Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Reservation, merit, politics

One of the most infuriating things in the arguments that use 'merit' as the centerpiece is that many of them assume or imply that people who get in through the reserved quota are all complete duds when compared to the luminously brilliant dudes and dudettes in the general category. For an example of this type of argument, see Jeet's comment on my earlier post.

Take the example of Tamil Nadu, where 69% reservation has been a fact of life for at least two full decades. For admission to top colleges, the cut-off marks (I am not talking about percentiles or ranks here; these are raw, unadjusted marks scored in exams of various kinds) for the general and reserved categories differ by just one or two percent [I am sure there is some online link out there that I could provide here, but I have not been able to get one. Could someone please help?]. If, for example, the last student to be selected in the general category (let's call him/her Person A) had 98 percent, the last student in the reserved category (Person B) probably had 96 percent.

There are at least two ways to look at this difference. The first -- and this is the Britannica way -- is to say that Person B lost twice as many marks as Person A did. The other -- the Nature way -- is to say Person B's score is just two percent below that of Person A.

Well, which one would you use in arguments involving 'merit'?

* * *

A second argument that's trotted out is that this current proposal to extend reservation to IITs, IIMs and other central universities is a ploy by Mr. Arjun Singh (Chief Political Officer at the Ministry of HRD) to gain some political mileage for his party. I may even concede this point. However, by crying "POLITICS", these critics seem to imply that there is something inherently malafide about the proposal.

In contentious issues such as reservation (or, tax rates), any choice made by the government is a political one. When I say 'any choice', I am including the choice to 'not do anything at all'. In fact, it's precisely this political choice that was made by all the governments since Narasimha Rao's.

Further, it's instructive to examine how 'political' this choice was. So, let's roll the tape back to the days when the 104th Amendment Bill (the one that enabled the current proposal by Mr. Arjun Singh) was debated and voted on. This is what Satya says in his post:

[The] 104th Constitution Amendment Bill ... was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 21st with 379 votes in favour and one vote against and one abstaining. The Rajya Sabha also passed it on December 22nd with 172 votes in favour and only two against.

Will of the people, anyone?


  1. Anonymous said...

    I will repeat that I am certainly for reservations as a policy.
    But, I think the 98 for OC and 96 for BC argument is very weak.It has been three years since I poured my head into admissions..but i remember the corres number for SC/ST to be ~90. The reason is that the TN State Board exam is pretty pathetic and does not offer any stratification(srinivas said the same thing over at otherindia). Everybody is stacked with no breathing space. And this kind of behaviour does not carry over to JEE, for ex. Being 40 in SC/ST categ is hugely diff(in terms of just JEE performance) from 40 in gen categ. It is not a '8 mark' difference. Now, I am not saying that these people are duds. I am just talking about the preparedness. Just refusing to recognise this gulf in preparedness is not going to help even the SC/ST students.

    And to give an idea about how this numbers game could go out of control, take a look at this. The number of OC students who get into the medical colleges(~1400 seats) in TN is 40. This works out to 3% seats going to 13% of the population. And nearly 50% of the BC students admitted are through OC. And I dont see any politician from the BC community standing up and saying "Oh yes! we dont need 30% reservation anymore..we can probably live with a lesser percentage of reservation".

    I know that the 'number' of medical colleges is only 12. But, the number of colleges (in tnpcee regime)that give truly quality engineering education is about the same. If a situation similar to the medical one exists wrt these 12 colleges (taken alone), should we treat it as being any less serious??

  2. Anonymous said...

    Thanks Aswin for throwing some light on the discussion. The debate on OtherIndia has gone shrill and Dilip is urging loudmouths to calm down.

    Abi, I am disappointed with your reluctance to see things clearly and throw around terms like merit, politics wildly. But this is your forum and you decide what to do.

    Merit first of all is determined at several stages. And in the case of admissions we are talking of merit at the time selection not capabilities. Merit is of course not the monopoly of any community. Race and caste are bogus ideas and IQ is junk science. The reservation guided selection/admission as in India is a merit based system. I can't stress this strongly enough. In every category OC thru ST, admissions are by merit only. Candidates are selected by rank order of marks scored in the relevant exam. Even in the SC/ST category a student who scores below the cutoff mark will not be admitted. A friend's son was sure of getting into the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College in Madras since my friend used to work there at one time. But the Swamiji in charge flatly turned his application down because he was applying in the OC and had scored below the cutoff mark. Finally he had to go to Loyola! Reservations haven't led to this so-called upgradation of standards. It is infuriating to hear this repeated unthinkingly. It is the stress on merit that has raised the bar. Families that have invested in education have reaped the benefits. And in some cases it is the same traditional leadership communities (the so-called "non-forward" communities) that have now come to occupy the top tiers of the OC and BC selection tiers. And that is why there is a demand for more reservations from the communities who are not able to keep pace or those who want to take the educational route to power rather than the commercial/agricultural route. Since there is no reservation at the primary stage (so far) or in coaching classes (!) it is simply a case of families focusing on the one thing that gets them ahead into the better colleges - MERIT as determined by marks scored in entrance tests is used extensively in India as we have not cared to develop the expertise required to use subjective methods. Maybe at the research level other measures are used. You could tell us what happens after GATE at IISc. PG medical courses and the new elite law schools in India too may be using other methods.

