the Indian population is OBC?
The best estimate is about 52 percent of the population. That translates to almost 600 million people. While different surveys have shown variations (as low as 40 percent and as high as 65 percent), the Mandal Commission compiled the most comprehensive data base and estimated the OBC population as about 50 percent. The Mandal statistics have also withstood extensive scrutiny.
“Other Backward Classes” comprises mostly lower castes, a few upper-caste communities and some religious minorities (yes, socially and educationally backward segments of the Christian or Muslim communities, for example, do qualify for OBC classification). To put things in perspective, let’s look at India’s overall population distribution:
Lower Castes (Sudras): 42-44 percent (≈ 475 million)
Dalits (“SC”s): 16-18 percent (≈ 190 million)
Upper Castes: 12-14 percent (≈ 145 million)
Muslims: 12-13 percent (≈ 140 million)
Adivasis (“ST”s):7-8 percent (≈ 80 million)
Christians: 2 percent (≈ 22 million)
Sikhs: 2 percent (≈ 22 million)
Others (Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, Jews, etc.): 2 percent (≈ 22 million)
The numbers do not add up to 100 percent partly because they are best-estimates, and partly because there is some overlap between various categories. Note that lower castes, Dalits and Adivasis, when taken together, number about 750 million, almost 70 percent of India’s population.
11. What does the Indian Constitution have to say in regard to reservations?
Reservations are constitutionally mandated in India. Article 14 requires equal protection of the laws,
while Articles 15 and 16 prohibit discrimination by the state or by private persons in public accommodations and employment. These articles provide explicit exceptions to the Article 14 mandate of formal equality to allow for special measures for upliftment of backward sectors in society. Article 15 states: “Nothing in this article … shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.”
Similarly, the Ninety-Third Amendment to the Constitution of India came into force on January 20, 2006, and allows the government to make special provisions for the admission “of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens” to “educational institutions including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the State[.]”
12. Are quota-based reservations the best way to go? What about other models of positive discrimination?
Reservations are one way of ensuring that traditionally underrepresented communities get access to higher education. However, many other alternative models of positive discrimination have also been proposed such as the Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande model or the Purushottam Aggarwal
model. Many opponents of reservation have claimed that they are in favor of “affirmative action” and have proposed one of these alternative models as a possible solution.
The quota system and the afore-mentioned models of positive discrimination converge on many vital aspects. In the quota system, some communities are determined on the basis of socio-economic and educational parameters to be “backward” and their members (other than those excluded in the “creamy layer”) are all given the benefit of being put in a separate category (“reserved” category) where they only have to compete with other backward class members. In these other positive discrimination models, a handicap is awarded to each individual on the basis of different socio-economic, educational and gender based factors.
The main difference between the two is that the quota-system is a constitutional mandate to have a certain representation of backward classes in the institutions of higher education, while the handicap-based models of positive discrimination are not. It is possible that even with the handicap, the disparities in the forward and backward castes remain. Since the main purpose of having reservations is to ensure a certain representation of the underprivileged OBCs in the educational institutions, the handicap based models can only do the job if the handicap is adjusted so that at least 27 percent and 22.5 percent of the seats in higher education institutes are indeed occupied by OBCs and SC/STs respectively.
The other main difference is that the quota system treats the entire community as a whole (sans the creamy layer), while in the handicap based models, the unit is the individual. So, in the former case, a community as a whole is determined to be “backward” or not, on the basis of some parameters, while in the latter, individual handicaps vary from person to person even within the same community. In this respect, the handicap method allows for a greater fine-tuning of the measurement of “backwardness” but also increases the burden on each individual to show his or her qualification for a certain level
of “backwardness.” We believe that the quota-based reservation model is a simpler model in administrative terms and has clearly been shown to work well in increasing the representation of SC/STs at elite institutions. We are, however, open to the suggestion that other positive discrimination models can also bring about similar or better representations of underprivileged communities in equal or lesser time.
We find, though, that the claim by anti-reservation groups that they are only looking for better models for decreasing inequality to be quite disingenuous. If that is indeed the case, then we urge them to take a public stance in favor of positive discrimination, so that the public debate is limited only to the debate of which is the best model for doing so. On the other hand, we fear that the use of these alternative models in the discourse of groups such as Youth 4 Equality is merely to stall the discussion of any kind of positive discrimination from going forward.