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. Make education up to graduation absolutely free for everyone below a certain economic cut-off regardless of their caste, religion, gender, etc. Plus there be a law that ensures that no school / college / university can disallow admission to anyone based on caste / religion / gender considerations.
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.