I think the following "four point algorithm" will work better than caste / religion / gender based reservations if we want to actually solve the problem of backwardness. Note that all 4 points have to be thought of together as one single plan. Each considered in isolation might seem to leave some questions / concerns unaddressed.
1. Let everyone below a certain economic cut off (regardless of their caste, religion, gender, etc.) : (a) get an additional ten percentage points in their twelfth class marks for admission into undergraduate programs (women in this low income families set can be given a further extra five percentage points) and (b) receive absolutely free education till the end of their undergraduate program in return for a commitment that they will work for the government for a period of five years if required. Beyond undergraduate level education: There can be scholarships for meritorious students from low income families, but no additional grace percentage points to anyone and performance the only criterion for either securing a job or admission into post graduate programs
Plus let there be a law that ensures that no school / college / university can disallow admission to anyone based on caste / religion / gender considerations.
(Note that part (a) in the point above is very different from "reservations". For example, if the cut off for admission somewhere is 90% then the candidate still has to get 80% (for women : 75%) : the ten (or fifteen for women) extra percentage points will take him or her to 90%. Secondly, the criteria being used is economic. No seats "reserved" for anyone.)
2. For anyone who needs extra assistance in learning (and there's really no shame in this; I for example have needed to plod on for hours for some topics that perhaps came easy to many of my friends): Provide evening classes. Again, this should be provided to anyone who needs it regardless of their caste, religion, gender, etc. Hire extra teachers for this provision if needed so that it is accessible for students in their own villages or localities in towns.
3. Have fair and transparent exams at the end of each education level for either admission into a higher level of education or selection for different jobs.
4. For people below a certain economic cut-off (i.e. the very very poor people): Give zero interest loans (say about Rs. 50,000/- for a family which can be recovered in instalments starting after a period of about 2-3 years) to start a small business such as fruit / vegetable vendor, juice shop, tea and snacks shop, clothes shop, toy shop, etc. along with some advice / help in running and growing their business sensibly and saving money systematically through fixed deposits, etc. Do we have the money it would require to launch such an initiative? I believe so. I think we lose a lot of money to corruption that could be used for such an initiative. Also see http://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/3424-revenue-intelligence-will-verify-us-report-505bn-left-india-during-upa-tenure as an example of how we might be losing money that could be used for social upliftment. And last but not the least, we need to make every effort to recover black money as well as minimize generation of the same from here on.
In my view there are actually only two kinds of backwardness at the end of the day: 1) economic backwardness and 2) knowledge/skill backwardness. And the point is to remove these.
The above algorithm will require us to invest substantially but I think it will be a worthwhile investment that will give tangible results within a generation or two as the level of knowledge, skill and competence starts increasing across the board.