With the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections close at hand, the Centre has included a quota for other backward classes in the ‘All India Quota’ (AIQ) for State medical colleges. Simply explained, the AIQ allows for a student in one State to enrol in medical college in another State. It accounts for 15 per cent of the total UG seats and 50 per cent of the PG seats. The rest of the seats are meant for the domiciles. In 2007, a SC/ST quota of 22.5 per cent was introduced for AIQ in medical colleges. Now, this has been extended to OBCs (27 per cent) and economically weaker sections (10 per cent). The Centre seems to be have been legally bound to do this, having extended its OBC/EWS quotas to all public institutions. The Madras High Court last year made observations in this regard. However, it has also become a familiar trope to announce quotas when elections are round the corner. Prior to the West Bengal elections, both the BJP and Trinamool Congress promised OBC status to Mahisyas, Tamulas, Sahas and Tilis. In UP, 40-50 per cent of the population is considered as OBC, an omnibus category within which some communities are more backward than the others. This heterogeneity also reveals that a blanket quota for all OBCs is not fair, as some communities can be rightfully considered as ‘creamy layer’ within this group. Therefore, it is time to take a hard look at reservations, going beyond caste as a metric of backwardness.

Reservations only conceal a broader policy failure, of the supply of education falling short of demand. India has one doctor for 1,456 people, which falls short of the WHO norm of 1:1,000. According to the Health Ministry, India has over 84,600 MBBS seats and over 54,200 PG seats, with 558 medical colleges, of which nearly half are privately run. The OBC quota within AIQ is expected to open up 1,500 MBBS seats and 2,500 PG seats, while the EWS quota will make available 550 MBBS seats and 1,000 PG seats. However, in the case of medical education, there are serious concerns over quality as well. The competence of the graduates being churned out literally assumes critical importance in an area such as medicine. It is all the more necessary that representation and competence go hand in hand in this sector. Calls to dilute the quality of the NEET exam need to be seen in this context. A higher investment in education (according to Economic Survey 2020-21, central and State spending on education as a proportion of GDP increased from 2.8 per cent in 2014-15 to 3.5 per cent in recent years) will take care of both quality and quantity concerns. It will reduce the role of caste-based quotas and the politics of patronage that thrives on it.

Till this ideal is realised, however, it is important to adopt a multiple-indicators approach in allocating admissions: consider income level, gender, rural-urban differential and regional backwardness in addition to caste. Such parameters for affirmative action can ensure that the deserving are not left out and the less deserving included, amidst sound and din of vote bank politics.