An Indian government plan to raise college quotas for lower castes and disadvantaged groups has triggered angry protests by medical students and doctors. The government plan has reignited a heated debate over the system of reserving seats for disadvantaged groups as a way of bringing about social equality.
Medical students have staged angry street protests across the country in the past week. Their anger is directed at a government plan to nearly double the seats set aside for the lower castes in federally funded colleges.
These include the country's premier institutes, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. Competition to win a seat in these colleges is fierce - in many cases, only one in 400 applicants is accepted. But lower-caste students not only have a certain number of guaranteed seats, they are accepted with lower grades.
The decision to increase seats set aside for the disadvantaged, from about 25 to 50 percent, has infuriated students who say entrance to the colleges should be based on merit alone.
Hundreds of doctors from government hospitals have gone on strike to show solidarity with the students. Among them is Anil Sharma, a senior doctor at New Delhi's premier government hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
"See, if I score 91 percent or 95 percent marks out of 100, I am not getting a seat, but the person who is getting just 50 or 51 percent marks, he is getting the seat. So definitely there is discrimination for merit," he said.
Quotas were introduced in colleges and public sector jobs when India became independent to help members of the lower castes, also known as Dalits, who have suffered centuries of neglect and discrimination.
But critics charge that quotas are used by political parties to widen their support among the Dalits, while doing little to actually improve their lot.
Swati Agarwal, a student of medicine in New Delhi, has joined a hunger strike outside the country's top government hospital. She says the government should focus on improving the quality of primary schooling for the poor, so they can compete for college seats on an equal basis.
"Quota is nothing but vote-bank policies. If they want to uplift, they have better ways to do that. They have to send them for primary education first," said Agarwal.
The government is standing firm on its plan to raise the quotas. It has also said it is contemplating measures to provide more jobs for the country's lower castes in the private sector, adding to public dissatisfaction.
But faced with growing protests, the government has promised to increase the number of seats in the colleges, to ensure that other students are not penalized. So far, this has failed to satisfy the protesters.