Practice Question – What is affirmative action ? Substantiate theoretical positions on affirmative actions with example. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Define Affirmative Action, Bring in theories and views of thinkers on affirmative actions, Give examples for the kind of affirmative actions you see in political and social life, Criticism and Conclusion



Affirmative Action is a policy or program providing advantages for people of a minority group who are seen to have traditionally been discriminated against, with the aim of creating a more egalitarian society through preferential access to education, employment, healthcare, social welfare, etc. Affirmative action has the same goal as equal opportunity, but differs from equal opportunity in being proactive . Equal opportunity is a passive policy that seeks to ensure that discrimination will not be tolerated once it is detected. In contrast, with affirmative action, organizations use established practices not only to subvert, but also to avert, discrimination. 

Disadvantaged groups are a part and parcel of our socio-economic and political formations in the form of race, colour, caste, gender and biological disability. Efforts have been on
to assimilate these marginalised groups into the mainstream of socio-economic and political life, especially since the last half of the twentieth century. Arguments are presented both for and against affirmative action as well as providing the legal and moral rationale for the continued application of affirmative action type programmes.



The ideal of equality does not mean that all material goods, the national income or all educational opportunities available in society should be equally distributed among all members of society. On the other hand, it implies that individuals with differences in physical, mental faculties, energies and skills should be given equal opportunities for the development of their
personal qualities. The issue of equality, however, incites intense debate when it is applied to the distribution of wealth or income in society, what is commonly referred to as ‘social justice’. Questions of the restoration of equality and balance in society dominated political debates where some insisted than an equal or at least more equal distribution of rewards and
benefits are desirable. Others argued that justice demands that natural differences among humankind should be reflected in the way society treats them. There has also been a resurgence of anti-egalitarian views amongst a school of thought which argues that egalitarian measures reduce market efficiency which in the long run upsets the economic wellbeing of all.
Thus, the champions of egalitarianism have come up with the counter that while absolute equality is not desirable, the onus of efforts to preserve and accommodate variety should be on the state. In other words, the idea of equality denotes the establishment of legal, political and social conditions where people having different physical traits, sex, talents, skills, attributes
are able to enjoy equally worthwhile and satisfying lives. Equality, in other words, is not about blanket uniformity, but rather it is about ‘levelling’ those conditions of social existence which are thought to be crucial to human well-being.



The term “differential treatment” refers to policy measures that are consciously designed by the state to discriminate among the citizens by certain specified criteria to protect the interests of the weakest among them. It is a policy through which special privileges are granted to underprivileged sections of society who in the past or the present have been the victim of social, caste or racial discrimination. These are affirmative action programs undertaken by the state to bring equity and justice among all sections of society. This principle of protective discrimination is also known as reservation, reverse discrimination, positive/affirmative action, preferential treatment etc. These provisions together form the framework for the analysis of the concept of social justice in various egalitarian societies. Its objective is to reduce the persistent discrimination or inequality in society by giving preferential treatment to the backward marginalized sections in the distribution of valued social goods and opportunities.



Equality of outcome implies equal distribution of rewards such as income, wealth and other social goods irrespective of the social and family backgrounds or talents and efforts. The idea of equality of outcome necessitates the introduction of far more dramatic measures by the state for necessary changes to be visible in society. This emphasis on ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘opportunities’ shifts attention away from the starting point of life to its end results. In other words, equality of outcome emphasises equal distribution of rewards among all sections of society and does not take into account the starting points, efforts, skill and talent of individuals. As such, the idea of equality of outcome not only differs from formal equality and equality of opportunity but could also possibly contradict them. The demand for equal outcomes is mostly associated with the idea of material equality, social circumstances and also wages. Many see equality of outcome as a prerequisite for securing individual liberty as a certain level of material prosperity is essential to lead a worthwhile life.



As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.” Here, arises the need for such positive discrimination which would make
humanity more humane and progressive. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics wrote, justice is equality, as all men believe it to be quite apart from any argument. Indeed, in Greek, the word equality means justice. To be just is to be equal and to be unjust is to be unequal.

Affirmative action becomes essential in righting societal inequities. It is based on the “principle of redress”; that undeserved inequalities call for rectification. Since inequalities of birth are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. According to Rawls, thus, in order to treat all persons equally and to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those born into or placed in less favourable social positions. Affirmative action was established as a part of society’s efforts to address continuing problems of discrimination; the empirical evidence presented in the preceding pages indicates that it has had a somewhat positive impact on remedying the effects of discrimination. whether such discrimination still exists today is a central element of any analysis of affirmative action.



India has been practicing affirmative action in its essence, longer and more aggressively than any other place in the world. It is with the lofty aim of alleviating the sufferings of the underprivileged and exploited sections of Indian society and for reconstruction and transformation of a hierarchical society emphasizing inequality into a modern egalitarian society based on individual achievement and equal opportunity for all that the protective discrimination programme was devised under the Indian Constitution. However, this ideal of egalitarianism did not come about in a day or two; rather it was the culmination of a long process of change in the traditional pattern of a medieval caste ridden society. These changes were, in fact, the culmination of a long drawn process of transformation in the traditional patterns of a caste-ridden society. Two factors worked as catalysts in the process; the indigenous reforms and western influences. Reservations in jobs, educational  institutions, legislatures and in local self-governing institutions, better known as Panchayati Raj institutions for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and now women has been a grand experiment by any standard. It may also be noted that scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes are a whole cluster of thousands of castes spread over the length and breadth of the country.



The 21st century will focus on inter-connectedness not just technologically but humanly, environmentally and spiritually. A new paradigm, a social ecological world-view, is thus
needed that sees the world and all its life forms as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts in competition. The time has come to propound a change in affirmative action, not to get rid of it. There is a need for streamlining the artificial inequalities and safeguard equal opportunity for everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic, historical, biological or cultural circumstances, whether accidental or deliberate. Affirmative action, then, will be seen as a vehicle for social transformation, where there would be no exploitation or undue domination and people would safely enter into a societal journey towards the third millennium with respect and dignity which each human is entitled to.






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