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India's three apex commercial chambers have suggested initiating a voluntary affirmative action policy for employment of SC-ST workers, writes Raghu Dayal.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2006 02:52 IST

The country’s three apex commercial chambers, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham), the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), submitted to the Prime Minister a plan of actionin the last week of July. According to this plan, in response to Manmohan Singh’s call at a conclave for a “more broad-based” workforce, they have suggested initiating a voluntary affirmative action policy for employment of SC-ST workers.

These ‘concrete steps’ will ensure transparency and accountability through a disclosure in the companies’ annual reports. The industry initiatives include measures to be followed at the workplace: to reflect greater SC-ST representation in companies’ new recruitments at all levels; enhance access and opportunity for SC-ST applicants; and provide for more executive-level positions for them. In consonance with the overall objective, the industry initiative will keep ‘the creamy layer’ out of their schemes.

The second initiative is with regard to entrepreneurship development. The 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, had said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The industry initiative will direct its programme towards the creation of the SC-ST entrepreneur. Each company will create and mentor at least one SC-ST entrepreneur a year, with the aim to develop 100 such entrepreneurs in the first year. The chambers will partner with institutions such as the Small Industries Development Bank of India (Sidbi) and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) for developing SC-ST entrepreneurs, and will organise training for such entrepreneurs in district industry centres.

The third facet of the scheme is industry’s emphasis on nurturing employability among SC-STs, on improving cognitive abilities of children, and on providing them with universal access to education. Primary education being the very essence of real reform, industry will partner with NGOs to improve the level of primary education in government and municipal schools, especially those in the 104 districts with pronounced SC-ST communities. Besides focusing on important areas of teachers’ training, and providing better libraries and IT facilities, industry will assist in mid-day meal programmes.

Quality education being the bedrock of employability, industry will launch coaching programmes in universities to lower drop-out rates among SC-ST students. In the first year, 10 universities will be identified for these programmes, to cover 10,000 students. This will then spread to cover 50 cities and 50,000 students by 2009. At least 100 scholarships for SC-ST students to study in IITs, IIMs and other premier educational institutions will also be set up. Similarly, five scholarships to pursue studies abroad will be provided in the first year, and the number increased to 50 in five years. For counselling support to SC-ST students for admission tests for professional and technical courses, industry will establish 10 centres in the first year to cover 5,000 students for admission in 2007.

With an emphatic assertion that private sector industry must maintain its ‘non-negotiable’ freedom of choice in employment, it counsels against legislation to impose quotas. Quotas in jobs would imply continuance of caste discrimination and would be a divisive mechanism, polarising society. Quotas and reservations for jobs in the government sector over the last many decades have helped little. At any rate, private industry has but a minuscule employment potential as only about eight million of the workforce — about 2 per cent of the country’s working population — is on its rolls. Of a total 27 million employees in the organised sector in India, about 19 million have jobs with the central, state or local governments, or have quasi-government jobs.

Today, ‘corporate social responsibility’ is a new term in the business lexicon. It is in the interest of trade and industry to induct the underprivileged sections of population into the economic mainstream and generate egalitarianism and cohesiveness among all stakeholders. It is increasingly recognised that success of a business is inextricably tied to the welfare and stability of the community. So social policies should go beyond assuring equal rights to redress past wrongs.

For maintaining close coordination and understanding between government and industry, and to impart requisite impetus and direction to the schemes, progress should be monitored biannually by a high-powered government-industry bipartisan taskforce. A common minimum programme for universal application may be prescribed to all companies.

India needs to have its own genius and show its maturity in this effort. For, as George Bernard Shaw put succinctly, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.”

Raghu Dayal is Member, Assocham Task Force on Affirmative Action

First Published: Oct 05, 2006 02:52 IST