Friday, November 03, 2006

In Defense Of Reservations

From all the protests, dharnas, gheraos, online petitions, PILs and the PILs that did not happen, there seems to be a general understanding that reservation is killing meritocracy in India. I have read some hilarious posts on reservation being posted on my IIT and IIM e-groups. The common refrain being greater reservation translates into the death of meritocracy in India. It is generally accepted that the reservation policies are biased against the general category population and treats them in an unfair manner. People across different walks of lives have been polarized, more against than in the favor of reservation.

For the purpose of this discussion, let me define the concept of reservation. Reservation is the policy which earmarks seats/positions etc for population from the under-privileged sections of the society. Everything else would be under the implementation of reservation.

I am of a strong belief that affirmative action is required in any society. One needs to involve and uplift the under-privileged in any society. I think there is a general agreement that reservation on the basis of economic indices is acceptable. I believe there is no other mechanism of implementation of reservation. However, it is difficult to achieve. The National Information Center does not have an economic profiling of the population. Further, given the enormity of the Black economy in India, the income tax returns are a big joke. They cannot be used as an indication of economic state of a household. One option that we have at hand would to initiate a giant data collection exercise that profiles the population. But how do we do it? Beats me! Also, even if some methodology is developed it would be good 15 years before we are good to roll-out such a plan.

In such a case of acute data deficiency, should any affirmative action happen? People are so emotionally embroiled in this that the most probable answer I expect to hear on this is an emphatic ‘NO.’ However, I will dwell for some more time on this. In most factories or work places, data non-availability is a common issue. We all use heuristics or a thumb-rule to solution such problems. The best heuristic available in this case is the caste. The so-called lower castes have higher incidence of poverty on an average. Hundreds of years of oppression show on their economic and physical conditions. It is easy to compare them with the Deltas and epsilons of the “Brave new world.” The society has to support them to get onto a level playing field. The present situation is totally biased in the favor of the upper castes. The upper-castes are economically better off on an average. They have a better social support structure. They are in a so called virtuous cycle of prosperity. And the lower castes stuck in the vicious circle of poverty. Just to clarify, I am talking of the average case here. The one-odd cases exist and I am not denying their existence.

Merit is another placard used by the people who oppose this. Merit is not intelligence. Merit is intelligence coupled with social and educational conditioning. I am sure that most of us would have met smart mechanics, odd-task runners etc. and can vouch for the fact that intelligence is not the bastion of the well-offs. Should a probabilistic event like the family of birth be allowed to dictate a person’s life? Should a person be held accountable for the fact that someone centuries back labeled his forefathers as Shudra?

Of course, creamy layer and repeated usage of reservation should go away. For e.g., there was this person at IIMA whose father was a senior IAS officer. This person had been educated at the best of schools. Managed to secure admission at one of the best Arts colleges in India using reservation. And used it again to gain access to IIMA. There were numerous other cases as well. I think there should be a cap on the number of times reservations can be used in a person’s lifetime. It should definitely not be used as a season pass. These are the days when a reserved category candidate uses it for education, job, promotion and his kids as well. I think this repeated usage of reservation by a certain section antagonizes the people who oppose reservation apart from the belief that they are the ‘meritorious’ ones.

And we desperately need reforms in the education sector. Yes, this problem needs to be attacked at an earlier stage in life, preferably at the schooling stage. But this problem needs to be attacked at all stages. Top-down and bottoms-up. But at the top, we need to increase the supply by building better quality institutes so that the pie does not shirk for any section of the society. Something needs to be done urgently here.

I have to have one dedicated paragraph on doctors. Why are they so vocal about their opposition? This is a supply side constraint playing havoc with the futures of innumerable doctors. It is now a part of conventional wisdom that a doctor with just a MBBS degree is not better than a quack, atleast in cities. Villagers are anyway overjoyed at the sight of a bonafide doctor. So doctors invariably have to take up a post graduation. On an average a doctor spends 3+ years after his MBBS before entering a PG program. Some who opt for tenure in villages spend even more. The central pool of seats available for PG in reputed colleges is as little as 2 in Lucknow if you want to specialize in cardiology. Just imagine the fierceness of competition for these two seats. Most of the doctors do not even apply to any other PG course once they secure admission at a college. My doctor friends dreadfully recall the days when they had to go through this tense phase of their lives. When the states brought up the applicable reservation limit to 51%, most of the colleges dedicated about half of their PG seats to the central pool. So that the number of available seats to the general category students do not decline drastically (Central seats being out of the preview of the act then). The new bill brings the Central pool of seats into the fold as well. Just to illustrate, the 2 Cardiology seats in Lucknow comes down to one!!! So you can only imagine the anguish of this set who naturally feels cheated after spending a considerable time of their life to this cause.

But there is one aspect of reservations that I just cannot come to terms with. The political ramifications of reservations make it impossible to have a good execution. Even at an acceptable state of equality in the society (which itself can prove to be a can of worms), no politician would ever have the courage to roll-back reservations. After all, vote-bank politics has no space for extreme logical steps.

The advantages of reservations outweigh the flipsides. We need to ensure that there is a good implementation policy. There should be checks and controls on who is benefiting by the policy. We should also have a stipulated review frequency. At the breach of every such time interval, an iteration to improve the policy and framework should happen. And to Arjun Singh, I urge him to usher in educational reforms at the school level and better infrastructure at institutes of higher learning ASAP!


Anonymous said...

There can be no reservation without vote bank even for most genuine reasons. What convinces policy makers is the language of power. The power of upper castes was what kept non-upper castes away from mainstream.

Prateek said...

What is the point that you are trying to make?

Anonymous said...

If there has to be a reservation let it be economical and not for neta ji seats so we have people that come up on reservation and stay in colleges for 20 yrs.

Why based on caste and creed , next you will have if in sports if a player is from a backward caste for a marathon he can run only half the deignated distance or in cricket reduce the boundary,ridiculous my friend. I have no issues if this done for people who are good but dont have money to oursue not because of caste and creed.

Then if you gie reservation u are accepting that the backward caste( i hate that work cos i dont think anyone is) are not equal.Pity and sympathy towards a set of people will get them no where empathy will