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India's lower castes can now go to private schools

A new law reserves more than a fourth of private school seats for the underprivileged.

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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.

For supporters, it's a matter of justice

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.

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