OPINION

Ruminations On Reservations

May 22, 2006
Sanat Mohanty

The reservation issue in fashion again and many suggest that it is merely political manipulation, vote bank scheming before the elections. There are, perhaps, serious questions that we - as a nation - must think about. Questions that have impact beyond ourselves, our families but on the fabric of a democratic nation.

The Question of Merit
Perhaps the biggest question always begins with merit. People who have merit should have the job. Or the opportunity to be trained for the job. There is validity to that criterion. If I need medical advice, I surely need someone who has the skills to give me that advice. Surely, I would not ask a lawyer with no experience or skill in healthcare for advice! Or if I want to learn mathematics, I want a teacher who understands mathematics and can teach it.

So clearly, seats in colleges and institutions should go to individuals with merit - those who have the prerequisites training necessary to be a physician, an engineer or a teacher.

However, Udit Raj, the chairman of the All-India Confederation of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Federations, counters by asking that if merit is the criterion why hunger strikes are not held against colleges that admit significant percentage of their students based on 'capitation' - the ability to pay large amounts. Surely, the ability to pay does not correlate with skills.

And Dr. Raj does have a point in that the percentage of seats available for payment engineering or medical degrees is comparable to reserved seats. Of course, one can argue that most of these colleges are 'private' colleges. But really, even private colleges are run with significant public subsidies. Besides, the 'private' college argument does not address the question of merit.

In fact, more significant aspects of the argument for merit have been swept under the carpet. That is, the measure of merit itself can be questioned. For example, consider the business schools in India - or anywhere for that matter. Do the exams measure anything beyond ones ability for basic math and practice is solving a certain kind of riddles? Is that the prerequisite to managing businesses?

A child who has grown in with lots of toys and puzzles - such as mastermind, or scrabble, or sudoku (please trademark where appropriate) - will have an easier time solving these problems compared to a child who has grown up helping her father convenience store, understanding accounts, credit, etc. The former has a higher chance of getting into business school than the latter and may even do well there. However, would the latter have done badly? The success of the founder of Reliance Industries suggests otherwise. Similar examples can be applied to JEE, PMT or other engineering and medical exams.

So what is this measure of merit and how skewed is it? Is there any truly unbiased measure of merit? While research has already placed in doubt IQ metrics that were the rage a few decades ago, even tests such as SAT, GRE, etc are also being shown to be biased on cultural and other grounds (and these are not intentional biases). CAT is based on such tests while we have no idea what biases exist in the other exams; however, given the similar background of the faculty who set up those exams, biases must be researched.

A third component also exists. While I am in need of medical advice I want someone who has the skill. That has been the basis of defining merit. However, I also need someone who is willing to give me that advice. Unfortunately, that is not considered.

Thus, we have large sections of our population without access to medical advice, engineering advice, technical advice, educational advice, etc. Much of these sections are indeed tribal, dalit and lower caste communities. None of these individuals who 'merited' their seats in publicly paid for training programs have any interest in working with these sections.

Why then, as someone who cares about the overall development of my people, my nation, be worried about this merit when the advantages of this merit do not reach the nation? That is another question that must be ruminated.

The Question of Equality and Opportunity
Anti-reservationists have raised the flag of equality. Why should people be treated differently based on their castes? Everyone should have an equal opportunity to get those seats based on an examination. Why should 50% of seats be reserved for the lower castes?

Again, Dr Udit Raj responds by asking why 15% of the upper castes take 50% of the seats! While this may seem rhetoric, a large fraction of dalit and tribal communities believe that is the case. In essence, they are asking a larger question from our democracy - why does our democracy have nothing for us?

While the constitution demands opportunities for education for all, the state has constantly ignore that demand and when it has provided schools - they are structures that can hardly be called schools. It would be quite unlikely that students would get their skills to be ready for entrance exams for engineering or medicine or business or finance coming from such a structure.

