Education Reservation in Nepal: Addressing the Complexities of Caste, Ethnicity, and Economic Status

Author: Shradha Khadka
Image credit: Mwesigwa Joel

In the last few decades, education prices in Nepal have experienced a steady rise, mainly due to the increase in privatization. The expensive and urbane nature of the prevailing education sector, rising average costs notwithstanding, further banishes disadvantaged sections of the population for whom standard education is already a struggle to afford. Moreover, dropout rates remain high among students from minority groups who do manage to find enrollment opportunities. Although national and international interventions have brought major reforms to the education status of Nepal, persistent long-term issues of poverty, caste, social exclusion, and discrimination still remain prime reasons for high dropout rates and denied enrollments, higher still for female students.

Simultaneously, typical bureaucratic scenarios inherited over a decade comprise of 80% males— among which 70% are Brahmins, Chhetris, and Newars. Although most higher government positions are still occupied by Khas Arya males, it has been reported that the trend has steadily declined in recent years.

Considerable efforts have been launched in the promotion of marginal-groups’ inclusion and equal opportunities for pursuing education & employment for underprivileged communities across the country since the introduction of reservation policies in the 1993 Civil Service Act, strengthened later by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. Discussions on the reservation system became prominent during the era-defining peace talks between the Nepal government and Maoists leaders. The agenda served to settle the political turmoil by ending and restructuring the centralized form of the state, particularly by formally recognizing issues related to women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, and other such oppressed and neglected communities based on divisions of class, caste, religion, region, and culture. The 2015 constitution went even further to include Khas Aryas in the requirement mandates, who contentiously have prevailed as the dominant caste in the country.

Thus, reservation policies or affirmative actions in this matter serve as an absolute necessity. Perhaps a strong justification points to the history of social exclusion, structural discrimination and marginalization kept alive by the state, its institutions and the very social fabric that fuels deep rooted norms. Reservation systems in Nepal serve not only as policies, legal acts, and technical welfare to disadvantaged groups in ensuring they have their fair share and access to education or civil services, but they also represent the essence of an inclusive nation and thus, pose a powerful statement that previously marginalized groups have an equal right to the security a nation provides to its citizens.

While ‘reservation for all’ is undisputedly a positive notion, ongoing debates further polarize on whether reservation policies should prioritize economic poverty or social exclusion. Is reservation only meant for the historically oppressed? For those who have been discriminated against and systematically marginalized and shushed in the name of caste, religion or culture for hundreds of years and barred from basic rights like education? If so, does that discount the talent pool that lie among the impoverished and poverty stricken groups who face daily hurdles and barriers due to their economic status? Does it allow school admission for an elite Janajati’s child over the plights of the most excluded and the neediest children?

Given these complexities, it is essential to understand that reservation policies and affirmative actions are not simply poverty elimination efforts. Rather, they are strategic tools designed to address deep rooted issues that thrive upon social injustice, discrimination and systematic oppression, all of which contribute tremendously in the creation and reproduction of poverty. Global academic discourse in the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, and Development Economics have seen large bodies of literature produced in the last few decades suggesting that historical oppressiveness are associated with persistent social poverty-traps that require more than just legislation to overcome. Revisiting the notion that backward communities are not primarily discriminated because they are poor but they fall into the cyclic nature of poverty because of the discrimination and social exclusion; a systematic oppression to be thorough. Priority can be and in many cases should be given to the poor of the disadvantaged groups but other aspirants of the same target groups must also have the provision to secure the reservations.

Rather than focusing on delineations of divisions, sub- divisions and sometimes even periodic re- divisions of marginalized groups, immediate attention is necessary in recognizing historical and prevalent injustices and on empowering the most vulnerable of them. The 2015 constitutional framework for federalism also holds this essential idea — of finding solutions to problems localized to specific contexts and focusing on execution, rather than spending efforts on classification and long-term identification. The faster our country broadens its efforts in empowering marginalized communities, the lesser will be the need for reservation systems.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.