    There is also the bigger question of supply and demand. Ultimate opportunities in terms of jobs are limited in India, it being still a fairly rigid bureaucratically policed and controlled economy. There are a few tickets to progress such as a seat in a good engg. or medical college - do you see the emphasis on professions as the job market is narrow and shallow? - neither diversity of callings and trades nor progression of career - and so everyone wants them. Of late with the expansion in the services sector thanks to BPO and research outsourcing atleast the narrow sub-groups (engg. life sciences, etc) are becoming a little diverse (who knows maybe there will be some demand for materials science or civil engg in addition to EE and CS?). But that will be lead entirely by the demands of foreign markets and unless the government throws open infrastructure (and does a million other hard and unpopular things) we will simply be applying a salve here and a patch there. Expanding the enrollment so as to ensure that a few OC non-BC students who are around the BC cutoff mark also get into the colleges they want does not seem to be an exclusionary or discriminatory move. But it is certainly a stupid and disastrous idea where the process of education is concerned. Doubling the enrollment requires more teachers. Did these colleges/institutes really plan to do more teaching or were they interested in incresing research activity? That is only the least of the problems. The long term development of these entities by freeing them of governmental control and ultimately setting them up as autonomous trusts or handing them over to the well-run private corporation trusts is now all but impossible. And of course there is nothing but politics in this. It is simply a repeat of the Weepy Singh gambit to build up constituencies.

  3. Abi said...

    Aswin: I am sorry I wasn't clear in the stuff about the situation in Tamil Nadu. My comments are restricted to just engineering -- the field that I know about. As for medicine, the your comments and links make it amply clear that there is still a huge scarcity (demand-supply gap) in educational opportunity.

    Also, the small difference in cut-off marks I talked about is really about BC/MBC category (which was introduced much later than the SC/ST category which has been around for a long time). I am sorry for not being clear on this point as well.

    I have been on the lookout for cut-off marks for the various categories in tier-1, tier-2 and tier-3 colleges, but I haven't been able to find any.

    One of the serious downsides of our way of implementing reservation is that they tend to just stick around; they are also a little difficult to tinker with. Both these problems are quite evident in the case of medical colleges in TN.

    Shiva (Pennathur): I am not sure which part of my post qualifies as "[throwing] around terms like merit, politics wildly." Perhaps you can explain this a bit.

    Whether we like it or not, merit, as defined by marks in various exams, is what we have now, and what we are going to have for the foreseeable future. At the higher levels of education (Ph.D. admissions, for example), an interview is a part of the process not just at IISc, but pretty much everywhere. In some places, admission to masters programs also rquires passing an interview. At IISc, we have two kinds of masters in engineering disciplines; the first kind (ME) is time-bound (2-years) program with heavy course load, and the other is a somewhat more open-ended (two and a half years is the upper limit, though) program with an emphasis on research. Admission to the latter program requires interviews, while that to the former is entirely through GATE.

    Oh, by the way, it's interesting that you mention the 'shrillness' of the discussion over at 'The Other India'. Someone called Shiva has been a lusty participant in that debate, contributing to the shrillness. I wonder who it is ...

  4. Anonymous said...

    Also, the small difference in cut-off marks I talked about is really about BC/MBC category (which was introduced much later than the SC/ST category which has been around for a long time).

    Sure. I understood that. Did I misrepresent your point? That number for SC/ST is around 90(annauniv site has these details usually in the june-july time). I am just saying that TN state board is not the right sample to look at, irrespective of whether one wants to compare preparedness of OC with BC or OC with SC/ST.

  5. Anonymous said...

    And about the time-bound nature, we should probably have a Supreme-Court administered bound whenever these reservations(in whatever number) come into the picture. TN could be taken as an example. Around three decades of reservation has helped atleast pockets of BC/MBC. SC is the only authority that can rein in our politicians.

    And I feel that all these possibilities should be analysed before bringing in the bill. And the total number of reserved seats must be arrived at through a sociological analysis of how the TN structure has worked. But, with UP elections coming around next year, I am worried if the MPs would pay attention to all these.

    And I just wanted to add another point to the larger debate :
    The spin-off of the media et al going hysterical is that just about every voice against some aspects of reservation is taken to be 'hysterical' by the pro-reservation group. Atleast, this is my feeling.

  6. Anonymous said...


    Contrast this

    Whether we like it or not, merit, as defined by marks in various exams, is what we have now, and what we are going to have for the foreseeable future.

    with this

    One of the most infuriating things in the arguments that use 'merit' as the centerpiece is that many of them assume or imply that people who get in through the reserved quota are all complete duds when compared to the luminously brilliant dudes and dudettes in the general category.

    The main stream media say that opponents of reservation maintain that people who get in through the reserved quota are all complete duds. By not recognising that fact that what we have is a merit based system for all open and reserved categories as you have now done in response to my post; you too have wildly thrown around the term merit. When the marginalised media (represented by vehicles such as The Pioneer) cover the politics of the current reseervation process in detail and you dismiss the issue of 'politics' you throw around the term politics casually.

    Thanks for the swipe :-) That's funny!!

  7. Anonymous said...

    here we speak about the fact that the people who face the fair side of reservation are not duds, but i feel that even when the so called people get in to the institutions which they proclaim, they fail to fair well or to the expectations .. when i am writing this comment, some are discussing about bringing reservations for iits and iim's...
    these reservations are a necessary evil but shouldnt they be implemented in primary level instead of forcing those in the premier levels of the education??????///

  8. Anonymous said...

    Reservation in any form is immoral. Peripheral arguments such as whether people need merit to go to colleges or whether it is vote bank politics is immaterial.

    Personally I think your arguments about merit is BS.

    Please read my blog:

  9. Anonymous said...

    Nonsensical arguments by Abi..

    Why this piecewise approach. Why take one entrance and one last candidate of each category. If he has anything to say it must be on broad based statistics. I can't believe an IISc faculty is showing just one data point. And more than that he comments on the fluctuations in the exam due to poor statistics. So these two are self-contradictory..

    Who cares whether 369 voted or 512.. If all political parties are perverted does this justify that the move was not political? Did we say UPA and only UPA is guilty?