While these communities have constantly demanded better education, political powers have not listened. Fraction of money allocated to primary education is among the lowest in the world. But we have not gone on hunger strike that these children get proper education. Children from dalit or tribal or OBC communities have had neither an opportunity for equal facilities, learning, training or even time to study. Often under stress of labor - frequently, indentured labor - education is not even a possibility.

So our demanding equality in entrance exams when we have not asked equality for them at other times is rather cruel if not ridiculous.

On the other hand, much of the dalit or tribal or OBC community has come to believe that there will be no opportunities for them without them becoming part of decision making processes - bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, teachers. And there is validity to that. After all, even with the reservation policies, a very small fraction of senior bureaucrats are from these communities.

And yet, there is truth that children from 'our families' are finding fewer opportunities in engineering, medicine, management, finance or other processes that can help provide employment opportunities.

However, the fault lies not with dalit or tribal communities demanding seats but with an education system that can provide no jobs and an employment system that is uni-dimensional in the nature of jobs it dignifies. Thus, even if reservations are removed, a thousand more medical seats will do nothing for our country. Nor will hundreds of thousands of unemployed engineers find jobs.

Unfortunately, we are barking up the wrong tree. We need to figure out how we can bring dignity to a broader range of jobs as well as train people in skills that India is crying out for and help trained individuals with those jobs through appropriate remuneration. It is not just a question of a market - it is also a social question.

At the same time, none of these arguments are addressed by the reservation policy today. A significant portion of the reserved seats are taken up by students who come from families that have enjoyed generations of these benefits - often well to do with access to good education, and other social opportunities.

Many have argued - and I add my voice - that the reservation policies need reform. They need something for lower economic class. And they need a generational cut-off clause where an individual from a family that has enjoyed these benefits for two generations cannot apply in the reserved class (or some variation there-of). In addition, there also need to be considerations of hierarchies that are quite prominent even within the reserved castes - are the more oppressed among them able to access these benefits.

The Question of Participation in Democratic Processes
Large sections of our nation are feeling completely left out of the democratic process. Their voices are not being heard and their needs are being marginalized. Tribal communities are facing the brunt of many policies. They are being displaced without any compensation or choice. With democratic processes failing them, they are vulnerable to forces that are often violent. Through these policies and processes, where there basic human rights have often been violated, neither the mainstream media nor our own middle class communities have shown compassion for their condition - and that has been unfortunate.

Unfortunate, since a viable democracy requires that all people be part of democratic processes. Else, the state can fail. It is in this context of development that we have to ask how communities that have been socially and economically marginalized can continue to participate in the development process and the democracy. It is a question that impacts our own future.

Thus, the question of reservation is a question of the nation. We cannot afford to answer it from within the narrow confines of insecurity driven by our own personal situation. The question has to be answered with an understanding of the lives of those who have not had equal opportunities, and understanding for many in India who have been consistently marginalized.

We as a nation have to have dialogue - for we have stopped even listening to the other. We do not understand the needs of the other, or why they make demands we find preposterous. We as a civic society have to answer these questions with an awareness of the state of the other even as we grapple with our own needs. Without that, this will become another political gimmick to be brought out of the closet depending on the time of the year, pitching one faction against another in this politics of vote banks.


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#1
Sanjay
May 22, 2006
08:15 PM

I do not support the practice of "capitation" -- and if it's to be permitted, then these colleges can admit others based on ethnic quota independent of merit.

If the capitation colleges are anti-merit, then these are the ones which can be subjected to OBC quotas which are also anti-merit. Let the anti-merit crowd stick with the anti-merit crowd.

But don't have the anti-merit crowd get mixed in with the merit crowd in order to undermine the skills credibility of the latter.

India can then have 2 classes of academic system -- one based on merit and the other based on capitation and quotas. Sensible people will go to the first set of schools, which are based on merit and therefore have credibility with industry and other academia.

The non-meritorious people without ability, who seek schooling based on their capitation wealth or based on ethnic reservations can go to the other class of schools. As for whether employers and academics will regard the graduates of these schools in high regard, when they are merely composed of idle rich and quota-seekers -- well, I think we know what the credibility and worth of their degrees will be.

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