Saturday, May 06, 2006

Another voice in support of reservation

... Is merit the ability to mug up scores of unwanted information from the zillion books and CDs that your parents buy and win a trophy trove in quiz contests? Is merit the ability to belt out the cash for the “competitive – exam” coaching centers? Is merit the ability to have parents who enroll you into posh private schools?? Do any one of us stop to think what we are , is what we were born into? I for one wouldn’t be writing this blog, if I were born to tribal parents in Nagaland, or to a poor weaver in kancheepuram, or a flower seller in Chennai. We really dont know how much of our "success" is sheer luck ...

From this great post by The Soliloquist, who has put together quite a few different arguments for reservation. The sensitive, straight-from-the-heart quality of her writing is impressive. A must-read.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Man is a social animal . And he forms communities to work with , marry ,socialise .

    In the pre-agricultural economy of forest ,communities are tribes .

    In agricultural economies of village, communities are the traditional castes (like you see in India) . Favourable conditions in agricuture through history made castes a widely practiced phenomenon in the subcontinent . Even religious conversion has failed to remove the caste system .Caste clearly follows a different dynamic which has nothing to do with religion .

    In industrial economies of city based, communities are a new “cosmopolitan caste”.

    These three kinds of economies 1) tribal ,2) village(traditional caste) and 3)city (cosmopolitan caste) have fashioned the modern nation as it exists today .Most modern nations are have come into existence during the Industrial revolution .

    Modern nations all over the world have had to grapple with the problem of how to assimilate those left behind in the forests and villages in pre-agricultural or agricultural economies . In India due to poor economy growth the problems are vastly more acute .

    We cannot wish away the existence of these pre-agricultural tribes or agricutural castes and exclude them from our industrial cosmopolitan caste.

    Forest covers are disappearing. The very habitat of the tribal in endangered .

    And its tough to compete with the developed countries Industrial technology based agriculture with India’s traditional pre-industrial agriculture . Take for example today 57 of the Indian population is engaged in non- machine aided agrarian activities, this translates into an Indian food worker producing enough food for himself and a surplus for another Indian.We are still importing food from time to time. Contrast this to US, where less than two percent of American population is engaged in machine aided agriculture or related activities. An American farmer produces enough food for 50 people including himself, with even more left over for export. Therefore the American farmer is very productive and very rich by comparison.
    Agriculture needs water. Water table is receding in India. Today 70 per cent of irrigation needs and 80 per cent of domestic water supplies in India are met through pumping up groundwater through tube wells. But this massively deployed private response to public failure can only be temporary. Water tables are plummeting and aquifers are running dry. Estimates show that 15 per cent of aquifers are already critical and the number is projected to rise to 60 per cent in just twenty years .
    For more read

    With each passing generation inherits ,the share of the agricultural land of each subsequent generation becomes less and less . When each person has a very small plot of land you cannot have advantages of scale .

    Traditional means of incomes are drying up in forests and villages .

    Farmers have been commiting suicide . Naxalites philosophies are attracting a greater following in some jungles. Situation is grim . There remains a large part of population simply unequipped with skill set required to compete in the industrial/service world . We have a tragedy of enormous proportions staring in our face .

    Castes are a form of social stratification from the agriculture economy era . Some castes have been able to make the shift to industrial economy to become a member of the new cosmopolitan caste to a greater extent than others .

    Castes in India are endogamous . Majority of indians still marry within their castes .The sense of traditional caste is weak for the new cosmopolitan castes in urban Indians as they work in industries in these cities .In their case a more cosmopolitan anglacised sense of community has replaced the pre-industrial traditional caste system. This is simply the industrial version of the traditional caste system .Members of this new cosmopolitan caste also practice endogamy . They marry their own kind . And prefer to work ,live and socialise with their own kind . It is an unacknowledged caste in the sense they see themselves above the caste system . “Caste no bar” if you belong to this cosmopolitan caste . Looking through the matrimonial advertisements in news papers or surf through matrimonial sites on the web . You will see right away that those who consider themselves diehard cosmopolitan is miniscule .Most people still retain that weak link to the traditional caste system when it comes to important decisions like marriage .

