This year’s National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) results show that, after a certain level, reservation is slowly becoming irrelevant. Of the 7.97 lakh who qualified for admission into undergraduate medical and dental courses, nearly 65% belonged to the reserved categories (SC/ST/OBC), while just a shade under 12% needed the relaxation in the cut-off granted to them. This means 80% of the successful reserved category candidates beat the general category cut-off. Even if NEET results are not representative of performance in other competitive exams where reservation benefits apply, they still signal that the conventional assumption that the bar needs to be lowered for reserved category candidates to be able to access opportunities may need a rigorous rethink. More so, since with higher educational attainment, the disadvantage associated with caste is blunted, as PRICE data shows. At the same time, the results can be interpreted as a rather unequivocal vote for merit—perhaps, given how cut-throat the competition gets at the postgraduate and super-specialisation levels in medical education.
Some have argued that the such a large chunk of reserved category candidates clearing the general category cut-off gives lie to the merit argument used to criticise the reservation policy. While over 92,000 reserved category candidates, of a total of over 5 lakh, benefiting from the lower cut-off shows that this isn’t the case, there can be little doubt that campuses need to be sensitised on caste-based discrimination and exclusionary behaviour. The recent suicide of Dr Payal Tadvi, a postgraduate medical student in a Maharashtra college, who also happened to be an ST, brought to fore the caste-based discrimination in medical colleges. Given how reservation’s discontents—general category students—believe that they are robbed of opportunities that they otherwise merit because of reservation, the atmosphere in many educational institutions is quite vitiated. This resentment often manifests in casteist taunts, including ones on the merit (or the presumed lack of it) of the reserved category student, and blatantly exclusionary action, as was evident in the case of Dalit assistant professor at IIT Kanpur who was accused of plagiarism in his PhD thesis after he complained of caste-based discrimination; though the IIT senate recommended revocation of the professor’s PhD despite the institute’s academics ethics committee saying in a report that it didn’t find anything suspect in the subject’s own research work, including his experiments, data and inferences, the IIT Board decided against revocation and has asked for an independent committee to examine the thesis.
Building the competence of reserved category students in core subjects for various entrance examinations could help make the existing gap in entrance exam performance narrower, and thus, competition can ensure that there is greater representation of those from underprivileged social backgrounds in educational institutions. While competence in the core subject(s) is likely the biggest factor behind candidates qualifying a competitive exam, many experts recommend stepping up training of reserved category candidates in English/Hindi, since they believe that the medium allowed for answering the question paper(s) also makes a significant difference—students from schools where the medium of instruction is a regional language are likely to be hobbled by the requirement to read, process and answer the questions in English/Hindi.