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India's top court upholds college caste quotas

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s Supreme Court upheld on Thursday a government policy to reserve more college seats for students from lower castes, a fiercely debated affirmative action scheme intended to help flatten centuries-old social hierarchies.

A medical student reacts as a fellow student fixes a "no reservation" band before the start of a silent march during a protest against the reservation of college places for lower castes, in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata August 25, 2006. India's Supreme Court upheld on Thursday a government policy to reserve more college seats for students from lower castes, a fiercely debated affirmative action scheme intended to help flatten centuries-old social hierarchies. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

Just under half of all seats in state colleges and universities will now be reserved for people born into the lower end of India’s caste system and other social groups that have historically lacked wealth and power.

The scheme is one of the world’s biggest affirmative actions and will be enforced this coming academic year starting in July in some of India’s most elite universities, including the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Advocates of the scheme hope it will help dissolve centuries of upper-caste privilege and lead to a more egalitarian society. Similar quotas exist for government jobs and parliamentary seats.

Previously, just under a quarter of seats were reserved for certain tribal communities and people from the lowest castes, including Dalits, the 16 percent or so of Indians born into the very bottom of the Hindu caste system.

Now another 27 percent of college seats must go to students from what the government calls “other backward classes”, the court ruled.

But the Supreme Court said reserved seats would not be open to students from “backward” communities who came from wealthy families, a group often called “the creamy layer”.

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There is evidence quotas have made some people more acutely conscious of caste differences in India.

Some communities have marched through the streets demanding to be considered “backward”, so as to qualify for quotas. More than 20 people were killed last year during protests by an ethnic group demanding they be deemed an underprivileged tribe.

Critics also say that admitting students by any criteria other than intellectual merit will inevitably degrade educational standards in a country already struggling to produce enough competent graduates to work in its rapidly growing economy.

Upper-caste students have led protests since the proposal for expanding quotas was cleared by parliament in 2006.

But the government insists it is expanding its educational system so smart upper-caste students will not lose their chance to go to college.

“No one will be excluded,” Arjun Singh, India’s human resources development minister, told reporters.

Reporting by R. Venkataraman; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Michael Perry

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