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Indian doctors block roads in protest against college reforms

Doctors on strike have blocked roads across India to protest against government plans to introduce reserved places at medical colleges for students from lower castes.

Health services have been disrupted and patients left without treatment as junior doctors refused to see any cases except emergencies.

The lower castes account for three-quarters of India's population, but universities are dominated by the upper castes, who account for just 12 per cent of the population.

The doctors who were demonstrating yesterday are members of a privileged minority, and are incensed that their privileges may be taken away from them.

Although doctors are leading the protests, the government wants to extend quotas across all universities and courses.

The caste system remains entrenched in India, and, although there are notable exceptions, most of the lower castes remain mired in poverty.

The government says they are under-represented at universities because they cannot afford the same school education as the upper castes, so it wants to increase reserved places.

The existing quotas only apply to the Dalits, the former "untouchables" who are at the very bottom of the caste system. Now the government wants to extend quotas to the so-called "other backward castes", who account for more than half of India.

But the upper castes are up in arms. There is already competition for university places in India, and the protesters are demanding that places be awarded on merit alone.

Nearly 100 students have gone on hunger strike at the All India Medical Institute, which is one of India's leading teaching hospitals.

In 1990, when quotas were introduced for Dalits, several upper caste students burnt themselves to death in protest.