A first-of-its-kind study of the impact of reservations in public sector jobs on productivity and efficiency has shown that the affirmative action did not reduce productivity in any sector, but had, in fact, raised it in some areas.
Despite being widespread and much-debated, India’s reservation policy for the educationally and socially backward classes is poorly studied. While there is some research into the impact of reservations in politics and in higher education, there has been no study yet of its impact on the economy.
In the pioneering study, Ashwini Deshpande, Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, and Thomas Weisskopf, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, measured the impact of reservation for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) on productivity and efficiency in the Indian Railways between 1980 and 2002. The study was published in the World Development journal.
The Indian Railways is the world’s largest employer where affirmative action applies, Ms. Deshpande said. It employs between 1.3 and 1.4 million people at four levels of employment — Group A to Group D, with Group A employees being the senior-most. There is 15 per cent reservation for the SCs and 7.5 per cent reservation for the STs at all levels, with additional reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The study looked at SC and ST employees in Group A and B only, since people from marginalised backgrounds would have been unlikely to reach high levels of employment without reservation.
Since an individual’s impact on productivity is impossible to estimate, Ms. Deshpande and Mr. Weisskopf compared zones and periods of time with higher numbers of SC and ST employees with those with lower numbers, keeping other variables constant. They found no negative impact on productivity and efficiency in any area, and some positive effects in some areas of work.
“Beyond the numbers, we can speculate about the reasons for why there might be some positive impact of affirmative action,” Ms. Deshpande explained. “Individuals from marginalised groups may be especially highly motivated to perform well when they attain decision-making and managerial positions, because of the fact that they have reached these positions in the face of claims that they are not sufficiently capable, and they may consequently have a strong desire to prove their detractors wrong,” the authors suggested.
This is a possible explanation which rings true for Scheduled Caste employees of the Railways whom The Hindu spoke to. “At every level where there is discretionary power, SC/ ST employees are systematically discriminated against,” said B.L. Bairwa, the president of the All-India Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Railway Employees Association.
He cited a number of cases from across the country that he was battling, of deserving backward caste railway employees who had been passed up for promotions, transferred arbitrarily or given adverse records. “When an SC or ST employee rises, he has to prove himself and work extra hard. I am not surprised the efficiency goes up,” he said.