    What needs to be kept in mind that people prefer to work with their own castes . For example for his medical needs someone from the cosmopolitan caste is not likely to see a general practioner who has poor english skills. In the same way someone who is a say from a tribal village is unlikely to be comfortable with a general practioner who is a english speaking westernised dandy. Where possible people go to physicians who they consider as one of their own, some one who speak their language and understand their lifestyle .

    You see this same division in private sector as well. If you are corporate entity and your company has predominantly members from the Cosmopolitan caste you are likely to reject someone who does not seem to reflect your cosmopolitan culture,especially for the important high profile,high visibilty appointments . Companies call this “cultural fit”.

    Will Azimbhai Premji announce that the next owner of Wipro will not be his son? Will he make that decision on merit ? Why did Ratan Tata succeed Bharat Ratna JRD Tata ? Was he the most accomplished person in the Tata empire ? So you see the cosmopolitan caste reserves the topmost creamy posts to one of their own in a very similar way like the traditional caste system .These posts are very much “Reserved” . If the english speaking members of the cosmopolitan caste fails entrance exams , group discussion, interviews all of which are often conducted in English , then there are always management quotas ,governing body quotas ,NRI quotas ,paid seats within India or paid seats abroad all of which can be accessed with money or influence .

    Owners or management recruiters from each caste almost always recruit people from their own castes .Some one of their own kind . If you do not have enough members of your own caste as recruiters whether it is government or private jobs the entry points into the industrial economy drastically come down. Each caste has its ‘Creamy’ layer .Some castes have very thick layers of cream . Some castes have a thinner layer compared to their size. Thick or thin…. this creamy layer is its entry point into the industrial world .

    This problem is by no means peculiar to India .What is different is the sheer magnitude of the problem .

    Governments all over the world use “affirmative action” to remedy this serious problem.

    Reservations and quotas are a form of Affirmative action.

    What is affirmative action ?
    Affirmative action is a policy or a program aimed at increasing the representation of members of groups that have traditionally been discriminated against. This typically focuses on education,employment, government contracts ,health care or social welfare.

    Just look at how it is practiced in the following countries :

    American President Lyndon Johnson said "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others', and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

    In USA : American President Lyndon Johnson brought in affirmative action by an “excecutive order” . The order aims "to correct the effects of past and present discrimination".

    The order specifically requires certain organizations accepting federal funds to take affirmative action to increase employment of members of preferred racial or ethnic groups and women. Any organization with fifty or more employees and an aggregate revenue exceeding $50,000 from a single federal contract during a twelve month period must have a written affirmative action plan. This plan must include goals and timetables for achieving full utilization of women and members of racial minorities, in quotas based on an analysis of the current workforce compared to the availability in the general labor pool of women and members of racial minorities.

    Regarding Native Americans there are today more than 563 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. The United States recognizes the right of these tribes to self-government and supports their tribal sovereignty and self-determination. These tribes possess the right to form their own government, to enforce laws (both civil and criminal), to tax, to establish membership, to license and regulate activities, to zone and to exclude persons from tribal territories. The recognition confers benefits, including the right to label arts and crafts as Native American and they can apply for grants that are specifically reserved for Native Americans.

    In Japan : there is an informal policy to provide employment and long term welfare (which is usually not available to general public) to Burakumin (untouchables).

    In Brazil :Brazilian Universities (State or Federal) have created systems of preferred admissions (quotas) for racial minorities (blacks and native Brazilians), the poor and the handicapped. There are also quotas for the disabled in the civil public services.

    In Malaysia :there are laws called bumiputra laws which are a form of affirmative action meant to provide more opportunity for the majority ethnic Malay population versus the historical financial dominance of the Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian populations.

    In New Zealand :individuals of Maori or other Polynesian descent are often afforded preferential access to university courses, and scholarships.

    In South Africa : there is a the Employment Equity Act aims to promote and achieve equity in the workplace, by encouraging equal opportunity amongst all workers. It includes efforts to identify reasons for inequalities and change the employment rates of previously underrepresented groups for a more equitable job market.

    In UK: according to the Good Friday Agreement the law requires that the Police Service of Northern Ireland recruit equal numbers of Catholics and non Catholics.

    In Indonesia: affirmative action programs give natives preference over Han Chinese who have immigrated into the country.

