Reserving the wrong seats
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Reserving the wrong seats

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is absolutely right when he says that the vast ?silent majority? in India does not find voice in the media, which gives ?greater expression to those who are vocal and articulate?.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2006 01:05 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is absolutely right when he says that the vast ‘silent majority’ in India does not find voice in the media, which gives “greater expression to those who are vocal and articulate”. But, is his government’s decision to provide reservations in professional institutions in line with this understanding? Not quite. Mandal II is aimed at benefiting the elite among the OBCs and not the vast majority of backwards.

The Congress, which had vehemently opposed the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh for pursuing divisive politics through the half-baked Mandal reservations proposals, is today pursuing the same half-baked measures in the name of social justice. Why? The party’s future electoral success hinges on Bihar and UP. Unless the party revives in these two states — which it can do only by gaining the confidence of the now assertive OBCs — its hope of crossing the 200-mark in the Lok Sabha will remain a distant dream. The OBC leadership ruling the two states is the main audience for whose benefit the current reservation game is being played out.

Much has been written and said over the last fortnight on the reservations issue, some valid and some specious. To be sure, caste-based reservations do not augur well for a nation looking to become a key knowledge power in the global arena. How can you justify a person with an unsatisfactory record in school and college gaining entry to a professional institute because of the accident of his birth in a particular family?

But this argument has its limitations. You just have to look at the capitation fee system to realise that. A student with money can gain entry to professional institutions like engineering and medical colleges. Yet no one will accuse him of denigrating the standard of that particular institute.

But my point is not about the moral justification for reservations or whether it will take the country backward or forward. My problem with this whole exercise is that it is an edifice based on cock-eyed notions and not on any understanding of what really ails our education system today.

The vast majority of this country lives in rural India. This ‘silent majority’ that the PM has spoken about has little access to basic education, never mind a quality one. We may enact scores of Acts, but the poor can’t afford to send their kids to schools only until they are able enough to earn some money to keep the family going.

Look at the drop-out rates. As per the government’s own figures (2003-2004) more than 12 crore students were enrolled in Class 1 to 5, of which more than 8 crore were from rural areas. By the time they reached Class 12, 62 per cent of students from rural areas had dropped out of school. The drop-out rate for Scheduled Tribes was 63 per cent and for Scheduled Castes 59 per cent. Of the approximately 3.5 crore students who enrolled in urban areas, only 35 per cent dropped out.

A rural child starts with huge disadvantages. If his parents can afford it, he goes to a school and is taught in his mother tongue. At some stage, he may get to learn some variety of the English language, which, whatever the educationist lobby says, is an important key to success in getting through to the professional institutions.

Do you know that there are 25,000 women ‘para teachers’ in Naxal-hit Jharkhand? And what is a para-teacher? He or she is typically a village boy or girl who couldn’t make it to any other profession and is hired to teach children in school on a meagre salary. The women are not entitled to even go on maternity leave. In HRD Minister Arjun Singh’s home-state Madhya Pradesh alone there are 80,000 ‘shiksha karmis’ (another name for ‘para teachers’). In Bihar, a recent survey pointed out that 70 per cent of teachers at primary school level are absentees (including vacancies).

So do you still think that a child of ‘Backward India’ is going to be up there competing with his urban counterparts for seats in the IIMs and the IITs? That’s a cruel joke. The reservations in IITs and IIMs is going to benefit only those OBC children who already have access to urban education. So, if the really backward sections of our country’s children are going to remain exactly as they are, if not worse, what equity are we talking about? Equal rewards for the high performer and the third divisioner?

What about the religious minorities? The government agrees that the social and economic conditions of Muslims are worse than others. But they have been kept out of the reservations game. Is it because they don’t have a regimented caste system?

Now, since some people seem to be itching to do their bit to take the egalitarian principle forward, I have some suggestions. How about a uniform syllabus, a single board for the country? If our prowess with English has given us the power to become global players, why can’t we enforce the language at all levels of schooling? (After all, the children of most prominent OBC, SC and ST leaders are educated in English medium schools and even the Left now acknowledges that it was a mistake to neglect English at the primary school level). It should be the State’s responsibility to create a level-playing field for future generations. It has to ensure that all the children who go to school get the same facilities, be it in Delhi, Imphal or Jhumritaliyan.

Finally, if reservations is the key to empowerment, why haven’t we reserved 27.5 per cent of seats in Parliament and state Assemblies for the OBCs? What about the 33 per cent reservations for women? Why is the political class shying away from these legislations?

First Published: Apr 18, 2006 01:05 IST