All entries for Thursday 04 May 2006

May 04, 2006

The Quagmire of Caste Reservations

SAAG Paper 1787, 04.05.06

On April 28th, human resources development minister Arjun Singh apologised to the students who were protesting outside his office in New Delhi, and were manhandled by the security officers there. However, he refused to offer any assurance that he would seriously reconsider his proposal which he has submitted to the union cabinet of reserving 27% of seats in premier educational institutions across India for the caste sub–groups labelled as ‘other backward castes’.

Mr Singh has been under pressure off late, with students protesting across the country, intellectuals slamming his proposal as compartmentalisation of India, and the Election Commission accusing him of violating the “model code” by announcing such populist measures right before assembly elections were due in five states across India. But with the OBCs comprising of 52% of India’s electorate, none of the main political parties can vociferously oppose the scheme.

The concept of caste–baste reservations for government jobs and places in educational institutions have been around ever since India gained independence in 1947. The Mandal Commission– whose report forms the basis of the current proposal– identified 3,743 castes and sub–castes as OBC in its report in 1980. Needless to say, there is an argument that such crude categorisation is both unjust and arbitrary. But vote–bank politics has always prevented a serious questioning of the entire push towards reservations.

Aside from the 27% proposed reservation for the OBCs, there is already a 22.5% reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (SC/ST) groups in these educational institutions. Mr Singh’s proposal would raise the reservation percentage for SC/ST/OBCs to 49.5%. This applies to all premier institutions in India, including the Indian Institute of Technologies, Indian Institute of Managements and the 20 central universities.

Mr Singh wants to go further. Last December he tabled the 104th amendment to the constitution to ensure that reservations were also extended to private unaided educational institutions. Job quotas in the private sector– it is often said– is only a matter of time.

Predictably, the reaction of the industry has been hostile. Azim Premji– CEO of Wipro– recently spoke publicly against the proposal. He is one among many entrepreneurs who have expressed their dissatisfaction over the proposals. However, industrial bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) are already preparing themselves for the consequences. A “caste headcount” has been launched among the national workforce of these companies in order to gauge how the various castes are represented.

The theoretical arguments around this issue are complex, and academic debates surrounding the American system of affirmative action and reverse discrimination have been around since the 1970s. Much of that debate applies to the situation currently prevalent in India.

First, the major argument in favour of the reservations is that of historic injustice being dished out to the subaltern classes. However, the notion of inter–generational guilt is somewhat disturbing to our intuitions. Why should someone suffer today because his ancestors might have wronged another individual?

Second, it is also argued that reservations ensure a route to upward social mobility for the downtrodden and it gives them self–respect and dignity as citizens. However, it is extremely doubtful how far the dignity of the individual is being preserved by leapfrogging him into a position for which a better qualified candidate already exists. It helps breed a mentality that people from backward castes can only get a job with the help of quotas, and it is humiliating to well–qualified candidates from such communities. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently rapped the states for not collecting data on individuals from SC/ST/OBC background who secure jobs and educational seats through the ‘general’ category and not their respective caste category.

Third, educational institutions such as the IITs and IIMs have been at the forefront of the changing face of India under globalisation. They produce much of the skilled workforce for top Indian and multinational corporations. Merit– rather than caste/religious background– should be the sole criteria of selection in such institutions, so as not to promote mediocrity.

Fourth, it is argued that we must look at the ‘genesis of merit’ rather than take it at face value. The argument is that the backward castes never got adequate access to public services such as education, health, etc. to develop their intellect and compete in a truly meritocratic society. This appears intuitively attractive, but it leaves a big question unanswered.

After all, there are poor people in India who are from the ‘general’ caste category. On the contrary, there are well–off people from the backward castes. These might be the exception to the norm, but their existence cannot be denied. By implementing caste–based reservations, all we achieve is to discriminate against the poor–but–upper caste candidate and benefit the “creamy layer” amongst the rich–but–lower caste candidate.

It has been suggested that reservations should be made on the economic class of the candidate– a criteria that cuts across caste boundaries when making a decision. However, even this system is not adequate. Given India’s high rate of corruption and poor administrative setup, ‘faking poverty’ could indeed be rife. In any case, this also compromises meritocracy.

The solution that I propose is two–tier. First, we must identify the crux of the problem– continuing caste discrimination. The government should focus on implementing the laws for equal opportunity and access to public services in the remote villages in India’s heartlands. Second, the selection criteria for institutions must be based on a subjective criterion which takes into account economic condition of the applicant’s family, his merit and the implications of his/her particular caste background, etc.

Caste, therefore, must be one of the factors under consideration, and only in so far as it actually did have an impact on the concerned individual’s life. Such a tailor–made criterion will look at every person individually and will not blindly follow a rule that may not be neutral or fair at all. It discourages precedence–based judgements being made.

Therefore, there will be no need for quotas in any state–based institutions whatsoever. As far as private sector reservations is concerned, the rights of the individuals who invested their private assets to build a company will be grossly infringed upon, were they forced to hire someone based on the state’s criterion and not their own choice. It is, therefore, a classical oxymoron.

There is a consequentialist argument for caste–based quotas. It argues that we must wait for a generation to operate under the system for results to be evident. However, that misses the entire point. The counter–argument is not that quotas will not work, but that it is inherently unjust.

The author is based at the University of Warwick, England

May 2006

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