    In Macedonia :minorities, most notably Albanians, are allocated quotas for access to state universities, as well as in civil public services.

    In China : there is a quota for minority representatives in the National Assembly in Beijing, as well as other realms of government.

    In the European Union: there is an antiracism directive which concerns the application of the principle of equality without regard to race or ethnic origin. This anti-racism directive, is to be implemented in national law of the member states.

    In Germany :there are programs stating that if men and women had equal qualifications, women had to be preferred for a job. The anti-discrimination law which is yet to pass, aims at improving the protection of minorities.

    Belgium government :proposed in January 2006 a measure that will make some job opportunities available exclusively to immigrants, disabled and elderly people.

    Much of the developed world does believe that social justice can be done by reservation/quotas for those that are discriminated against.

    Dalit issues of India have already been linked with human rights issue in International forum like the UN .

    To repeat what past American President Lyndon Johnson said "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others', and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

  2. Anonymous said...


    The concept of a "CONTEST" is as old as man himself. You can deride any contest on these grounds. Is basketball fair ? Can a short guy ever compete with a Shaq or Kobe ? So should we reserve all point guard positions for short guys.

    WE Indians who do not eat beef (atleast most of us anyway) can never hope to compete in a sport like American footbal. So what ?

    The real issue is : If you are serious about winning a contest - you must be prepared to train for it.

    This is true of any contest - even exams.

    There is currently a furore in the Indian blogosphere- everyone is deriding the very concept of "merit" and "exams of any kind". They want access to scarce public resource without any type of contest.

    Tamilnadu is a case where reservations have looong been twisted. Most of the so called OBCs who are topping all exams (which is a topic in its own right) are from wealthy and powerful OBC communities like Mudaliars, Pillais, and Gounders.

    The central issue is not the concept of reservations itself, it is how the beneficiaries are identified and how the system is monitored.

    While we all agree about the case of SC/STs - and how the reservation system is totally needed for them; when it comes to OBCs it is an altogether different story.

    We should probably approach the courts to make public records of admissions and employment. You will be surprised and shocked that at least in TN, a few OBC communities have been cornering benefits of this system for three generations now.

    Are we ready to talk about reservations in this level of detail ?

  3. Abi said...

    Anon: Thanks so much for bringing in a lot of information about affirmative action practiced in various countries.

    RC: I use the Tamil Nadu example to show what sustained reservation can achieve, without suffering any of the serious consequences that opponents of reservation have been crying themselves hoarse with. Now, if it is your point that it has some built-in injustice, please do go ahead and file a lawsuit! But, don't conflate it with the current debate on whether reservation, by itself, is a good thing, per se.

    In fact, with the Tamil Nadu example, I have a feeling that the program of reservation has succeeded too much! I have written (here) that it is probably a good time for that state to start thinking about rolling back the extent of quota and/or excluding some of the communities/classes/castes that have benefited disproportionately.

    Oh, btw, no one (and certainly, not me!) here is arguing about removing the entrance exams. If I point out how badly they fail in their avowed goal (discovery of merit) -- and if different exams fail in this mission in different ways -- does it mean that I am arguing for getting rid of them? Is it not possible to 'reform' them?

  4. Anonymous said...

    I have written (here) that it is probably a good time for that state to start thinking about rolling back the extent of quota and/or excluding some of the communities/classes/castes that have benefited disproportionately.

    Therein lies the crunch. It is impossible to even think about rolling back. See my post about the current case in SC and a honble judges observation.

    Abi, no one - not even me disagrees with the concept of reservation of upliftment of needy people. Who in their right mind would be opposed to that ?

    The implementation, what actually happens on the street is what gets most of the protestors. What we are told is "take a hit for social justice" - but what actually happens is "take a hit because you are a victim of political divide and rule".

    As far as TN is concerned, I disagree with you. Many of the so called backward classes were never backward to begin with. Yes, even 60 or 80 years ago. All over India, Vaishyas (Banias) and Thakur (large scale landowners) are not considered backward, except in Tamilnadu. So what you are seeing in TN is just those dominant classes shining.

    If we had access to statistics, especially relative performance of individual OBC components, we can have a much more meaninful discussion.