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Killing softly: Merit and social justice

Is HRD minister being just politically expedient in pushing through a law at the expense of quality education or does he genuinely consider it a safer.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2006 15:59 IST

Is HRD minister Arjun Singh being just politically expedient in pushing through a law at the expense of quality education or does he genuinely consider it a safer, less perilous route to social justice?

The answer to the proposed 27 per cent OBC quota perhaps lies in education secretary B S Baswan's comments to the Economist last September, wherein he indicated that higher education does not fetch votes.

In absolute terms, India sends to college as many students as the entire population of Jakarta. But compared to the country's population, just 8-10 out of every 100 Indians reach college. This is five times less than the corresponding figure for the developed world. And nearly half of what China sends. But unlike democratic India, where quotas and tokenism are the political class' shortcut to resolving grassroot issues, China first strengthened the schooling plinth of the knowledge pyramid.

The contrast is best illustrated by Indian dropout rates. One out of every three Class I students drop out before completing primary education. Half of those who enter middle school actually complete it, and only 60 per cent of students enrolled in class IX finish high school.

Quite clearly, the votaries of the quota expansion are promoting social justice in higher education without addressing dropout rates at the lower end of the education chain.

In fact, the proposed 27 per cent OBC quota cuts at the root of the knowledge economy that the Prime Minister extols. Be it in terms of high quality faculties, basic or applied research or patents under their belt, the IITs and other schools of excellence, aren't equipped for the OBC ingress presented to them as a fait accompli.

For his part, Singh proposes to smother the quota system's impact on merit by increasing seats in IITs and IIMs. But there are genuine fears the proposal could reduce these "islands of excellence" into run-of-themill institutions.

Many ex-IITians are convinced this isn't the way India should augment its knowledge base. Not at least if it wants a place anywhere at the high-end of the global economic table. "We need to have our share of patents reflective of our knowledge repository, because advanced countries operate cartels driven by a barter system that runs on trading patents," says an ex-IITian.

But instead of strengthening R & D in the IITs and the Indian Institute of Sciences, the government has moved to reserve over 50 per cent seats; OBCs (27 %), SC/STs (22.5 %) and 3 per cent for the physically different. "This will only promote quantity, at the expense of quality," he said.

Still worse, argues Dalit ideologue Chandra Bhan Prasad, reservations for OBC will be appropriated by the already enabled when the real beneficiaries should be the Most Backward Communities. The MBCs constitute nearly 50 per cent of the OBCs and are distinguished from other quota seeking communities by LR Naik in his dissenting note to the Mandal report.

First Published: Apr 19, 2006 15:59 IST