Private education in India has always been the preserve of the country's middle and upper classes, but not for much longer.
Under a new constitutional amendment, private schools, colleges, and professional training institutes that operate without government funding will be obliged to set aside more than one-quarter of their seats for students from India's "untouchable" lower castes or Dalits, as well as other socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
The amendment, which will apply to admissions for the 2006 academic year, could directly affect the lives and futures of at least 70 percent of India's more than 1.2 billion people.
In addition to Dalits, who make up one-quarter of the population, there are millions of Indians from poor tribes and disadvantaged groups collectively known as other backward castes (OBCs). According to one estimate, approximately 113 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 are now eligible for reserved seats in private schools.
For the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is led by India's ruling Congress Party and passed this amendment, reserving seats in private schools is only a first step on the way to reservation of jobs in the private sector. Already, the social welfare ministry is pushing for voluntary affirmative action by business leaders.
The new amendment cuts to the heart of a critical debate about how best to bring about social mobility within India's rising economy: should the government legislate in favor of social justice, or should it limit its role to facilitating private enterprise?
Supporters of reservation policies claim such legislation is a necessary precondition for changing social attitudes. Dalits are at the bottom rung of India's hierarchical caste system, prevented from scaling the social ladder by centuries-old discriminatory practices that continue in both explicit and subtle forms.
Supporters argue that because the public sector has reserved quotas since independence - which has helped many Dalits and other disadvantaged groups gain upward mobility through education and regular income - the private sector should participate too.
"It is compensation for Dalits, who were historically denied access to education," says Sukhdeo Thorat, a professor of economics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He says in addition to the social discrimination that keeps Dalit children out of private schools, the high tuition charged by many of these institutions have made them especially "restrictive." Dalits, he argues, have suffered from the double burden of untouchability and poverty, which acts in a vicious cycle to keep them out of "desirable private institutions."
Mr. Thorat calls for widespread private sector reservation, including employment, capital markets, agricultural land, education and housing.
These demands are echoed not only by other Dalit intellectuals, who draw support for their cause from the right to equality granted by the Indian Constitution, but also by the UPA government, whose social manifesto states a commitment to creating reservation in the private sector.
Meanwhile, critics, including education and business leaders, decry the move as a political measure that will do little to improve the condition of disadvantaged groups. Many also look at it as a result of the failure of government institutions, which have reserved seats, to provide quality education.
Government schools are in a sorry state, often with woefully inadequate infrastructure, rampant teacher absenteeism, and high dropout rates. Private schools, in both rural and urban areas, are often in much better shape because they have more resources and pay better salaries to teachers.
P. V. Indiresan, a former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in the southern city of Madras and a member of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, says the government wastes the funds budgeted for education. "But they have never used that discretionary resource to help Dalit and tribal children get good education. On the contrary, they have systematically dismantled government schools."
Given the consistently poor quality of government schools, and the swing in India's economic fortunes following widespread economic reforms introduced after the country's financial crisis of 1991, the demand for private sector reservation has become more strident.
"Unable to stop globalization, reforms, privatizations, Dalit intellectuals thought it prudent to demand rights for the community in the private sector, be it in jobs, education, or the economy," says Dalit journalist Chandrabhan Prasad, who writes India's only English-language column on Dalit issues.
Reservation has always been a contentious issue in India. In 1990, a law that widened the ambit of reservation to include OBCs in the public sector triggered strong upper-caste protests, and helped bolster the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Moreover, reservations have created a what critics call a "creamy layer" of Dalits and OBCs, or those whose families initially benefited from reservation, gained upward mobility, and continue to capture these reserved quotas for their kith and kin. "Reservations have created a middle class among backward castes," says Gurcharan Das, a former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, who frequently writes a pro-liberalization column in a leading national newspaper.
"It is also an infringement on liberty," says Mr. Das, arguing that private institutions must be compensated if they are to reserve seats for Dalits.
"We all believe in providing equality of opportunity, but the principle of reservation is wrong, because you don't want to divide people on the basis of anything other than merit."
In recent months, industry stalwarts have written repeatedly to the government, saying they prefer to promote educational opportunities by providing scholarships to deserving candidates rather than through a blanket reservation policy.
As former IIT director Indiresan says, the private sector wants to follow the American system of affirmative action, and not reservation.
"In affirmative action, the deprived are raised to required levels of competence; in the reservation system, the level of competence is reduced to accommodate what the beneficiary is capable of."