When Nitin Kamble was growing up, a career in information technology was unimaginable. He was, after all, born into a low-caste community, and raised in a tiny hamlet in rural India.
Facing discrimination and large loans from upper-caste members of his village, his destiny, he thought, would forever remain rooted to the grind and dust of his father's arid farm.
Now posted in Amsterdam as a consultant with a multinational company, the 30-year-old Mr. Kamble says that none of his success would have been achieved without the chance to attend university through an affirmative-action system for lower caste students like himself.
"Poor students from lower castes can prove that they're able and intelligent," he says. "All they need is an opportunity."
Many more will get that opportunity following a government decision sealed earlier this month that will dramatically increase the number of college seats reserved for lower castes, from the current 22.5 percent to 49.5 percent.
But the move has ignited protests by the country's future elite, the higher-caste students – who face admission rates of less than 1 percent in some cases – to attend a professional college. It's also touching off a wider debate on how a rapidly modernizing India can best move beyond the legacy of an ancient system that once tied social status to birth.
Mukund Kedia, a third-year medical student, is among the thousands of students who have been agitating in several cities across India – and even in California – under a "Youth for Equality" banner.
Protesters call the government "reservations" plan a regressive policy that could lead to a drop in academic standards in educational institutions – and make it tougher for them to attend college.
"Where will students who have merit go, if half the seats are reserved in institutions of higher education?" asks Mr. Kedia, a student from the Seth GS Medical College in Bombay.
In a competitive global scenario, only performance and merit should count, these students say. They emphasize that they aren't against the idea of uplifting lower castes per se. But after 60 years of independence from Britain, they say caste inequities, and the reservations policy to counter them, are something India should have phased out by now.
The government, however, insists that reservations are clearly still needed to address one of the biggest maladies in India's hierarchical social order. Although industrialization and economic liberalization have brought jobs to urban India, and with it a society largely liberated from the caste system, much of rural India remains entrenched in caste-based violence and discrimination. "We were never a united society. Reservation is being brought in to correct social injustices," says D Raja, secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a key coalition partner of the ruling Congress Party.
Today an estimated 36 percent of the population falls under the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) category, the group receiving the new reservations. This policy has received tacit approval from most political parties, in part because OBCs in India represent a significant bloc of voters. A poll released Saturday found that 57 percent of Indians are in favor of reservations, while 37 percent are opposed.
But even within the government there are detractors. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a member of the Knowledge Commission, an advisory board, called the expansion of reservations "incompatible with the diversity and freedom of institutions." Mr. Mehta resigned from the commission, writing to the prime minister that instead of mandated quotas, it would be more useful to come up with robust scholarships and support programs that would create an equitable society.
Sharad Tripathi, the president of Fluidyn, an environmental consulting firm, is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), a premier technical institute in Kanpur. Belonging to an upper-caste family, yet hailing from a poor family in a rural village, even getting past high school was a challenge. The current reservations plan is retrograde, he says, because many as capable as he, in the open-seat category, won't get a chance to study. "This will only encourage brain drain," he says, as India's brightest minds will seek better prospects in Western countries.
Others point out that reservations are not always effective. Out of the 36,000 undergraduate seats at Delhi University, nearly 8,000 are reserved for lower-caste students. But an inability to fill the reserved seats, combined with a high drop-out rate, means that only 2,000 to 2,500 of those students graduate.
Some analysts suggest that India would create a more merit-based society if it spent more of its $24-billion-a-year education budget on primary and secondary schools, particularly in areas with high teacher absenteeism and poor facilities.
"Quality schools will give poor geniuses the advantages enjoyed by the elite ... access to books and teachers," writes Swaminathan Aiyar, a Times of India columnist. "This will create a meritorious society, only slowly."