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Ethnic Quotas and Political Mobilization: Caste, Parties and Distribution in Indian Village Councils

Development Challenge

Quotas for government office have long been used to address socioeconomic inequalities by guaranteeing a measure of political representation for marginalized groups. Seats in government can be reserved for specific ethnic groups, religious groups, social classes, or genders. If politicians have greater discretion to choose beneficiaries of welfare programs, quotas may be able to redistribute the material benefits of certain policies. This redistributive outcome presupposes that leaders naturally advocate for the interests of their group, but the effect is less clear when considering other motivations. Party goals, career advancing behavior and other dynamic incentives, when divergent from group interests in policymaking, can mitigate the redistributive impact of quotas. In the presence of these competing factors, quotas may not be the most effective policy tool against systemic discrimination.


The reservation system in India sets aside a certain percentage of seats in the national parliament, the state assemblies, and village councils (gram panchayat) for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, two constitutionally recognized groups of historically disadvantaged peoples. In village councils, separate quotas have existed for women since 1993. In this system, all voters in a seat’s constituency may vote, but only candidates from the particular caste or tribal category for which the seat is reserved may be elected.

This study focuses on the reservation of village council presidencies for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Indian states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Bihar. Village councils determine the allocation of state and central government funds and council presidents exert substantial influence in the selection of beneficiaries. Bureaucrats reserve presidencies for a rotating set of councils that change at the beginning of every election cycle. Quotas for council presidencies depend directly on the proportion of marginalized castes or tribes in the respective sub-districts. 

Evaluation Strategy

This study analyzes the allocation of village benefits under quota schemes using a variant of the regression-discontinuity design that exploits the rotation of reserved seats between village councils. Councils assigned a presidential reservation are on average statistically indistinguishable from non-quota councils, creating two study groups that plausibly differ only in the presence or absence of quotas. Researchers randomly sampled districts in Rajasthan and Bihar while districts in Karnataka were chosen to maximize variation of certain characteristics. Following this process produced a sample of 512 councils (200 in Karnataka, 148 in Rajasthan, and 164 in Bihar). A survey team interviewed citizens from a randomly selected village in each council in Rajasthan and Bihar and from the headquarter village in Karnataka. The survey collected information about benefit receipt and perceptions of council priorities. Individual survey responses were aggregated and analyzed by council constituency.  The researchers also used official spending data to study the distributive impact of quotas.  In Rajasthan and Bihar, they used a survey experiment to compare the influence of candidates’ party and caste affiliations on voters’ degree of support for those candidates.

Results and Policy Implications

Overall, the study finds weak distributive impacts due to quotas for village council presidencies. Quotas do not significantly increase the probability that members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes receive jobs or benefits from the village council or from any government welfare program. Quotas also have no significant effect on the probability that members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes think that the council serves their group effectively or the perception that they have the most influence in the council. However, respondents under the treatment are 23 percent more likely to have the perception that their group receives priority to council funds.

The salience of party affiliations could explain why quotas do not significantly shape benefit receipt. Firstly, multiple castes may comprise a single party, so caste ties and party goals may not full align. Secondly, using survey information about party affiliation, the study finds that citizens who are members of the party of the council president have an estimated 30 percent greater probability of benefit receipt over those who do not share the president’s party. This result may stem from the importance of benefit distribution in electoral mobilization. Analysis on a follow-up survey experiment conducted in Rajasthan and Bihar finds that individuals’ likelihood of voting for a candidate are significantly influenced by party membership. This evidence suggests the  primacy of political affiliations and dynamic incentives in shaping the distribution of benefits, thus the impact of quotas may be conditional on partisanship.