Gunjan Makhijani looked frazzled as she made enquiries at Delhi University’s admissions help desk. The 18-year-old wanted to enrol in a journalism course and she had heard that a new quota was being introduced in colleges this year.

In January, just two months before the Lok Sabha elections, the Narendra Modi government had passed a Constitutional Amendment reserving 10% of seats in higher educational institutions and government jobs across India for people from the Economically Weaker Sections. This category was defined as those with an annual family income less than Rs 8 lakh, excluding those with agricultural land up to five acres and residential flats and plots of a certain size.

Makhijani said she qualified. But to support her admission application, she had to produce an income and asset certificate from the sub-divisional magistrate in her area.

Obtaining this was proving to be hard, not just for Makhijani, but for several other students that spoke to in Delhi.

“The district officials in Delhi Cantonment did not know anything about this,” she said. “They did not even mention by when I would receive the certificate.”

The reservations for Economically Weaker Sections, also called the upper caste quota since it excludes students from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, was widely seen as an attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party government to consolidate its upper-caste vote bank after its losses in Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018. A new study shows the quota was not needed: this category of students is already overrepresented in educational institutions.

However, the government showed a great sense of urgency, not only pushing through the Constitutional amendment without a full-fledged discussion in Parliament, but also introducing the quota in the 2019-’20 academic session itself.

When this decision was announced in January, it sparked alarm as teachers pointed out infrastructure and staff would have to be expanded before the quota could be implemented: to ensure the quota does not cause a drop in the number of unreserved seats, public universities will have to increase their total intake of students by nearly 25%.

Six months later, these concerns remain unaddressed. As admission season begins, fresh problems are surfacing. In Rajasthan, teachers have complained about the lack of guidelines for implementing the quota, while in Uttar Pradesh, students say they are facing trouble in getting income and asset certificates.

The situation isn’t any better in Delhi University, by far one of India’s better-funded public universities, which suggests the first year of the quota’s implementation is likely to be messy around the country.

Getting the certificate

On January 17, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued an office memorandum to all Centrally-funded universities, mandating the implementation of the 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections starting this year. Several states have also announced their decision to implement the quota in state-run institutions this year.

Even though Delhi University is funded by the Centre, the actual implementation requires support from the Delhi government since its revenue department has the power to issue income certificates to all residents.

On June 4, Delhi government issued a notification with the guidelines for issuing income and asset certificates for those from the Economically Weaker Sections. Many students in Delhi who spoke to said that district officials were not aware of this notification.

“I had to take a printout of the notification to show the officials,” said Mitali Malhotra, 18, a student who lives in North West Delhi’s Rohini.

Moreover, Malhotra said that the sub-divisional magistrate in her area had gone on leave for 15 days and she had to contact the district magistrate to submit her documents.

To apply for the income and asset certificate, students require documents like property, income and caste certificates, along with identity proof, their parents’ bank statements for the previous six months and income tax returns filed in the last three years.

Malhotra said that she had made several visits to the magistrate’s office over three weeks but officials kept rejecting her documents.

“Once they told us that we had put in the wrong caste,” she said. “We told them to tell us all our mistakes at once but they said they would send us a letter in a few days since they are not allowed to process this manually. Now, they are asking for income tax returns for 2019 to 2020 that have not even been filed yet.”

Students at Delhi University check admission lists. Credit: HT Photo

For those who were yet to receive their certificate, Delhi University stated that it would accept an “acknowledgement receipt” issued by district officials after receiving the application. But Malhotra and Makhijani were among those who did not get a receipt. “The district official just stamped my application and kept it with himself,” Makhijani said.

However, even after getting the receipt, the difficulties for some students did not end.

Yash Singhal, 18, said that his application was stuck at the verification process, which takes place after the documents have been checked. “The district officials came to my grandfather’s house,” said Singhal. “But they said it was too big for the family which would make me ineligible for the quota.”

According to the guidelines, “family” includes the “person who seeks benefit of reservation, his/her parents and siblings below the age of 18 years as also his/her spouse and children below the age of 18 years.”

“But we are three families living in the same house,” said Singhal. contacted Delhi government’s Revenue Minister Kailash Gahlot on June 19 but he did not respond to calls or text messages with queries about issuing the certificates.

Who qualifies for the quota?

Some students also faced confusion over Central- and state-level lists of communities recognised as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Some communities might be listed as Scheduled Castes at the Central level but not at the state level.

A notification issued by Department of Personnel and Training under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions on January 31 clearly states that only those who belong to communities not on the Central list of SC, ST and OBCs will be eligible for reservations in the Economically Weaker Sections category.

Department of Personnel and Training's January 31 notification.

But, in the Delhi government’s notification dated June 4, the eligibility for the certificate excludes those SC, ST and OBC castes recognised in state and Union Territory lists as well.

“I am a Jat under the OBC list in Delhi but Jats are not included in the Central list,” said a student requesting anonymity. “The mention of state lists in the Delhi government’s notification has created more confusion for us. I am not sure if I can get through the quota.”

Delhi government's June 4 notification.

Applying online

Students said that were initially unaware of the implementation of the Economically Weaker Sections quota in higher education, because of which they faced another set of problems after submitting their applications.

“On the [Delhi University’s] admissions website, I cannot change my category from general to EWS,” said an 18-year-old student requesting anonymity. She said she applied through the general quota on June 1 and later found out on June 10 about the implementation of the new category. “But there is no way I can edit this category online so I have to apply again and pay another Rs 250 for the admission and Rs 750 for the entrance test,” she said.

Makhijani also faced a similar problem. “I had applied on June 8 in general and found out on June 18 about the EWS category,” she said. “The cut off marks for either are not yet out so I have to be equally attentive to both. I don’t have my EWS certificate with me either. What if I don’t get in?”

‘Major challenge’

While the students were facing administrative problems, an even bigger challenge loomed ahead for colleges.

The human resource development ministry in January also mandated that public universities increase their intake by 25% to implement the 10% EWS quota. The 25% increase was done to ensure that the quota does not impact the existing reservation system for SC, ST and OBC students or cause a drop in the number of unreserved seats.

Delhi University has decided to implement the 25% increase in two phases – 10% this year and the remaining 15% next year. A 10% increase this year means an addition of nearly 6,000 seats to the already fixed 56,000 seats, according to a report in the Hindustan Times.

But are colleges under the university equipped to handle a higher number of students?

“There is no infrastructure capacity,” said Simrit Kaur, principal of Shri Ram College of Commerce. “The college building is a heritage building so we are not allowed to have temporary structures. We need more classrooms. There is zero scope of expansion.”

Suresh Kumar, principal of Ramjas College, said colleges needed to hire more teachers, for which they needed more funds. “We are already short staffed and overworked,” he said.

But the problem wasn’t just lack of funds. He pointed out there was a lack of clarity over whether the 10% quota would also be applicable to the hiring of teachers.