It is time we address the challenge of reservations honestly, fairly and innovatively by creating opportunities for all disadvantaged children. Along with improving school education outcomes, a more rational model of reservation based on equity and common sense must be envisaged
The massive mobilisation of Patels in Gujarat in their agitation for their inclusion in the caste-based reservations scheme as Other Backward Classes (OBC) raises vital questions on affirmative action. For decades, political parties, the media and society at large have avoided serious debate on the promotion of equal opportunity in an iniquitous, caste-ridden society practising discrimination by birth for centuries.
All societies face serious challenges on account of discrimination and institutionalised inequality. The United States has its African-Americans and Indian Americans, Europe has its Gypsies, Australia has its Aborigines, and China has its non-Han minorities. But nowhere in the world are inequality by birth and moral neutrality to such discrimination so institutionalised as in Indian society. Centuries of artificial division of society into hundreds of castes, the denial of education for all but a few “upper” castes, an unbreakable linkage between caste and occupation, institutionalised untouchability and absurd notions of “impurity”, the long-entrenched tradition of endogamous marriages within a sub-caste, and serious prejudice against mixed marriages are all that have made the Indian caste system the most heinous, oppressive and intractable form of discrimination and inequality by birth.
Even a cursory understanding of our society exposes the link between caste and poverty, and the denial of opportunity based entirely on circumstances of birth. The future of a vast majority of children born in our society can be reasonably predicted at the time of birth merely by assessing the family’s economic status, parental education and caste. The child’s innate ability, ambition and hard work, in most cases, are irrelevant to her future. Not only is this an unjust, oppressive monstrosity in this day and age, but also a large majority of the nation’s gene pool is also wasted by this denial of opportunity, and the nation’s state of poverty and backwardness are perpetuated. Given these circumstances, caste will have to be an important factor in determining eligibility for affirmative action policies. However, the unimaginative way in which reservations have been implemented has led to several, undesirable consequences.
Most of the benefits of reservations have gone only to a few, better educated, well-off elites among the communities eligible for reservations. When you see the background of youngsters recruited to the civil services, or those admitted to medical schools, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, national law schools or other courses that give real opportunities of vertical mobility, we see a pattern emerging. Though reservation is applicable to the poor and the rich, or the illiterate and the educated in caste groups equally, in reality, most benefits accrue to the children of those who already have the advantages of education, career and wealth. In most selections to/in premier institutions in higher education or recruitment to high-end jobs, it is the children of Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service officers and other senior officials, the progeny of Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLA), Members of Parliament (MP) and the other political elite, and the offspring of successful professionals and businessmen who dominate the scene in communities eligible for reservations.
Polarisation and politics
This skewed benefit has paradoxical consequences. The poor, disadvantaged Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) and OBCs are mostly on the fringes and continue to remain mired in poverty and backwardness, as they cannot compete with children from more advantaged backgrounds in their own communities. Therefore, there is enormous pain, suffering and angst often resulting in despair and which triggers violence. Most of the poor in disadvantaged sections are sullen and angry as their lot does not seem to improve irrespective of ability and hard work. At the same time, the communities excluded from reservations harbour animosity and prejudice against the castes included in the reservation category. There are also several poor and semi-literate families among castes not categorised as SCs or OBCs. When a child in such a family is overtaken by an obviously wealthy child enjoying caste reservation, the resentment created has a snowballing effect. This caste polarisation is accentuated by the political mobilisation of caste groups for voting. Given this complex process, short-sighted politicians and caste-based leaders can easily provoke primordial loyalties and arouse animosities based on caste. We have seen many instances of caste mobilisation for and against reservations. In recent years, the Jat-Gujjar-Meena agitations in Rajasthan are too well known to bear repetition. Now, the agitation of Patels, the largely successful and entrepreneurial community in Gujarat, one of India’s most vibrant States, only illustrates the need for rationalising reservations.
