Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 03:07 UK

Critics slam India's education quotas

By Shilpa Kannan
Business reporter, BBC News, Delhi

As schools across India close for summer holidays, many parents send their children to coaching classes to help them prepare for the highly competitive entrance exams to various professional colleges.

Delhi university students
Many students fear they will be squeezed out by the quota system

But this year many students are worried.

For some of them, simply performing well in the exams will not be enough.

The Supreme Court of India has upheld an affirmative action program reserving nearly half of the seats at the country's top government-funded schools for members of the lower castes.

The scheme will be enforced this coming academic year, starting in June, in some of India's most elite universities, including the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the All India Institute for Medical Sciences.

Currently, 22.5% of the seats in state-funded educational institutions are reserved. With an additional 27% of seats set aside, the total caste-based educational quota will be raised to 49.5%.

Implementation of the new reservation regime is now on the fast track, so the admission process for the next academic year is going to be tricky.

Long struggle

At the University of Delhi's chest diseases institute, medical students are anxiously waiting for the allotment of seats.

Delhi university students
Mr Lochan has failed to get in two years in a row, in spite of getting high marks

Most of the parents and students are huddled around lists of students' names pasted on the walls. Anger at the reservation system is noticeable.

There are separate lists that mark students belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes - the three classifications of socially disadvantaged people that the new system recognises.

Others are having to take a tough exam, though many fail.

Anirudh Lochan has failed to get in two years in a row, in spite of getting high marks.

He has now put in another year of rigorous studies to try and get the specialisation of his choice.

Yet he is worried.

Unable to afford an expensive private education, this government seat is his only option.

Though he qualifies as an underprivileged person, he does not want to use his caste to get a seat.

"In private institutes, education is very expensive with medical seats running up to tens of thousands of dollars," he says.

"For people like me who don't have money and just put in hours of study to get a free seat we have to wait and keep trying till we get a merit seat.

"I'm desperate for a seat this year as I have already waited two years and I need to start earning soon as I have to support my parents, but under the general category, there is a long wait for the few subsidised merit seats."

Pride and prejudice

Many have taken to the streets in protest with banners and slogans.

Delhi university form
Vacant positions are hard to come by

Proud community

Mr Lochan's group, called the Youth for Equality, is now planning to file a petition in the Supreme Court.

But others, who back the quota system, insist it helps open the doors into highly rated educational institution to people who have long been denied access.

Twenty-nine-year-old Nethralpal Singh is one. He used his caste, firstly to get a place on a post graduate course, then a job as a lecturer in modern history at the Delhi university.

Coming from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, he is the first member in his family to get higher education and a job in a university.

He says people from socially disadvantaged sections are very often also financially disadvantaged. The quota system is the only way they can break free, he believes.

"When I was studying for post-graduation degree, I was often discriminated against by colleagues and professors who overlooked me because of my caste," he says.

"But my community feels really proud of me. Because of reservation I have become a professor in the central university of this country.

"When I got my job, the whole village celebrated. They thought 'our boy has become a professor', and not just my village but all the neighbouring ones too."

Spread to business

But even as the country is getting ready to implement the biggest ever affirmative action programs, many fear that this may extend to Indian industry as well.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Businesses dislike Prime Minister Singh's push for quotas

Currently, 27% of government jobs are reserved. Prime Minster Manmohan Singh has now suggested that companies too should take up this action plan and extend the percentage.

Business leaders however are completely against it fearing that it could hurt India's rapid economic growth.

Amit Mitra, the secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), says Indian industry today does not hire people based on their caste or region.

"How can we ask employees what caste they belong to?" he says.

"We don't have any such question in the forms they fill when they take up jobs.

"There is talk arising from the inclusion concerns but that does not mean anyone can force a quota on the Indian private sector."

A better option would be to improve educational standards in a country already struggling with a shortage of skilled labour to work in its rapidly growing economy.

Yet the current reservation scheme will allow millions of socially disadvantaged students access to some of India's best known professional colleges.

Mr Lochan did manage to get a seat without using reservation he competed with over hundred students for just one seat in his area of specialisation.

Others however may not be so lucky.

India Business Report is broadcast repeatedly every Sunday on BBC World.

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