My two bits on the reservation issue
In argumentative India, everybody has a point of view!
These range from the puerile “we have been oppressed for over 3,000 years and 50 years of quotas is not enough to make up for it”; “would you allow yourself to be operated upon by a SC/ST doctor?”; “I got through the entrance test but did not get admission to the engineering college whereas an OBC did despite failing the test” to the rational “where is the data to support these levels of quotas when the last such census was in 1931?”; “primary education is the key and not reservations at elite institutions such as IITs/IIMs” to the self-centered “we will be globally uncompetitive if we have to reserve jobs as per the quotas”; “quotas are alright for SC/STs but not for OBCs, who will leverage their political and economic assets to dominate office jobs”.
There is a lot of heat and too little light in this “debate”. There is clearly a paucity of hard facts for a rational person to take a stand on this issue. How has the lot of the SC/ST community improved with nearly 50 years of quotas? What has been the impact of broad affirmative action on our society? What is the rationale for extending the quota system?
Some recent research sheds some light. A paper, “Has Job Reservation Been Effective? Caste, Religion, and Economic Status in India” by Vani K. Borooah (University of Ulster), Amaresh Dubey (North-Eastern Hill University) and Sriya Iyer (University of Cambridge) in November 2005 measures the effects of positive discrimination in boosting the proportions of ST/SC/OBC persons in regular salaried employment and the discriminatory bias against Muslims who do not benefit from such policies. They conclude that an alternative, and more effective, way of raising the proportion of prime-age men from the SC/ST groups in regular salaried or wage employment would be to improve their employment-related attributes.
The paper also concludes that “…in arriving at this judgement about who should be eligible for reservation, the criterion has been a person’s caste rather than his income or wealth. Consequently, groups belonging to what Article 115 of the Indian Constitution calls “socially and educationally backward classes” have benefited from reservation even though, in practice, many of these groups could not be regarded as “backward”. This has meant that many of the benefits of reservation have been captured by well-off groups from the depressed classes (for example, chamars from the SC) while poorer groups from the depressed (for example, bhangis from the SC) have failed to benefit.”
The authors’ simulations showed that even modest improvements in the education levels of SCT persons could deliver significant employment gains.
Another paper by John M. Alexander, “Inequality, Poverty and Affirmative Action:
Contemporary Trends in India” starkly states that “The overall results of affirmative action in India now pursued for more than five decades present a mixed scenario. While it has been quite effective in breaking the monopoly of the upper castes in political, social and educational spheres of society, it has not been able to positively better the lives of most of the backward classes. It has enabled a small section of the least disadvantaged or
the relatively better off among the backward classes to move towards economic development and social inclusion but has left the vast majority with a false sense of social advancement. This is a stark reminder both to policy makers as well as the backward classes that affirmative action cannot be a universal remedy for the problems of inequality and poverty in India.”
The paper examines reservations in three spheres – politics, jobs and education.
In education, the paper states that the SCs had a literacy rate of only 38 per cent as compared to 52 per cent for the general population (1991 figures). In higher education, the achievement was a little more – 13 per cent of students enrolled in higher education were SC in 1995-96, as compared to 7 per cent in 1978-79. Although the increased enrolment of Scheduled Castes and Tribes in higher education is a cause for some optimism, it needs to be juxtaposed to certain other accompanying realities. The first among them are the economic and social hurdles that Scheduled Caste and Tribe students face as they climb the ladder of higher education. It is only the relatively well off or the socially influential among the Scheduled Caste and Tribe communities that are able to make use of scholarships and other benefits of affirmative action (Wankhede, 2001; Aikara, 1996).
The biggest success has been in public sector jobs – SC accounted for 8.2 per cent of Class I jobs in 1987 as compared to 0.35 per cent in 1953. (Ironically, the share is far higher, over 20 per cent, in the lowest category of government jobs – Class IV jobs.)
The limited data sheds some light on the future direction of the debate.
One, there should be a national debate on the need, criterion, goals, and time frames of an affirmative action program. (For instance, a key issue to be debated could be the relevance of job reservations in a context of only 30 million jobs of the 400 million workforce being in the organized sector.)
Two, pursuing a caste based affirmative action program without incorporating current economic status is bound to be unsuccessful. Such a program should be designed after undertaking a current census on caste and socio economic stratification of Indian society.
Three, there should be time-bound targets for fulfilling affirmative action goals.
Four, the affirmative action program could include some form of reservations not only in employment and education, but also in access to capital markets (micro finance and angel funding) and procurement programs of both the public sector and the private sector; to promote entrepreneurship.
Five, there should be an emphasis on public private partnership where the government commits to increased investments in primary education and industry steps up to impart ‘soft skills’ and set up ‘finishing schools’ to ensure employability.
Six, and probably the most important, it is important to increase the size of the pie than to devise devious ways of cutting it up. As the President A P J Kalam has argued, let there be a 100 more IITs and IIMs and medical colleges, and let our esteemed political leaders, civil servants and industrialists devise strategies to create 8 million jobs a year that are needed to sustain our economic growth.
Greater and widespread prosperity alone will finally cure the menace of caste in our ancient society.