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A deep rift has formed in the commission set up to help India form a knowledge-based economy over plans to reserve a quota of university places and private sector jobs for members of the country's marginalised castes.

Six of the National Knowledge Commission's eight members oppose the plan, and two of them — Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and Andre Beitelle, professor of sociology at Delhi University — resigned from it on 22 May in protest.

The schism centres on plans to extend a provision in India's constitution that reserves a proportion of government jobs for socially marginalised groups among the 3,000 castes that splinter Indian society.

In the 1950s India reserved 22.5 per cent of public sector jobs and school places for the most marginalised castes, including those once considered untouchable and traditionally restricted to menial jobs.

In 1990 the government reserved an extra 27 per cent of public sector jobs and school places for what India calls 'other backwards castes' — also marginalised but not ostracised like the previous group.

Last month, India's human resources development minister Arjun Singh expanded these quotas to include private sector jobs and student places at educational institutions including universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Singh did not consult his colleagues or the prime minister's scientific advisors.

A 13-member committee set up on 29 May to suggest ways to implement the plan does, however, include two top scientists — the director-generals of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (Raghunath Mashelkar) and of the Indian Council of Medical Research (Nirmal Ganguly). It will submit its report by 31 August.

Critics of the move, including medical students who launched countrywide protests, argue that merit will be overlooked if places are allotted on the basis of caste.

P. V. Indiresan, former director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, says that if quotas are imposed immediately on staffing in research centres, "there may not be enough people with requisite qualifications, [and] the prevailing shortage is likely to worsen".

Supporters note, however, that under-privileged castes continue to be excluded from the phenomenal growth of higher education in India. A national survey published in 2000 showed that underprivileged castes accounted for just 3.3 per cent of graduates in rural areas and 13 per cent in urban India.

One of the two members of the knowledge commission in support of the plan is Pushp Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, who says that implementing the plan would mean India "would have a wider pool of talent to draw from".

"Who knows, the future Nobel laureates could be in some of these socially underprivileged sections [of society] that do not have access to quality education," he told SciDev.Net.

Following the protests, the government has clarified that it aims to increase the overall number of university places to help accommodate more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has reserved US$2 billion for the additional seats.

But, points out Indiresan, "money is not the primary problem, finding enough faculty members is. Almost definitely, at current salary levels, the required number of teachers will not be found."

Indiresan points out that the staff-student ratios in the Indian Institutes of Technology have already worsened from the original 1:6 to 1:12. 

Link to letter of resignation by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Link to letter of resignation by Andre Beteille

Link to June 2006 article by Pushp Bhargava