In a commentary on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's musings on the eve of the 60th anniversary of India's Independence, Nitin Pai says that India's quest for excellence -- as articulated by the PM -- is doomed to failure. You and I may think that factors such as corruption, lack of resources, "chalta hai" attitude (that the PM himself "despairs of") or religious intolerance and fundamentalism might be among the key factors holding India back. But, no. According to Nitin, one factor trumps everything else: reservation (aka quotas).
... [This PM's] government has done nothing to improve the incentives for excellence. Why would a marginal student aspire to be in the top 5% of the class if reservations guaranteed that person a place in an engineering college as long as he made the ‘cut-off’ for his community? And why would the marginal student in the engineering college attempt to score top grades, when quotas guarantee a government job? And why would the marginal government employee strive for excellence if promotions can be had with far less effort, as long as there is a quota?
If you are a pro-reservation fellow like me, you probably want to go "Grrrrr", and I certainly do. But I realize that I have to go beyond making angry, guttural noises (not necessarily because of this post!); so, I will try to offer some evidence for my side, and leave it to Nitin to offer some evidence for his side.
But wait a minute! I have already given my reasons for supporting quotas. More than 15 months ago, over at How the Other Half Lives. Here's a quick summary: in spite of the 'burden' of reservation, (a) our public sector companies -- particularly banks -- are flourishing in the face of de-licensing and unfettered competition, and (b) the southern states -- and in particular Tamil Nadu, the state with the highest level of quotas -- have also done quite well -- if not better than the rest of the country. Finally, I also pointed out that the dramatic turn-around of our Railways in just two or three years is a clear indication that the primary responsibility for its former state of inefficiency and sloth must be somewhere else.
Nitin goes on to tell us about the private sector:
Mercifully, there is no ‘chalta hai’ attitude in the private sector, especially in those segments that have been opened to global competition. That’s one part of India that is indeed striving for global excellence. But why would a marginal employee in a private sector factory strive for excellence when he knows that it’s virtually impossible to sack him for underperformance. ...
Does anyone remember all these enterprises: Maxworth and Sterling, Malavika Steels and M.S. Shoes, Himachal Futuristic and Pentamedia Graphics, Pertech Computers and D-Squared Software? In a famous article, Swaminathan Aiyar talked about the decline of many enterprises run by the Birla and Modi clans. What happened to these eminently quota-free companies? What caused their decline? Quotas? Or, incompetence, corruption and greed?
Don't get me wrong here. I am not against the private sector, nor am I an apologist for the public one. The simple point is that when our country faces many complex problems, attributing them to One Single Cause is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.
Let me also add here that one could be against reservation for other valid reasons -- for example, the way it is implemented, who gets in and who's kept out, the level of quotas, its seemingly sunset-free status, etc. But to attribute to quotas all kinds of problems is not just sloppy thinking, but also a misdiagnosis of the causes. And that is no help, especially coming from someone writing at a site called "National Interest."
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When I say that the southern states are doing quite well compared to the rest of the country [just a month ago, Outlook devoted an entire issue to "Dakshin Rising"], I am not arguing that they are repositories of excellence. Yet. I am just arguing that they are a lot closer to 'excellence' than the other parts of India. At the least, then, their march towards excellence has not been hindered by reservation. Some might say that quotas actually boosted their economic and social development; but I will take the lesser claim -- that quotas have not come in the way -- since that is enough to counter Nitin's argument that quotas actively harm progress.
[Aside: For an indication of the low morale of the South at the time of India's Independence, take a look at this article by E.V. Ramasami (aka 'Periyar') reproduced in the Hindu special supplement for India's 60th birthday. In it, Periyar used the possibility of domination by the north and its industrialists to argue that the South should secede from India! Even as I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, "Vadakku vazhgirathu, Therrku theigirathu" -- "North flourishes, even as South perishes" -- was a slogan repeated so often in public meetings of the Dravidian parties. Thus, one could argue that the South has traversed a greater distance during the last sixty years (at least on the confidence scale!), much of which has seen pretty high levels of reservation.]