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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
India's colleges confront quotas
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC correspondent, Delhi

Anti-reservation protesters in India
Angry students are bitterly opposed to the bill
The Indian government has introduced a controversial affirmative action bill in parliament which aims to increase quotas for lower-caste Indians and other disadvantaged groups in professional colleges.

Under the plan, the number of seats set aside in these institutions for lower-caste students will increase to nearly 50% to enable more underprivileged groups access to higher education.

Government ministers argue that it is the only way to undo centuries of discrimination and will allow millions of students from traditionally disadvantaged communities access to some of India's best known professional colleges.

But the controversial legislation has led to a public backlash.

On the streets of Delhi, angry doctors and medical students are protesting against the move.

Most of them are elite, upper-class Indians who see the move as a cynical attempt by politicians to gain votes from the influential lower castes who are a dominant force across the country.

If you want to promote equality than you should have reservation on an economic basis
Neha Goel
Engineering student

"The politicians need votes - they have to get elected. That's why they are going ahead with this plan," says Anand Kumar Sharma, a doctor at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi's top government hospital.

"The whole thing about reservation is that it is completely against merit," argues Aditi Mahajan, a medical student.

'Simply wrong'

Set in a wooded, 300-acre campus, Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is only one of seven in the country.

With every conceivable facility it is among the most prestigious professional colleges in India.

"Our facilities are world class," boasts college administrator Col Rajendra Singh.

IIT Delhi
Colleges such as the IIT will have to expand to meet the demand
"We have excellent laboratories, libraries and research facilities and even a sports stadium, swimming pool and other recreation facilities for our students," he adds.

Many IIT graduates have flooded Silicon Valley in the US and are leading India's information technology boom.

Entry is possible only through a stiff and fiercely competitive exam. Less than one percent of applicants gain entry.

It is one reason why the mood on campus is sombre.

Even as students prepare to welcome the incoming freshmen year, all conversation is dominated by the reservation bill.

Fourth year engineering student Neha Goel believes it is simply wrong to have an affirmative action plan which is based purely on the basis of which caste you are born into.

"If you want to promote equality in India, then you should do it with reservation on an economic basis.

"Why should it based on what a person's caste is? It should be based on how much our parents earn."

And like those protesting on the streets, many here blame the politicians.

"If they are really interested in improving the lot of the lower castes, how come they do not reserve seats in parliament for them, or for women?" asks Akhil Nanda.

"Why don't they begin by implementing it in the cabinet? Let them set aside 50% of cabinet seats for lower castes."

More teachers

The government now wants colleges like the IIT to expand to take in the additional number of students after the affirmative action plan kicks in.

Raghav Joshi
If you don't have reservation... many students will remain underprivileged for ever
Raghav Joshi
Pro-reservation student
But faculty members such as Professor Ravinder Kaur argue that this is simply not possible overnight.

"IITs do have rather high standards to recruit teachers. Even at the beginning, you need a PhD, several years of teaching experience, research experience, so it takes a long time to produce an IIT professor."

And there is the fear that the plan may bring in students that do not have the skills to compete which in turn could affect academic standards.

"You need basic competency in maths, physics, chemistry. If you do not have that, it is difficult to catch up.

"If you have a classroom with different capacities and skills, the professors feel they will have to bring down the standards," she adds.

But those who are supporting the bill - and even in colleges there are many - such as final-year student Raghav Joshi, argue that this is not enough of a reason to deny socially disadvantaged students access to a first-class college education.

"If you don't have reservation many students who may not be that bright but are somewhat bright will not get a chance to get a good education and will remain underprivileged for ever," he says.

For many, the affirmative action plan is a bitter pill that India has to swallow if it is to build a society based on equality.

Anand Singh, who is himself a student from a lower-caste background, believes it is a question of changing attitudes.

"Unless we learn to change our mindset and accept those who are less privileged than us in positions of power, the issue has to be forced," he says.

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