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Casting about for a solution

india Updated: Oct 07, 2009 01:49 IST
Gaurav Choudhury
Gaurav Choudhury
Hindustan Times
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North Delhi Power Ltd (NDPL) relaxed the criteria for appointing Mahesh (30) and Manoj (28) as technicians, seeing their caste background.

And this enabled them to start new lives at the Tata group firm, a power distributor in Delhi.

While policymakers strive to make economic growth inclusive, NDPL is proof that there is a way to do it.

It has been nearly three years since industry submitted a voluntary affirmative action plan, drawn up by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Assocham — two of the country’s leading business groupings.

But industry repeatedly told the government it was opposed to legislation for job reservation in the private sector.

The political class in India has been talking about inclusive growth for nearly 20 years. But it cannot be achieved without ensuring that corporations execute an affirmative action plan and employ more people from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs/STs) — groups that have suffered centuries of social and economic discrimination.

But why are we talking about it now more than ever before? This begs the question: In the absence of legislation, how can it be ensured that SC/STs will get jobs?

“Voluntary action would yield better results because the companies would remain focused due to advocacy, publicity and peer pressure. Companies will continue to invest in the four Es — employability, education, entrepreneurship and employment — and will scale up their investment over time …,” said J.J. Irani, director, Tata Sons. Irani also heads the CII’s affirmative action council.

Over the past few years, a corpus for the skill upgrade of SCs/STs has been suggested. Some industry leaders had suggested 1 per cent education tax on corporate profits to fund elementary education for SCs/STs and other backward classes.

“We, Assocham member companies, would be more than willing to support such an initiative. It would be part of industry’s corporate social responsibility,” said Sajjan Jindal, vice-chairman of JSW Steel and president of Assocham.

The government has also nudged India Inc. to incorporate employment data of SCs and STs in their annual reports from 2006-07 onwards. What has been the progress so far?

“About 150 member companies of the CII (of its 8,700 members) have begun to compile and disclose employees’ data. Initially, the companies were a bit sceptical but now they have begun to realise the importance of maintaining such data,” Irani said.

A leading industrialist, who did not wish to be identified, said it was like conducting a caste-based census on the factory floor. “Many firms would avoid undertaking such an exercise. After all, who would like to take the risk of creating fissures on the factory floor on grounds of caste? This is a regressive step,” he said.

Industry chambers have claimed that the representations of people belonging to SC/ST communities are not that low. But the figures have not been made public.

“The findings in general are that this section of society is employed in labour-intensive units only to an extent of 12-15 per cent but at lower ranks,” Jindal said.

There have been instances where the government has sent lists of SC/ST candidates to industry, but very few were found employable.

“The ministry of social justice and empowerment sent a list of 70 candidates to industry chambers two years ago. But when these candidates were called for an interview, only a few turned up. As far as recruitment is concerned, industry prefers the concept of preference rather than relaxation in norms,” Irani said.

To be fair to India Inc, companies like NDPL, Tata Teleservices and Trent have formulated recruitment policies in the spirit of positive discrimination. Through sustained advocacy and peer pressure, more companies would do so in future, Irani said.

Today, Mahesh and Manoj’s lot has improved, but many from their communities are still waiting for that little handholding to make their lives better. And with the government preferring to handle the issue softly, there is no immediate breakthrough in sight.