May 26, 2006
The ‘Merit’ and ‘Quality’ Argument: Not Simply Valid in the Present Controversy Over Affirmative Action for OBCs
Even as I write this, the UPA government along with its allies has announced that it will bring a bill in the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament to give 27% reservations (guaranteed seats through “affirmative action’ rights) to Other Backward Caste (OBC) students in institutes of higher learning. That the government is doing this is a statement to the undeniable reality of caste inequalities in the nation, one of the main factors behind the creation of two Indias – the “India Shining” of the English-educated upper caste elite and the “India in Darkness” of the lower castes and Dalits. The last election was a wake up call to the political parties that the “India Shining” slogan was a non-starter. The majority millions (Dalits, low caste) were not participants in the economic boom of the minority population.
Reservation (or affirmative action) is only the first step in undoing a wrong of 3,000 years. It is important that upper caste students do not think only of themselves. If their parents, elders and the Indian education system have not educated them on the caste problem in Indian society, it is time they read the works of Ambekdar, Phule, Periyar and a host of others. Isn’t it amazing how ignorant the powerful upper caste elite are about the system they imposed on the rest for millennia? Isn’t it surprising how caste consciousness is meticulously followed in our matrimonial advertisement columns and yet is mysteriously denied when it comes to the issue of reservations for OBC students?
Read the following excerpt from Ravishankar Arunachalam to understand how the reservation system has worked in the state of Tamil Nadu and how OBCs and Dalits have great merit and quality if they are given the opportunity.
Mathematics of Reservations
by Ravishankar Arunachalam
Imagine that the government came up with a proposal to build a new world-class technology institution to provide quality education to all students. Imagine, too, that a debate rages on the viability of building such an institution - in terms of the costs involved, student quality, desired outcomes etc. Now, imagine that such a debate takes place with little reference to IITs or the role they have played in technical education. Outrageous, you would think? Yet, something similar is happening in the reservation debate, both within and outside AID. The record of states which have implemented OBC reservations already is seldom brought up.
The Case of Tamil Nadu
States like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have already implemented reservation for OBCs in educational institutions. I will restrict my references to Tamil Nadu alone, since I do not know about the situation in other states. In Tamil Nadu, the total reservation is 69%, the split up for which is given [at] www.tn.gov.in/policynotes/bc_mbc_welfare.htm).
BCs and MBCs of Tamil Nadu are together equivalent to the “Other Backward Castes”, as they are referred to in the rest of the country. The most obvious observation from the table above is that the percentage of reservations is only equal to or lower than the percentage of the group in the overall population. So the reservation system is only trying to bring about proportional representation in educational institutions. It does not result in a reverse-discrimination (which would mean BCs get more than their proportional share in order to right historical wrongs), as many people claim. FCs, who form the “others”, still get the bulk of the 31% open-quota seats even though their population percentage is only 13%.
Overall, the experience with reservation has been very positive, and that is why there is wide-spread support for it in the state. The government health-care system in Tamil Nadu is better than most other states, and one reason has been the quality doctors that the system produces, a factor attributed to reservations. Many of them also opt to serve in rural areas. Not surprisingly, the TN chapter of the Indian Medical Association supports quotas for the OBCs.
Now it is not difficult to see why the anti-reservation polemic does not refer to states like Tamil Nadu with an OBC reservation record. It is because there are no instances of bridges cracking due to faulty design and patients dying due to incompetent doctors. These are often cited as the potential dangers due to reservations, either directly or more subtly as “quality will deteriorate”. I am not saying that there are no problems with govt doctors or hospitals in TN, but these problems are present in other states too, and the overall quality is still better in Tamil Nadu.
Who Gets In and Who Doesn’t?
Of course, forward castes aren’t happy with the situation, in spite of having a larger representation than their proportion in the population. The problem is that the total number of seats available is so low that most people are left out. But this is true of every single category, and not just FCs. Many of us, belonging to the forward castes, have a lot of friends who are “left out”, and feel outraged that its due to reservations (though many FC candidates score lower than even the reserved-category cut-off marks, and still blame reservations!). But the question to ask is: What about the lakhs of people from the MBCs and BCs who get left out? There are thousands of farmers’ daughters and weavers’ sons who either are unable to get to high school, or even if they do, do not get adequate support from home and are unable to afford coaching classes. We seldom know them and do not encounter them in our day-to-day lives. Yet they are real students, who are not only unable to get into these seats, but do not even get the opportunity to compete on an even footing. Are we pre-supposing that these students are all devoid of merit? According to the math above, for every FC friend of ours, there are at least 5 BC/MBC students who were denied the opportunity to get a seat. Who speaks for them ?
Such examples immediately bring up the point that reservations haven’t resulted in what they intended to do. Again, experience in Tamil Nadu points otherwise. There are any number of good students from backward castes who get into Anna university every year due to reservations, and excel in their careers.
In addition, there is already a provision for excluding the creamy layer of each caste from reservation (the list of conditions that exclude a person from enjoying OBC reservation benefits, is at http://ncbc.nic.in/html/creamylayer.html) so that only the needy get the benefits.
What about purely economic criteria, leaving out caste? While that might work in an ideal caste-less society, we have to acknowledge that caste is still a huge factor governing societal relationships today. Those who think that “caste is not a factor in urban India anymore”, need only look at the matrimonial columns of any popular newspaper.
The Supreme Court has also ruled that reservations based on purely economic conditions is unconstitutional. Besides, economic conditions can easily change over time, whereas caste does not offer any mobility. That is why, in spite of reservations, it takes a lot of time for real empowerment of the lower castes. And just because a caste is “considered” low, it won’t become an OBC. It has to satisfy several conditions to be included as socio-economically backward, for example that the proportion of graduates is 20% lower than the state or local average (complete list of guidelines at http://ncbcnic.in/html/guideline.html). The outrageous fact is that there still are clearly identifiable castes and sub-castes which fall in such categories, exposing the deep-rooted nature of our caste system.
Posted by klajja at May 26, 2006 09:05 PM