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Beyond lip service

india Updated: Oct 31, 2007 22:47 IST
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Based on the recommendations of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee on improving the socio-economic conditions of minorities in India, the UPA government has decided to establish an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Eminent jurist Madhava Menon will head an expert group to determine the EOC’s structure and functions. India Inc. seems to heave a sigh of relief that once the EOC is constituted, the pressure to reserve jobs in the private sector will be eased. Menon, however, says that the EOC will institutionalise affirmative action and will have “the potential to be the guiding light for all government policies concerning not only employment but all other areas that includes the private sector”.

So clearly, the EOC conception goes beyond protecting rights of religious minorities to encompassing remedial action for all forms of discrimination. While this is welcome, it must be remembered that countries with such commissions, like the US, Britain, Canada and South Africa, have empowered them by an act of Parliament making their decisions legally binding.

In the West, the establishment of such a commission and the laws of affirmative action arose not merely to protect people against racial and ethnic discrimination. An important consideration was the fact that economic and social inequality adversely affect growth and efficiency. The Human Development Report, 2005, states: “If there were a trade-off between growth and distribution, governments would face tough choices. The welfare-enhancing gains of greater equity could be eliminated by the losses associated with lower growth. In fact, evidence suggests that the trade-offs work in the other direction... Long-term efficiency and greater equity can be complementary.”

While these considerations are equally valid for us, it must be borne in mind that the challenges we face to ensure equality of opportunities are more severe and complex than anywhere else. There is no other country with such a divergent social plurality, and its consequent institutionalised social exclusion, as India.

Amartya Sen draws our attention to various dimensions of social exclusion. He distinguishes between situations where some people are kept out (unfavourable exclusion) and others are included on unfavourable terms (unfavourable inclusion). He further differentiates between active and passive exclusion. The former works through fostering exclusion through deliberate discriminatory policy interventions; the latter works through social processes, like the caste system. Exclusion leads to the denial of economic opportunities and consequent powerlessness. Low income, low merit or low productivity are not the cause, but the consequences of such exclusion.

Given this, the EOC will have a humongous task at hand. This is corroborated by a study conducted by UGC Chairman Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell (‘The Legacy of Social Exclusion’, EPW, October 13): “We study what happens when highly-educated Indians from different castes and religious backgrounds apply for jobs in the modern urban private sector, encompassing multinational corporations as well as prominent Indian companies. This is that part of the Indian economy where supposedly caste and communal discrimination are things of the past. Yet our findings document a pattern of decision-making by private sector employers that repeatedly advantages job applicants from Hindu higher-caste backgrounds and disadvantages low-caste and Muslim job applicants with equal qualifications.”

Based on a methodology of sending five applications — a Muslim, a Dalit, a high-caste (all-qualifying), one overqualified Dalit and one underqualified high-caste — for each job advertisement, the authors made 4,808 applications to 548 job advertisements over 66 weeks and concluded: “Our findings suggest that social exclusion is not just a residue of the past clinging to the margins of the

Indian economy, nor is it limited to people of little education. On the contrary, it appears that caste favouritism and the social exclusion of Dalits and Muslims have infused private enterprises even in the most dynamic modern sector of the Indian economy.” Thus, the age-old institutions of social exclusion — caste system, communal prejudices and gender discrimination — seem to have been perfected in an ingenious, but insidious, manner in modern India.

The Sachar Committee recommendations go beyond the EOC’s establishment. Seen in this light, the follow-up action report placed by the government in Parliament on August 31, 2007, is woefully short. For instance, there is no mention of any steps being taken to ensure justice to victims of communal riots. Tangible measures (apart from working to ensure that such carnages don’t recur) to provide relief to the victims and to bring the guilty to book need to be put in place urgently.

Likewise, it is silent on measures like land reforms and distribution of house sites to the landless and the homeless within the minorities. No mechanism has been suggested for the inclusion of OBC Muslims in the state OBC lists for quotas. Similarly, there is no reference to extending reservations to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

Two important areas identified by this report are in the spheres of education and economic empowerment. The action plan ignores the recommendations of the high-level committee of the HRD Ministry that suggested launching a focused literacy campaign in minority concentration districts (MCDs) by building adult education and vocational training schools and establishing a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in each MCD. These recommendations came in January 2007. Deplorably, the Union Budget was silent on this.

As for economic empowerment, apart from rural land reforms, an important issue is the access to institutional credit to minority communities to pursue their skilled vocations. Out of 121 MCDs identified by the Finance Ministry, the Reserve Bank of India has delineated only eight for 100 per cent financial inclusion.

If the Sachar recommendations are not to be relegated to ‘lip service’, the imperative is to evolve a sub-plan for the Muslims. Like it exists for the adivasis, such a sub-plan must ensure that a percentage of all financial allocations for developmental work be earmarked for the development of minorities according to their percentage of the population state-wise. Unless this is done, the Sachar recommendations will remain on paper.

But beware — this may attract the charge that the UPA is succumbing to the BJP’s blandishments of ‘minority appeasement’.

Sitaram Yechury is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) Politburo.