DisFact #17: What data tells us about caste and reservation in India

Welcome to DisFact, a weekly newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. Send your feedback to samarthbansal42@gmail.com

If you enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. And here is the list of all previous issues.


  • New quota for the unreserved based on economic status

  • What data tells us about caste and reservations in India

The “upper caste quota”

What: On Wednesday, the Parliament approved the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill on providing 10% reservation in jobs and education for the economically weaker sections (EWS) of the general (upper caste) category. This is in addition to the existing 50% quota for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes(STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Poll plank: The move comes three weeks after the BJP lost elections in three major North Indian states and a few months before the general election. It fulfils the long-standing demand from various quarters that quotas should be based on economic criteria rather than caste.

Who will get the benefit: A person whose family’s gross annual income is below Rs 8 lakh. Families owning agricultural land above five acre, a house above 1000 square feet, or 100 yard plot or above in a notified municipal area or a plot of 200 yards or above in a non-notified municipal area cannot avail benefit of this reservation.” (Indian Express)

Legal test: It is not clear if the new quota—the upper-caste quota—will pass legal scrutiny, analysts say. In the 1990s, the Congress government under P V Narasimha Rao tried to bring a similar a quota for the upper caste poor. But the Supreme Court struck it down. A nine-judge Supreme Court bench in the Indra Sawhney v Union of India case placed two major restrictions on the reservation policy.

  • 50% ceiling for reserved seats

  • It was clearly stated that reservations cannot be based on economic criteria alone

The new quota cleared by the Parliament violates both.

Read more: Scroll has a detailed explainer on the political and legal implications of the new policy. Read it here.

The reservation debate, in numbers

Reservation policy is fiercely debated. Here are three different positions:

  • No reservation. Only merit: Some say there should be no such policy at all. Only merit should determine who gets a seat in a college or a job in the government sector.

  • Reservations should be based on economic status alone: Then there is a section which believes that there is no problem with the idea of reservation in itself. But they argue that caste-based inequalities don't exist, or rather, have declined in 21st century India—so economic criteria should be employed rather than caste.

  • Caste-based reservations should stay but needs to be implemented better: Others say that caste-based reservation should stay. It is an important policy instrument to ensure equality of opportunity and get past centuries of historical injustice. However, the policy can be better implemented. For instance, restrictions on the number of times an individual can avail the quota to expand the pool of people who benefit from the policy.

To debate these viewpoints, certain facts need to be in place: How do living conditions vary across castes? Does caste-based discrimination exist in the job market? Who should benefit from the quotas and on what basis is that decided? Why do young people across the country—Marathas, Jats, Patidars—demand inclusion in quotas? Who will benefit from the new upper-caste quota?

In this issue, I will restrict myself to empirical evidence that answers the above questions and helps put the debate in perspective.

There are seven major points.

1. How many Indians are eligible for caste-based reservation

Around three-fourths of the population is already covered with existing policies: According to data from the National Sample Survey Office, 44% of Indians identify as OBCs. Add 9% of ST population and 20% of SC—that makes 73% of Indian population eligible for caste-based reservation.

Read more: Quantifying the Caste Quotas (The Hindu)

2. Who benefits from the new quota based on the economic criterion

Almost everyone: The government has not released any official figure. Using data from the India Human Development Survey, Sonalde Desai, a Sociology professor at the University of Maryland, estimates that the new quota will cover over 95% of the households—taking the income threshold of ₹8 lakh per annum and land ownership based exclusion. (The Hindu)

Read more on income and expenditure of Indians: How many Indians are richer than you? (The Hindu)

3. Upper-caste families are wealthier

Mint’s analysis of the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16) shows that caste is a key marker of affluence.

Nearly half of general category individuals (excluding Muslims) belong to the affluent category, and only 4% belong to the poor category, Mint found. On the other hand, Dalits or Scheduled Castes (SC) account for the second-highest proportion of poor in the country.

Note: Read Mint’s definition of affluent and poor, and the methodology

But, but: “Clusters of poverty persist among forward castes”

While at a broad brushstroke the National Sample Survey (NSS) shows that mean consumption expenditure of forward castes is higher than that of Dalits, clusters of poverty persist among forward castes. According to NSS data, the bottom fourth of forward castes are poorer than the top half of Dalits. (The Hindu)

4. Education and caste-based inequalities

Education is a big driver of wealth in India and very few of the underprivileged communities have access to education.

