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What of today's 'historical wrongs'?

Our surfer talks of 'affirmative action' that still discriminates at a certain level.

india Updated: May 24, 2006 13:44 IST

It seems to me that much has been passionately written and discussed the last few weeks on the reservation issue.

I entered university in 1991, months after the Mandal Commission controversy, confused and angry by the strikes, the self-immolations and mostly by the myopic policy that merited these in the first place.

It is painful to see India's fledgling attempts at being a meritocracy being ground down by her still petty political leaders. I am not against affirmative action for the compensation of historical wrongs. Neither are most Indians of my generation opposed to it (the protesters included). I see very much from my work in India that this is indeed necessary. But what really rankles, is the lopsided way in which the self appointed guardians of the backward castes (the political class) have taken the task upon themselves.

At the cost of India.

Why have we not considered it important enough to ensure the provision of good primary and secondary education (and similarly primary health care) to our people as a whole and to the backward classes in particular? Have the concerned group of self appointed guardians thought about the dismal state of government schools and health centres? And how would their concern be less misplaced, if they ensured that the millions of backward class children had access to a good basic education that would enable them to compete on merit for entrance into India's elite universities? And automatically open up many more options for them rather than the sanctimonious one being presented by the HRD ministry of reserving a few thousand places in India's premier university.

The 'catching up' game at university level does no one a service. It does not provide better opportunity for the millions of backward class students, it kills the notion of merit, lowers the standards at universities, and does not serve the purpose of upliftment for those most in need. (We know of the 'creamy layer' of economically forward backward classes that corner these reservations). It only serves the political class to whitewash their failure at the more fundamental task of ensuring good basic education. And as is well known, two wrongs (failure to ensure basic education and the catch up game at university) do not make a right (protect the interests of the backward classes).

The solutions being propounded to placate the protests sound more like band-aids being taped onto a bucket, which has sprung too many holes! Increase the seats has been the governments refrain. While there is definitely a need to increase the capacity of India's premier universities, it cannot be a knee jerk reaction in the context of anti-reservation protests.

Expanding capacity needs infrastructure, money, and competence and must be well thought through and seriously planned. 'Increase capacity so that general merit quotas are unaffected' sounds like a placatory attempt to save face. It reveals the government's assumption that the protestors are motivated by narrow interests of protecting their 'quotas', and so can be bought up with these assurances.

That maybe partly true, but it fully ignores the principle that these band-aid populist measures are increasingly not tolerated. We need real concern for the backward classes and real development.

It seems also the polity is very focussed on caste as the only relevant form of inequity in this country. Perhaps the HRD minister needs to be reminded. India is divided not just horizontally but also vertically into many heterogeneous groups that suffer different kinds of inequity. The poor forward caste family suffers today much more than the richer backward caste family.

But another member of the polity, Mr Jethmalani reminded us some years ago that reservation is not a poverty alleviation strategy, it's a system of compensation for historical wrongs. While we do need to compensate for historical wrongs, who is compensating for today's wrongs? How do poor Indians of any caste live today? Calls for integrating economic status into the reservation, however reasonable, are unheeded.

Poverty, the biggest divider in contemporary Indian society, is not important enough for our MPs. It's caste that wins the game for our rulers!

The failure of the public sector in primary education and health care is seen borne out by the ever-increasing number of private schools and clinics. The state has yet to learn that its responsibility is to ensure that its children have access to good education and healthcare, whatever be the public private mix of services. It has to get out of archaic modes of patronising inefficient service provision and move into playing the role of overseer - overseeing access (especially of vulnerable groups) to basic education and healthcare.

It means creating an enabling environment for the delivery of quality education and healthcare, it means having to relinquish some of its old traditional stagnant sense of 'power' and acquiring a newer more different dynamic influence.

Ayesha de Costa is a doctor by profession who did her MD at AIIMS and is currently working on a doctoral research in Europe. She can be reached atAyesha.de.Costa@ki.se.

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