Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Reservation" or Affirmative Action in India

A large number of students, especially medical students, are protesting against the government's proposed policy of increasing the number of reserved seats in educational institutes to 50%. These protests are really muted compared to those in 1990 against the implementation of similar recommendations of the Mandal Commission. One of the reasons of the fall of the then government is often attributed to their obstinacy in implementing these recommendations (although I don't think that is true... the BJP withdrew external support from the government after Advani was arrested in UP). Now we have a repeat perfomance 16 years later. The government, at least the minister for Human Resources Development, Arjun Singh, appears adamant about implementing the plan. Something tells me that this time it will get through and the government will survive.

An important goal of Independent India was to ensure social justice. Several sections of the Hindu society in India-- the so-called lower castes-- had been exploited by other social classes since centuries. The ills of the caste system urgently needed to be rectified and the Constitution of India rightly ensured that 22.5% seats in educational institutions and government jobs would be reserved for backward classes, 15% for the Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes. The original idea was retain this reservation for a particular time frame after which it would conceivably be not necessary any more. What has happened instead is that vote-bank politics has taken over. No political party, not even BJP can think of touching reservation after 59 years of independence, rather the number of reserved seats seems to go up. Meritocracy can go to hell.

Problems with the Concept
What has been seriously lacking is social upliftment at primary levels. They don't build enough schools, establish scholarships and nurture conditions and motivations to actually make the weaker sections of the society reach to the levels where they would actually be able to compete with the others. I think is very rare that a person who hasn't been able get far enough because of caste conditions would be helped by having seats reserved at the highest institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institute of Science. Instead, what we see is people getting in through the "backdoor", "cheating" other deserving candidates who are not good enough, but most likely their parents have availed of reservation before them, as their own children after them, despite of course their not really requiring it. The so-called "creamy layer", already advantaged already socially ahead, seems to be the only beneficiary.

A Few Personal Experiences
I do add a caveat here. There was a guy, A, who had joined our department at the IISc via the reserved category, who was probably the hardest working among our group and ended up doing excellent work. I guess the avenues he opened up in their lab are still being utilized by his former supervisor to provide projects to the latter's current students. I doubt whether the guy in question would have got in had he applied through the open category... he just wasn't street smart enough to have been likely to clear the interviews. A certainly deserved to be in. On the other hand, there was also S, who had joined the same lab as me, but through the reserved category. He was really stupid, didn't know the basics and I have no idea how he expected to complete a PhD on his own-- he certainly didn't deserve one. At the end he couldn't cope and was persuaded to leave. S shouldn't have been taken in in the first place.
There is also a member of the faculty of the IISc who was taken in through the reserved category. He had done his PhD there, I believe, and had done very well in his postdoctoral research and apparently has several patents and good publications. He was one of the most enterprising faculty member, and consulted with several private firms, something that wasn't done as often as it should have been in Indian science at that time. He certainly deserved to there. But I bet he would have easily got in with out reservation... in fact honestly I am not sure whether he did get in through the reserved category.
On the other hand, there used to be so many incompetent members of the technical staff at our department in Pune University. They did nothing, and couldn't be told to do anything either. A rather naive professor who became the Head of the department for a while got into a tiff with one of these people and she promptly reported it to their SC/ST union as a castist issue. The professor of course had to back down, and I believe has left the university since then.

The Politics
Much as I hate to use the phrase, reservation has become the "holy cow" in Indian politics.

The minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, announced that another 27% of the seats would be reserved in institutes (and government jobs too?) for what is being called "Other Backward Castes" (OBCs)... bringing the total number of reserved seats to a ridiculous 49.5%. Apparently the parliament had passed a bill to approve of reservation for OBCs- as I said, this is the holy cow of Indian politics and no political party dares to oppose it. Arjun Singh had a double (or even triple) aggenda. First he announced this just before the elections in 5 states, and the Election Commission made a serious objection because the model code of conduct applied to the Central Government as there were so many states in the process of elections. Arjun Singh initially responded rather belligerently but then backed down. It is also being murmured that he jumped the gun with his announcement. That the prime minisiter was not properly consulted before the announcement. But Manmohan Singh or even Sonia Gandhi cannot overrule this as this is of course the holy cow. Manmohan Singh appears to be more and more a lame duck anyway.

Conspiracy Theory
Considering that the VP Singh government suffered terribly because of Mandal, one could go for the conspiracy theory where Arjun Singh's way go getting back at not being made the prime minister would be to make sure that caste politics kills Manmohan Singh's government. The government cannot back down from reservation now, but staying put would increase protests as it is doing now. The protests during Mandal were terrible and prolonged. I wonder what will happen now. Arjun Singh will of course become the darling of the pro-reservationists, and Manmohan Singh will be increasingly exposed as ineffective or lame duck. His own policies are being challenged.
I do wonder whether Rahul Gandhi might step in as the champion of sensiblity. This would be a good chance for him.

Solution Proposed by the Government
Manmohan Singh proposes to increase the seats of institutes by a wopping 53% to ensure that the total number of seats for the open category remains same. The concept of 49.5% reservation is a terrible one, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen in the first place. But if the protests fail, I guess this is the minimum that should offered. Seats should be increased, or more institutes should be built anyway, by how feasible and realistic such a proposal would be is yet to be seen. How could the IITs, for example, suddenly decide to take in 53% more students? The infrastructure-- hostels, facilities, equipment, faculty, staff, administration and procedures etc-- needs to be taken care of first, and then an increase in intake could be possible. And what about research institutes? IISc of course has a plan to expand in 2008 coinciding with the centenary. But if a lab requires two PhD students, how can they take in three? One would have to conceive a MASSIVE increase in budget, much more than a mere 53%. Would that be possible? I can't see all this happening before a couple of years or even half a decade. Would the 49.5% reservation wait until that? Arjun Singh's belligerence doesn't indicate so.

Concluding Thoughts
While I was growing up, we used to move a lot because of my father's transferable job that took us to various parts of India. Consequently, I studied in Kendriya Vidyalayas, a chain of schools all over the country, meant mainly for children of people in the armed forces, but also for people like me. Since most people in the armed forces whether senior or junior officers, whatever their social class or caste, are transferred quite frequently, the best option for them is to have their children in these schools for the ease of changing schools without disrupting curricula too much. This meant my classmates and friends came from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, spoke all kinds of languages, followed different religions and had different food habits. Who cared whether you were different-- everyone was different. No one knew who was from a lower caste or social class. Yes, some students were indeed weaker in studies and it is possible that they came from socially or economically weaker classes, but our teachers encouraged us to help them with their studies, and we often did so. Reservation and castes did not matter, and I, and I bet most others, were completely unaware of that. Until school ended, and we had to compete for seats in higher educational institutes and jobs, and we came across reservation. Now we knew who got in through these undeserving back-door channels. People who deserved to get in, but did not because of these non-meritorious criteria were obviously held grudges.

Why doesn't the politcal class of these six decades not build up a system like our Kendriya Vidyalayas where caste or social class doesn't matter. Why don't they create conditions at the very grassroots to empower weaker sections, to improve their basic education and opportunities so that reserving seats at higher levels is not required any more.
Obviously the political parties would not be able to milk votes from differences if differences do not exist.
UPDATES: This post may have been a bit one-sided. Check out an interesting suggestion and other sides of the story here.

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