An Indian Perspective on Affirmative Action

India continues to face challenges relating to caste, religion and gender inequalities. The question is how society creates a more level playing field where there is equal opportunity for all. Indian government has introduced various reservation bills to improve the status of backward classes and women. According to the XI Planning Commission Mid-Evaluation report on Social Justice the government strategy is targeted towards “providing social empowerment, economic empowerment and social justice to ensure removal of disparities and elimination of exploitation”.

The issue discussed in this post is that in light of huge disparities is affirmative action by government the right approach. Would you consider it socially ethical? To put forth my views I am first providing some background information on income disparities and gender inequality problems in India. In the end, I have added Michael Sandel’s lecture video on “Affirmative Action”. It is an hour-long lecture and discusses the ethical dilemmas relating to affirmative action.

 Indian Social Structure

Amongst Hindus, the Brahmins were according to Hindu philosophy superior to the other three castes. The Harijans/Dalits now called scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes were considered untouchables belonging to the lower caste order. This caste differentiation was abolished after independence, however differences in education and financial status continue. Same problems prevail in Muslim community. Not only are Muslims earning lesser, they have lower education levels, and culturally higher restrictions on women. According to 2001 Census scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and minorities consist 42% of the total Indian population.

The income disparities continue to be huge. As per Planning Commission assessment 27% Indian population is below poverty line and in the top 10-world billionaire Forbes list of 2011 there are two Indians, Lakshmi Mittal and Muskesh Ambani. Successive governments have partially succeeded in running various programs for backward classes by reserving seats in educational institutes and government offices. The irony is that lower caste Hindus who adopted Islam or Christianity to get rid of the cursed caste tag, now wish to be classified as Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians to leverage the advantages of reservations.

Status of Women

India was one of the few countries that in its constitution provided equal rights to women. According to Hindu religion women are avatars of goddesses. In Hindu religion, the three main representatives of God are Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Respectively their roles are of creator, manager and destroyer of the world. The devis (goddesses) are Durga, Saraswati and Laksmi. The goddesses bestow power, knowledge and wealth to their followers. Delving in the Hindu philosophy shows that women are considered equal.

In the present scenario, one would assume that Indian women would be in a better position. A few women hold politically powerful positions. Ms. Pratibha Patil is President of India, Ms. Sonia Gandhi is leader of the ruling party Congress, Ms Sushma Swaraj is leader of opposition party BJP and Ms. Meira Kumar is Speaker of the House.  Four key positions held by women, and the Women Reservation Bill is awaiting approval in Lok Sabha for quite some time.

However, we cannot say no progress has been in made. In the last decade a few laws, namely Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence and Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, have been passed. Still the road ahead is extremely difficult. India has a high rate of female infanticide, dowry deaths, sexual harassment and violence against women.  Therefore, Indian women continue to struggle for equality and fight a multitude of gender biases . To offer support and eliminate such extreme disparities in the Eleventh Plan Ministry of Women and Child Development has Rs 56,765 crores (USD 12,549 million) allocated for women welfare.

India corporate sector is doing no better in promoting diversity. The Economic Times article  “Tough climb for women up India Inc ladder” on Women’s Day stated – “A population of 500 million women, but only 258 of them hold some of the top jobs in the country. That’s how skewed India Inc’s ‘diversity ratio’ is….. There are only 16 women on the board of directors of the 30 Sensex companies, or 4.8% of the 335 people who hold directorship positions”

 The Privileged Class View

Most people would proclaim that effective measures should be implemented for uplifting the underprivileged. However, there is a wide gap between words and actions. The good intentions are not followed through as the social cost has to be borne by the privileged class. The socially affluent have benefitted from the legacy privilege and the belonging to the right network.  The privileged classes do not wish to consider that minorities and women need the extra support since they don’t have the right connections. Reservations for backward classes and women have men complaining that they are being forced to sacrifice their individual rights for society’s betterment. The wrongs were done for centuries, so why does the present generation need to pay the price for it.

 There are a number of arguments for and against affirmative action. Watch the video of Michael Sandel’s debate in class about the subject and decide what the right thing to do is? The same problems persist at global level relating to socially weaker communities.


  1. Tough climb for women up India Inc ladder
  2. Planning Commission Eleventh Five Year Plan 2007- 2012 – Social Justice
  3.  Planning Commission Eleventh Five Year Plan 2007- 2012 – Women’s Agency & Child Rights

5 comments on “An Indian Perspective on Affirmative Action

  1. Sonia,
    This is once again a very insightful and thought-provoking post on an important societal issue. I greatly respect the balanced and objective approach you have taken to a difficult problem. It is one in which taking the long view will be most beneficial. And keeping the focus on what’s the right thing to do. It’s not as much about carving up the pie as enlarging it.

    • Steven,

      Thanks, and agree with you that we need to enlarge the pie. However, the problem is with the enlarged pie also the existing affluent client may wish a larger share, rather than share it will others. Mindset needs to be changed for the society to get out of this psychic trap.


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