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Quotas: Holy cow of Indian politics

india Updated: Aug 23, 2006 15:07 IST
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Fifty-six years ago the people of India agreed upon a Constitution for the fledgling country, to set the ground rules for the governance of the people and their all-round development. The over-arching aim was to bring in among the people of the country "liberty of thought, expression, belief, worship and faith, equality of status and opportunity, and to promote among them all, fraternity".

The framers of the Constitution also made provisions in favour of the people belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for a period of 10 years. Fifty-six years later, 'equality' and 'fraternity' among the citizens stand seriously threatened.

What was initiated as a short-period socio-political support for the depressed classes, has in a very short time become a bedrock of political philosophy of all the political parties in the country, dying to endear themselves to specific castes, build vote banks and profit at the polls.

The reservation policy, which started for a limited period of 10 years, has since been extended for six decades and going by the thinking of the leaders of all the political parties, may need to be continued as long as this country continues to exist.

No effort has been made in the past 56 years to study the progress made by the depressed classes through the reservation policy; whether those who came up through reservations particularly in high-skill areas such as medical specialty and super-specialty courses, are able to perform well; the extent to which the depressed caste population is able to compete and win on par with the general population; and whether the reservations can be reduced.

Instead, leaders have vied with each other to invent more depressed classes; a whole new breed of 'backward castes' has been identified and innumerable political pressure groups have germinated to add this caste and that caste into the list of scheduled castes or other backward castes. Now, with the same vote-bank politics in mind, politicians of most parties are eager to provide reservations on the basis of religion.

Mahatma Gandhi's dream of India emerging as a casteless society appears to be only an idea of an outdated philosopher. Caste system in the country is gaining new strengths, with the short-sighted policies of the political classes for their short-term selfish gains. The ruling groups appear no worse in their ardour to divide and rule, than the British who started it with the two-nation theory.

Caste wars appear possible on the horizons, and the continuity of this nation state as one entity may soon become a subject of serious debate.

Intellectuals and ideologues may endlessly debate about the uselessness and insignificance of 'merit' as criteria for determining the reservations or recruitment policy in this country. If merit is insignificant, or can be bought through coaching centres, or if the measuring mechanisms of merit are flaw-ridden and thoroughly undependable, why not stipulate a 'cut-off marks' as eligibility to apply (as indicating a minimum capability level, for both admissions in educational institutions, and jobs), and then conduct the selections by pure draw of lots?

Can any one question the idea that a candidate with 60 per cent marks is more meritorious than another with 40 per cent marks? It may be debatable whether a candidate with 60 marks is more meritorious than one with 59 per cent marks. But then, there is no better objective criterion of measuring merit than marks in an impartial examination.

Just as democracy (as a form of government) is the least worst of all the available forms, merit is the least worst of all the available methods of deciding upon admissions to educational institutions and selections for jobs.

The need to have a second look on the entire reservation policy has never been stronger than now. What are the alternatives available to continuing the reservations policy in an eternal manner and allow the widening social fragmentation, and possible 'civil-war' like situation developing in the country between castes and religions, only on the ground of reservations and the lack of equal opportunity to all citizens?

Let us consider a few:

(i) Conduct a study as to the number of reserved category candidates who have secured admissions into educational institutions or job-selections, over the past 10 years; and consider reducing the percentage of reservations in that category to that extent. This can be repeated every 10 years.

(ii) Restrict reservations to certain entry level and mid-level educational courses and jobs. Let the others, such as specialty and super-specialty medical education courses be based only on merit.

(iii) To counter the argument that 'merit' of the upper castes is a commodity that is bought through coaching centres with lots of money, let a new policy of government-sponsored coaching schools be started for the depressed classes. Let government obtain the best of teachers in the field; pay them performance based incentives (eg package-per-student who qualifies for admission through common merit list for certain highly-competitive professional courses); select students from SC/ST/BC communities with some minimum cut-off marks, and offer them these coaching facilities.

Or, even better, have special high-quality residential schools on par with the best in the field to coach the students from these communities. Let there be no budget restriction on such facilities; the government can admit into these institutions all the SC/ST/BC students who make the minimum qualifying grade of, say, 50 per cent marks and who are coming forward to join such facilities.

(iv) In addition to the above the government may set up 'high-quality' schools either exclusively for SCs, STs and BCs, or mostly for them and admit a small percentage of poor OC students also. All SC/ST/BC students who have, say, more than 60 per cent (or 55 per cent) marks in 5th or 7th standard annual examinations may be admitted to these schools. The government should open as many schools as there are eligible students coming forward to join these schools.

Further, the teachers in these schools should be 'no-nonsense task masters' and should be compensated with a base salary and an attractive incentive package that is totally dependent on the number of students who pass with, say, 60 per cent marks in the 10th class public examination. Similar schools can be started at the +2 level also. Let budget be no limitation to the number of such schools, up to +2 level.

(v) After setting up such 'high quality' schools as described above, instead of reservations where candidates from SC/ST/BC communities are admitted with minimum pass marks for a limited number of seats, let the government have a policy of admitting all the students from these communities who have a cut-off level of percentage of marks, say, again, 60 per cent, into professional colleges of their choice. Let the government start more medical and engineering colleges, if there are more SC, ST and BC students with 60 per cent or higher marks, than those who can be admitted in the integrated, casteless, merit list.

(vi) On a larger political plane, the ruling political classes in India want to throw the crumbs of reservations to the depressed communities, build vote-banks, and with their assured support based on the continuation of the crumbs of reservations, continue to rule the country forever. Instead, let us think out of the box, abolish all reservations in educational institutions and jobs (by switching over to other systems of enabling the depressed communities in education as described above) and think of empowering the depressed classed in other path-breaking ways.

Economic theory tells us that there are certain factors of production. Land and capital are the basic resources. Labour and organisation work on these resources to achieve production of goods and services. Let the government redistribute the entire land in the country to ensure that the SCs, STs and BCs, have at least 50 per cent of the total land holding in the country and provide them with irrigation facilities. Similarly, in respect of capital, let the government make it mandatory that all the banks and other lending institutions in the country should lend at least 50 per cent of their advances to entrepreneurs from SC/ST/BC communities.

Let the entrepreneurs from the depressed classes start industries, trade units, and be masters, not servants. Let the society bear the cost of it, if any.

Reservations have become the holy cow of Indian politics. No political party dares to oppose it or even, agree to discuss if the reservation policy needs a re-look. Political parties and politicians are pawning the future, and the very unity and integrity of the nation for their personal, short-term gains. The more we delay or hesitate to speak and discuss the reservation policy afresh and think about the alternatives, the more we are pushing this country into the calamity of long-term social and political disintegration.

Damodar S Chitta is associated with Sri Saraswati Vidya Peetham, Sarada Dhamam in Andhra Pradesh and can be reached at balasatya @hotmail.com.

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