It is clear that at present most of the benefits of reservations flow to a few well-educated families in the upper strata. Real poor families among SCs, STs and OBCs are largely on the margins. The poor among Other Categories (OC) are resentful and frustrated, and tend to blame reservations for all their problems. The current form of reservations and zero-sum approach have deepened caste divisions without helping the truly poor, deserving children to advance in life. Most Indians — from castes included in reservation or excluded — feel betrayed. We need an urgent, earnest, honest, national debate, and a creative sensible, pragmatic response. Opportunities for all disadvantaged children, equity, fairness and common sense should be the guiding principles in evolving a more rational model of reservations.
Case for dis-reservation
First, while caste will continue to be the mainstay of reservation policies, the benefits should flow to the vast majority of underprivileged children from deprived castes; not to a few privileged children with a caste tag. Families of public officials of a certain rank — IAS, IPS, other Central and State civil services, present or former MLAs, MPs, other senior politicians — certain high income professionals like physicians, chartered accountants, managers above a certain rank in the private sector, and businessmen and others above a certain income should be dis-reserved. In other words, once they have received a significant advantage of reservations, they should be able to ensure opportunities for their children and vacate the space for the truly disadvantaged children in their own caste groups. The argument that financial or professional success does not end discrimination, and therefore they should forever enjoy reservations is fallacious and self-serving. The logic of reservations is that educational and employment opportunities will reduce discrimination in a modern economy. The state has only the power to give these opportunities. If education, job and income do not mitigate discrimination, then the rationale for reservation collapses. If reservations do help in upward mobility, then what more can we expect in life other than an IAS, IPS officer, MLA, MP or a cardiac surgeon? It is easy to identify families which have substantially benefited from reservation by virtue of position, rank, profession, education, children’s school and income. Once these families are dis-reserved, the truly poor and disadvantaged sections among reserved communities will get a helping hand in both higher education and jobs.
Second, we have to address the anger and aspirations of poor families among unreserved communities. Jats, Patels and other obviously successful communities who are poor are easily angered by what they see as an unjust system. With the Supreme Court ruling of 50 per cent ceiling on reservation quotas, no further reservation is possible. But intelligent, creative, fair and practical ways of giving the poorer children among OCs a helping hand are possible and necessary. For instance, parental education and the school the child attended are two sure indicators of poverty and the backwardness of a family. If parents have not had education beyond school, and if the child goes to a government school or a low-end, ramshackle private school, it is a sure sign of a lack of adequate opportunity. Such a child, however bright, cannot compete with the privileged son of a high official or wealthy doctor going to an expensive private school. And yet, our so-called “merit” system treats a 90 per cent score of the privileged child as better than the 80 per cent score of a poor girl in a rural school. If reasonable weightage is given in marks to such underprivileged children in the category of OC — an addition of marks decided by a group of experts — it will give added opportunity to poor OCs without raising reservation quotas. At the same time, true merit is not compromised and there is always an aspirational level they have to meet. Third, no child with ability and desire should ever be denied opportunities for higher education on account of poverty or birth. Scholarships, free tuition, soft loans and other mechanisms must be strengthened, so that a bright child can reach for the stars irrespective of his or her family’s social or economic status.
Once these three steps are in place, most of the distortions in the reservation policy will vanish. There will be far greater harmony and little incentive to polarise society or provoke primordial loyalties. Most of all, the really disadvantaged will have a genuine opportunity to rise to their potential. Unfulfilled potential is the greatest sin in our society. Once we eliminate much of this scourge, we can reduce reservations by one or two per cent each year. Within a generation, discrimination by birth will be a thing of the past, and reservations will not be necessary. Simultaneously, the state can encourage market mechanisms for equal opportunity in the private sector.
These efforts should be coupled with a vigorous national effort to improve school education outcomes. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act is mostly a failure in enabling a real opportunity for all children. Guaranteed outcomes in schools and access to real quality school education to every child irrespective of birth and poverty are at the heart of a society promoting equity, opportunity and egalitarianism. It is time we address the challenge of reservations honestly, openly, fairly and innovatively. We cannot bury our heads in the sand forever like an ostrich.