First, the government has decided to go with a blanket 27% reservation for OBCs, with no 'creamy layer' exclusion. This was as expected; anything else would have been a political suicide for any of the parties in the parliament.
While the quota opponents put up a strong and vigorous fight (sometimes in insensitive ways), theirs was bound to be a losing battle. First, they didn't have the backing of any of the mainstream political parties. More importantly, they didn't have time on their side; the government (ministers, top bureaucrats, ...) could protract the proceedings, creating an illusion of forward movement, all the while fully expecting the students to give it up and return to classes. The bureaucrats have all the time and nothing to lose, while the opposite is true for the students.
The students' protests have not been in vain. They have achieved several (minor) victories: the implementation has been postponed to next year, and the government has promised to 'protects' the number of general category seats by increasing the overall number of seats by more than 50 percent.
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The media are already going 'uh-oh' about the current plan to increase the number of seats. They are publishing scary stories about how this will ruin our education system. I am not worried, for the following reasons:
- this increase doesn't kick in all at one time; student population will rise roughly by 12-13 percent every year until they stabilize after 4-5 years.
- Even the initial spurt of 12-13 percent has been postponed to 2007.
- Government is committed to funding this increase; it must be held to it.
Institutions must now look for ways of dealing with the increased number of students, and teachers will have to figure out how to handle larger classes. While I admit that the problems are difficult, they are not insurmountable, and the institutions have one full year to work on them.
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[...]OBCs have been capitalising on a narrative of injustice which is not theirs, and in the process compounding greater injustice. It is a widely known fact that many OBCs are now akin to what used to be dominant castes. Giving them special access to state offices is, in some cases, working against the interests of SCs/STs. While many of the atrocities against Dalits are perpetuated by high castes, OBC atrocities on Dalits are no less significant. It is a travesty of justice to contrive special measures to reinforce OBC dominance. [...]
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit columnist, has argued that among the OBCs, only the truly oppressed (the Most Backward Classes, or MBCs) deserve special attention, but not the others.
Among bloggers, RealityCheck and Confused have strongly argued against quotas for OBCs (while supporting the existing quotas for SC/STs). As Yogendra Yadav observes, OBCs are a vast group with "substantial differences within different jatis ... from different regions". While I feel that Rreality Check (unduly) focuses on the high end of the OBC spectrum, I also realize the danger that quotas may become dominated by a few castes at the top of the OBC spectrum, leaving a lot of the really needy behind.
This implies that this debate and discussion must continue, through collection and analysis of hard data. The government is unlikely to part with information it finds uncomfortable; but we must extract it using every available means: the Right to Information Act, the courts, and the parliament itself.
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Quotas are a blunt tool for achieving the goal of speedy integration of disadvantaged groups into the mainstream. They don't take into account the different levels of oppression -- and the resulting social disadvantage -- experienced by different groups of people. They also ignore other types of disadvantages: gender, urban-rural divide, for example. An affirmative action program that gives due weightage to these factors (such as the plans -- linked here -- suggested by Purushottam Agrawal, and Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande) would be far more preferable to a crude mechanism like quotas.
Having said that, I must add that these other AA mechanisms open up many more variables that would need to be negotiated politically. Also, given the long history of cream-free quotas for SCs and STs, it would be difficult to push -- politically -- for any other kind of plan for OBCs. While I am all for fine-tuned, wonkish plans that are backed by solid data, I also realize that they are dead on arrival when there's no political backing.
However, the final outcome -- choosing a blunt tool of quotas, without a broader consultation and debate -- is disappointing. Here was an opportunity to take a fresh look at reservation, and do it right. This opportunity appears to have been lost. Not only that, the way the government is going about it indicates that it won't monitor how well its quota program is doing. Thus, some vigilance on the part of NGOs and the press (and bloggers, too!) is essential.
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Now that the shortage of educational opportunities is in stark display, this is probably the best time to push strongly for reforms in higher education. See Satya's blog (and, specifically, this post, and the links in it) for great ideas on many differnt reform measurres: private sector participation, strong regulation that demands voluntary disclosure of all relevant information by institutions, accreditation by independent rating agencies, the works.