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India: The Reservation Imbroglio

by Sukla Sen, 4 September 2008

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22 April 2006

The desirability and efficacy of affirmative actions in the form of caste-based reservations, in educational institutions at various levels and job opportunities, has again come to occupy the centre-stage of our social discourse.

So far as the government of India is concerned, two moves are underway.

One, extend reservation to the OBCs even in the portals of higher education including the "institutes of excellence". While this is partly a new initiative, it is partly also to offset the earlier Supreme Court verdict drastically curtailing the scope for such caste-based reservations, by doing away with the same in the private institutions, and upholding/promoting money-power based reservations - just not implicitly, but also explicitly by validating management/NRI quota.

There is also another move to extend job reservations to the organised private sectors.

So far as the reservation in the field of education is concerned, South Indian states are already having systems in place, which are far more radical than the one now proposed by the MoHRD.

Interestingly the ongoing student agitation led almost exclusively by the medical students has so far failed to cause any visible impact in the southern states.

The aim of the current agitation, even if it appears to lie beyond the realm of feasibility, is just not to scuttle the new move granting the OBCs special quota in the domain of higher, or tertiary, education but to reverse and scrap the present system as well catering principally to the SCs and STs. The agitating (upper caste) students must also be having the contemplated job reservation in the private sectors on their minds.

The anti-reservationists in the main put forward the argument of ’merit’ over ’equity’. They also challenge that reservation promotes equity.

Now in so far as the ’merit’ argument is concerned, the anti-reservationists are evidently on a weak wicket.

These self-styled champions of ’merit’ have nothing to say against various quotas, in the (mainly private) educational institutions, explicitly linked to payment of (much) larger than usual amount of money - in terms of capitation fess, higher tuition fees etc. (There is no murmur against the continually rising cost of education at all levels. In fact, it is even welcomed as a system which would help filtering out the ‘non-meritorious’. Money, in this case, is considered coterminous with ‘merit’.)

The fact that acquiring of ’merit’, to be established through various competitive exams, also calls for expensive tutorials - not excluding purchase of question papers etc., apart from education in premier institutes entailing heavy expenses is simply ignored. The highly non-level playing field that a student from the disadvantaged and discriminated against castes is compelled to face in terms of highly asymmetrical distribution of accumulated cultural capital, apart from economic conditions etc., is hardly ever acknowledged.

The affirmative actions, on the other hand, apart from promoting social equity and thereby integration, actively facilitate enlarging the social base/pool of the ‘meritorious’ by providing opportunities to come up in life to the members of those disadvantaged and traditionally oppressed ‘majorities’, at the lower/lowest rungs of the social ladder, who’d have been otherwise excluded.

Hence the affirmative actions actually help to raise the level of the ‘merit’ of the society taken as a whole.

But the question how, or rather to what extent, reservations actualise its intended objectives and whether it effectively preempts other positive measures, arguably far more fundamental, imperative for radical restructuring of the social hierarchy and democratisation of all spheres of life, of course, is a much trickier one and calls for a far closer and dispassionate look into the whole set of related issues.

But this is hardly possible in an atmosphere charged with irrational emotions where the narrow self-interests of a rather thin slice of the incumbent elite is tried to be blatantly and aggressively sold and foisted upon the rest of the society in the name of ‘merit’ and all that.