EWS Quota: Why Poverty Alone Can’t Be a Basis for Reservation

Affirmative action to improve educational and economic opportunities for the under-represented is justified. But analysis shows that the poor among the different socio-religious groups are not similar.

The Supreme Court has upheld the 10% quota for the economically weaker sections (EWS) of society, which was implemented in 2019 by the Narendra Modi government. The quota is exclusive for people from the general category and excludes the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and the socially and educationally backward classes. It applies to all government jobs, private and state-funded educational institutions. However, educational institutions run by minority groups have been excluded.

The EWS quota judgment has been opposed on the ground that reservations are a means to compensate for past injustices. So, they cannot be solely based on economic criteria. Further, the exclusion of SCs, STs, and socially and educationally backward classes is discriminatory.

It is argued that the EWS quota breaches the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling that reservation could not exceed 50% of the seats available.

The judgment was defended saying that reservations were intended to reduce inequality in society and that disadvantages could arise solely out of poverty. This argument, however, is misplaced.

Reservations were never meant to reduce inequality. One must understand the difference between affirmative action and quota to identify the remedy for socio-economic backwardness.

Affirmative action is an effort by institutions to improve educational and economic opportunities for under-represented groups and communities. Quotas attempt to bring diversity to the different institutions of the state.

To address the issue of socio-economic backwardness, affirmative action to improve educational and economic opportunities for the under-represented is justified. However, such policies might not address the problem adequately if these communities face discrimination.

Being equally meritorious does not ensure equal participation for these communities. In such a scenario, reservation becomes inevitable.

The most debatable issue concerning reservations has always been who should be provided with this benefit. The question on this issue is whether the poor are ‘homogenous’. The available empirical evidence does not support the claim of homogeneity among the poor.

The indicators related to education and employment may be used to highlight the unequal status of the poor belonging to different social and religious groups.

For education, the population may be divided into five equal groups, each comprising 20% of the population, with a monthly per capita consumer expenditure (MPCE) in increasing order, known as the ‘quintile’. This method aims to study the performance of the population with regard to education and employment opportunities across different economic backgrounds.

Also read: EWS Quota a Stupefying Inversion of the Idea of Equality

Higher education

The percentage of the population with a higher education degree may be used as an indicator to compare the status of different groups among different quintiles.

At an all-India level, 8% of the population has a higher education degree. This figure stands at 2.5% for the bottom 20% of the population and 27% for the top 20%.

Data shows the number of people with a higher education degree is highest among the Hindu high castes (HHCs) in every income group. At the same time, SCs, STs, and Muslims lie at the bottom for every income group.

Even among the bottom income groups, which signify the MPCE in the range of Rs. 83.3 and Rs. 1,250, only 0.92% of the population among the STs, 1.9% among the SCs, 1.3% among Muslims, and 2.8% among the Hindu other backward classes (HOBCs) have a higher education degree.

However, nearly 7% of the population is a higher education graduate among the HHCs. This pattern does not shift substantially for the bottom three income quintiles, but it jumps in the fourth and fifth quintiles without affecting the group-based hierarchy.

Table 1: Percentage of population with higher education degree

Consumption expenditure

range (in Rs.)

83.3-1250 1250-1692 1692.5-22 2276-3333 3333.4-80 Total
ST 0.92 2.5 3.3 8.2 27.0 3.7
SC 1.9 3.0 4.3 7.7 19.7 4.7
HOBC 2.8 3.8 5.8 9.8 23.8 7.1
HHC 6.8 7.0 9.9 16.3 34.4 17.4
Muslims 1.3 2.0 2.8 6.4 15.4 4.0
Total 2.5 3.7 5.7 10.5 27.0 8.0

Source: 75th round National Sample Survey, 2017-18

A similar pattern is observed if one looks at the gross attendance ratio (GAR), which is measured as the percentage of the 18-23 years population currently attending higher education.

The STs and Muslims are at the bottom, and the SCs are slightly better than them. The only exception is the top income groups, where the GAR among STs is higher than HHCs and that among SCs and HOBCs is similar.

However, Muslims lag behind all the other groups in this category as well.

The conventional hierarchy exists in the bottom 80% of the population, with SCs, STs, and Muslims lying at the bottom.

Table 2: Gross attendance ratio in higher education

Consumption expenditure range (in Rs.) 83.3-1250 1250-1692 1692.5-2275 2276-3333.3 3333.4-80200 Total
ST 7.0 12.8 16.9 24.6 63.4 15.8
SC 12.3 17.3 22.7 32.3 50.2 21.1
HOBC 16.9 20.7 29.4 38.3 50.0 28.2
HHC 24.6 30.0 34.3 40.0 59.1 40.7
Muslim 7.3 11.0 15.9 27.0 38.7 16.4
Rest 16.6 40.4 28.1 39.5 57.2 43.3
Total 13.4 18.8 25.7 35.3 53.1 26.3

Source: Author’s calculation based on the periodic labour force survey data, 2019-20

Quality of jobs

The percentage of regular workers out of the total population of workers may be used as an indicator to measure the access to quality jobs among different groups.