According to a Mint analysis, nearly half of the general category households (excluding Muslims) had at least one person who had studied at least till the higher secondary stage. For Dalits, the same share was 21%.

Why it matters:

The rising premium on education in India’s job market and the absence of any discrimination against them has meant that upper castes have been able to access well-paying jobs more easily compared to other social groups and have, in turn, been able to maintain their position on the socioeconomic ladder. (Mint)

5. Is there caste-based discrimination in the corporate job market?

Yes—at least one study shows it does.

In this excellent essay on the economics of discrimination, Pramit Bhattacharya reviews global academic literature and highlights why discrimination persists even in a competitive market economy.

One key empirical paper based on a social experiment shows the extent of discrimination in the Indian corporate job market.

The economist and Ambedkarite scholar Sukhdeo Thorat, and his co-author, US-based sociologist Paul Attewell, posted dummy résumés of candidates in response to advertisements for entry-level jobs in leading newspapers in the country.

For each vacancy, three résumés were sent. All the résumés were identical in almost all respects (with the same educational qualifications and suitable degrees from reputed universities) but they differed when it came to the caste and religion of the candidate. While caste and creed were not mentioned explicitly in the résumé, in each trio of résumés, one had a distinctly upper-caste surname, one a Dalit surname and one a Muslim surname.

Thorat and Attewell then analysed the response patterns from firms. Their findings, published in a 2007 Economic and Political Weekly research paper, were striking.

The ones with Muslim surnames had the lowest chance of being selected for an interview, followed by those with Dalit surnames. Candidates with upper-caste surnames faced significantly brighter prospects. (Mint)

6. Why young people want government jobs

The latest CSDS-KAS Youth Study, released in April 2017, found that 65% of Indian youth would prefer a government job; just 7% wished for a job in the private sector.

Why is that? One key reason is the salary difference between government and private jobs.

Most college graduates today lack the skills for high-paying private sector jobs. They may well be qualified for lower-level clerical or support positions, but for these jobs’ salaries are far lower in the private sector than the public sector. (The Hindu)

Salary difference: An IIM Ahmedabad study found that lower-ranked Central government employees draw significantly higher salaries than their counterparts in the private sector.

For instance, a driver in the private sector typically earns around Rs. 12,000 a month, while an entry-level driver in government service earns around Rs. 25,000, including additional benefits and allowances, the study said.

Even qualified professionals working with the government at the entry level are paid more. Only in the top-tier jobs does the private sector pays higher to highly skilled professionals such as engineers with expertise in niche technologies.

Why it matters: The consequences of this disparity in salaries between public and private sector are far reaching, said Sonalde Desai, the University of Maryland professor, in an emailed response. She added:

A secure government job is what most young men and women in India aspire to. But these jobs are not easy to come by and reservations for SC, ST and OBCs add fat to the fire by making it seem like a prize that is kept out of the reach of young men and women from general categories. Not surprisingly we see escalation of demands from privileged groups like Jats, Gujjars and Patidars to be allowed into this golden circle.

7. We still rely on caste data from the 1931 census

“The key to dealing with the quota quagmire lies in shuffling people in and out of the eligibility criteria and ensuring that the benefits are not concentrated among certain groups and/or individuals,” Desai wrote in The Hindu.

No exit plan: While the current system has a procedure to notify new groups into the reserved categories, there is no process to move groups out.

But suppose we did have a provision for moving groups out. How do we decide which groups to include/exclude? For that, we require data on the current socio-economic conditions of all castes and communities in India.

That data doesn’t exist: While we have survey data for broad caste categories—SC, ST, OBC, Upper Caste—there is little or no data about the socio-economic status of thousands of sub-castes. The lack of granular data hinders our ability to analyse and rethink existing quota policy. The latest that we have comes from the Census of 1931(!)

The government did conduct a caste census recently (SECC 2011) but the caste-related data is largely useless. (Read more about SECC data here and why need to collect caste data)

A lot has changed since 1931:

Economic growth of the past century, combined with strong affirmation action undertaken by successive governments of the independent nation, may have changed relative fortunes of various groups. Some jatis may have managed to pull themselves out poverty and marginalisation, while others may have sunk into it. Hence, it is time to collect data that reflects the current situation. (The Hindu)

That needs to be fixed and Census 2021 provides an opportunity.

Talk to me

Comments? Feedback? Suggestions? Write to me at samarthbansal42@gmail.com or hit reply to this email. And if you find this helpful, please spread the word. Thank you!