Caste or Ethnic-based Reservation in Nepal

By Dr. Saroj P. Deo

Over the last few weeks, I have seen many opinions on social websites and electronic media concerning the merits of reservation (affirmative action) for different caste or ethnic groups. Affirmative action or positive discrimination, known as reservation in India and Nepal, is the policy of favouring members of a disadvantaged group who suffer from discrimination within a culture. Most of those opining on social media are against this type of reservation; they opine that the allocation of civil positions must be based on merit in order to ensure those who gain such positions are truly the most qualified. They ask, “why are such policies based on caste rather than economic status”? In this view, reservations should be based on economic status rather than caste because impoverished students lack access to the resources afforded to wealthier students. Thus, poverty rather than caste presents a larger barrier to equal opportunity. Under ideal conditions, this reasoning sounds like an excellent solution.

Complexities of Caste and Economic Status

However, “ideal conditions” cannot be assumed. The existing scenario in Nepal is not so easily distinguished between issues of caste and issues of poverty. In reality, there are many marginalized, sexually discriminated and unprivileged ethnic groups in Nepal. Even among the economically sound people of Madhes, many families’ children are not educated due to many factors. One such factor is the lack of resources and access to good schools such as those in Kathmandu. Furthermore, many Madhesi girls drop out of school rather prematurely. Beyond these issues, there are many factors that result in lack of opportunities, some of which we will examine below.

A human’s development is dependent on the following three factors;

  • Physical heredity (Nature)
  • Social environment (Nurture) – any social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, and everything which enables a person to participate in the society.
  • A person’s own efforts

How Three Factors Affect Human Development

The initial two factors directly or indirectly influence a person’s development.  It has been shown that there is a wide gap in the education available to different ethnic groups in Nepal. There is a wide range of economic status among Nepalis. While some people receive their education from some of the best schools in the world, the others can not even afford schools in Nepal. In fact, some people must do household work and then travel to a school which may be as far as 10 km away from their homes. This equates to a round-trip commute of 20 km in order to receive education.

To help visualize the status of literacy in Nepal, data from UNESCO shows that among the ten least educated districts of Nepal, 7 districts lie in Madhes. These districts have literacy rates as follows: Rautahat 41.7%, Sarlahi 46.3%, Mahotari 46.4%, Siraha 50.2%, Dhanusa 50.4%, Bara 52% and Saptari 54.4%. In the last ten years, data shows no improvement in either the literacy rate or the educational resources of these districts. Again, it is hard to say who is responsible, government or society?  Reasons are many but one cannot exclude government policies. In an ideal society, the government takes extra care of basic amenities and providing people with quality education. Though social relationships and patterns of interaction have changed over time, our society’s vulnerable section such as the poor, women and lower caste groups still have only minimal access and control over civil institutions and resources. With a few exceptions, most of these vulnerable people are unable to compete with highly literate people from other districts such as Kathmandu which has the highest literacy rate of 86.3%.

Another factor that affects a human’s development and access to education is income level. The average per capita income in Madhes is lower than the national average. There is a larger population in Madhes that are in absolute poverty  and changes in this region’s poverty rate over the past ten years have been negligible (“Poverty by District in Nepal”).  In these circumstances, how can quality education in these districts compete with that available to wealthier parts of the country?  The share of Madhesis in civil service jobs is extremely low compared to their share of population. It is shocking that our new constitution deliberately excluded the word “proportional” before the word inclusion in the new constitution although it was included in the Interim constitution.

Referring back to the “three factors” above, it is obvious that those individuals who were born with privilege among the first two factors (i.e. birth, education, family name, business connections, inherited wealth, and other advantages) would have a better chance to prove their abilities based on merit and achievements. In contrast, the group who was not born with these privileges would have to rely exclusively on the third factor – their own efforts – to make up for the first two factors.

Thus, the idea of “merit basis” is in fact a false attempt at equality, because it attempts to evaluate the effects of many inherent inequalities under the measure of only one outcome. It hides the fact that in Nepal, it is impossible to treat everyone equally until they have the same opportunities for human development from the start.

What is Equality?

Equality does not mean justice. For a moment, we can forget whatever discriminations have existed.  Many talented people of Nepal’s vulnerable communities have achieved the highest accoloades in their respective fields. Ideally, they should be able to compete for all public sectors purely on the basis of merit. But unfortunately, many of them have not received or reached the higher posts of civil service. Present scenarios and past data show that their talent and education have, quite simply, not been evaluated. There is no single reason for this but we should not forget that in Nepal, corruption is more often than not necessary to get a job. In such conditions, how can we ensure that the few privileged individuals will not grab or receive all the opportunities? How do we ensure that everyone is at least given a chance?

If, in consideration for jobs, people are treated unequally to the same degree as they are already unequal in the first two factors, it is obvious that individuals who already lack heredity and social advantage will not be selected in the race.  Clearly, selection under such circumstances would not be a selection of the capable, but selection of the already-privileged.

Now consider: what would happen if affirmative action was enforced? Under this scenario, there is a greater likelihood that the individual’s actual achievements – their “third factor” – will be noticed and evaluated, rather than the effects of their heredity and social environment. It is obvious that this is a more realistic way of evaluating merit. This is the scenario of reservation.

What is the rationale of reservation?

Reservation is not unique to Nepal. Throughout the world, many countries such as India and England are practising reservation. It is a design to ensure equal opportunity for everyone. Every Nepalis wants the right to equal opportunity in higher education and in the civil service of Nepal. It is obvious that ‘equality’ has been the most contentious part of the slogan of the French revolution – “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

We can’t be free from ethnic and caste-based reservations as long as there are caste and based inequalities in society in terms of income level, literacy rates, and representation in civil service.

It is also important to note that data has shown that some community/castes have been given the least opportunities to work in the public sectors of Nepal.  From the standpoint of the individualist, it may indeed be rational to treat people unequally so far as their individual efforts are unequal. For example, riches in many countries pay higher taxes than the poor. But it demands that in first two respects, we should treat people as equally as possible. It may be desirable to give as much incentive as possible to the full development of everyone’s potential. Everyone has the equal right to participate in the services provided by the government.

If the intent is to make the entire community well off, this can be achieved only by making the community’s members equal as far as possible at the very start of the race. That is one reason why we cannot escape affirmative action for equality, else we will be undermining the overall development of our society and nation at large. Therefore, reservation in higher education as well as in all public services should be ensured in the new Nepal constitution for members of marginalized communities.

Dr Saroj P. Deo is a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon at National  Medical College in Birgunj, Nepal.