The pattern across socio-religious groups is also observed in the share of regular workers.

At the national level, nearly 23% of the workers are regular employees. This figure varies from 8.5% in the bottom 20% to 46.9% among the top 20%. The share of regular workers is higher among the HHCs across socio-religious groups.

In the bottom 20% of the population, 6% of the STs, 8% of the SCs and OBCs, and 11% of the Muslims are regular employees. However, nearly 13% of the workers among the HHCs are regular employees.

This gap with the HHCs continues to exist in all income groups. The gap between the Muslims and the HHCs widens in the upper quintile.

Table 3: Share of regular employees out of the total number of workers, 2019-20

Consumption expenditure

range (in Rs.)

0-1160 1160-1500 1500-2000 2000-2850 2850-1050 Total
ST 5.7 8.0 14.5 24.8 44.5 13.4
SC 8.0 11.9 19.3 28.8 48.0 20.5
HOBC 8.2 10.2 17.0 22.9 43.4 20.2
HHC 13.4 17.3 25.4 32.2 52.3 34.9
Muslims 10.9 14.3 20.3 24.8 41.6 21.5
All India 8.5 11.8 19.3 26.6 46.9 22.9

Source: Author’s calculation based on the periodic labour force survey data, 2019-20

The empirical evidence suggests that SCs and STs are mostly concentrated in low-quality jobs. Further, they mainly engage in jobs on a contractual basis.

The share of SCs and STs in government jobs is above their population share in the bottom 20% population. However, their share in government jobs falls short of their population share in the top 20% of the population.

This shows that the SCs and STs are highly concentrated in low-quality government jobs while their representation in the top positions is not sufficiently high.

Nearly 73% of the ST government workers and 77% of the SC and OBC government workers in the bottom 20% population do not have any written contract of one year or above.

For the HHCs, the figure stands at 64%. For the OBCs, this figure is similar at both extremes.

Muslims, however, are severely under-represented in both types of jobs. Their share in government jobs is less than half of their population in both quintiles.

On the other extreme, the share of HHCs is almost three times higher in the top quintile than that of the bottom quintile, which shows their high presence in the top-quality jobs. Even in low-quality jobs, their share of contractual jobs (approximately 65%) is lower than the SCs, STs and HOBCs.

Table 4: Share of regular employees out of total workers in the government sector, 2019-20

Consumption expenditure range (in Rs.) ST SC HOBC HHC Muslim Rest Total
0-1160 18.0 31.6 30.3 13.6 6.0 0.41 100
2850-1050 6.7 15.7 30.4 37.4 5.3 4.57 100

Source: Author’s calculation based on periodic labour force survey data, 2019-20

Also read: EWS Quota: Newspaper Editorials Question Exclusions, Believe Concerns Will Remain

It is clearly evident that the poor among the different socio-religious groups are not similar. Whatever income level is used as a measure of poverty, the SCs, STs, and Muslims emerge as the most vulnerable groups in terms of education and employment.

Given that the HHCs are doing better than these underprivileged groups, any type of discriminatory reservation policy is highly likely to accentuate inequality instead of reducing it. The evidence also shows that if any group needs quotas at this juncture, it is Muslims, who are severely under-represented in terms access to educational and employment opportunities.

There is also evidence of religion-based discrimination faced by Muslims in accessing employment and education opportunities, though only a few scientific studies have been done on it so far.

In one of the studies sponsored by Oxfam India, namely the India Discrimination Report 2022, the author (with professor Amitabh Kundu) has highlighted the identity-based discrimination faced by the SCs, STs, Muslims, and women in accessing employment, using an indirect method based on secondary data.

Another study on education using indirect data based on secondary data also highlights that merely improving the educational and economic background of the family is unlikely to remove the existing caste, ethnic, and religion-based inequality in society. This is to note that the EWS reservation availed to the Muslim community would hardly reach the poor among them due to their far more vulnerable condition than the economically weaker sections of other communities.

Thus, any intervention should adequately take note of the socio-religious identity of an individual. Poverty can’t be a basis for reservation, though it may be so for affirmative action, as the poor in different communities do not perform similarly.

The poor from privileged backgrounds are in a better position than those from underprivileged backgrounds.

The exclusion of SCs and STs is not justified based on empirical evidence. The inclusion of Muslims is unlikely to address their problem due to their far more vulnerable condition than those of the Hindu high castes. The EWS reservation is likely to amplify rather than reduce inequality.

Khalid Khan is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, and has a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.