Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rahul Varman on reservation

I received by e-mail an article by Rahul Varman a professor of industrial engineering and management at IIT-K. I wrote to him seeking his permission to host it here, but someone else (in fact, quite a few people!) has already beaten me to it! So, here it is, on Amit Kumar Singh's blog; Singh seems to have pruned the article, though.

After a bit of search, I found the version that I received by e-mail (the main difference is at the beginning). This, more complete, version is at Fiaz Babu's Blog: Crap and More.

While Rahul covers quite a bit of the ground that we have already gone over, here is the bit that's new (at least to me):

For the last few years I have been studying small industry clusters, like Moradabad brass, Varanasi silk and Kanpur leather. Put together (all the clusters in the country), they are exporting more than the IT sector and their cumulative employment will be several times of the whole of IT industry. In all these clusters they operate with miniscule resources – small investment, no electricity, forget about air-conditioning, non existent roads, lack of water, and little formal education. These clusters are primarily constituted of these so called backward/ dalit castes and are truly a tribute to the genius that our society is. But in spite of centuries of excellence these communities have hardly produced any formal ‘engineers’, ‘doctors’ and ‘managers’, and conversely these elite institutions have not developed any linkages with such industries and their people.

This brings me to a further question, what do ‘meritorious’ students from these institutions do when they pass out? I recall what Srilata Swaminathan, the noted activist, had said at the beginning of her talk at IIMA in the early 1990s (I at the time was a student there), “I am told that this is the cream of the country, and what do you do, sell soaps and toothpastes (ITC, HLL, etc. were the most coveted recruiters those days)?”. There was hushed silence in a room full of students and faculty. I remember in the mid-90s my sense of disbelief, when I was the placement coordinator for my department, the HR manager of one of the big three Indian IT companies told me, “as long as somebody can recognise a keyboard we take him” in response to my query about what they sought in a potential employee. Remember this company over the years has employed thousands of IIT-IIM engineers - managers. As a child I remember the famous surgeon in my home town, who would first cut up a patient and then renegotiate the price with the relatives, before proceeding with the surgery! Or everywhere around me I find ‘meritorious’ doctors employed in public hospitals, drawing comfortable salaries and doing roaring private practice! You are not even required to turn up in the village health centre even once if you have a rural posting. If the majority of our people usually have to do with the village quack, they would not mind a ‘slightly less meritorious doctor’ coming to take care of them, instead of finding solace in the fact that super-specialised doctors are ensuring that the elite of our country have no wrinkles, and such like grave ailments. [...]

This also reminds me of a recent article in Rediff by Tarun Jain, wherein he says:

Could a more diverse student body work more broadly in the national interest than it currently does? The national institutes produce computer programmers, dam builders and investment bankers, and fine ones at that. But perhaps a more enlightened investment would also produce managers of farming co-operatives and social movements, and young engineers designing check-dams and inexpensive power generators for remote hamlets.

Diversity of outcomes is closely linked with what is taught. "In my civil engineering classes at Kanpur, we never discussed issues of displacement that accompanies big dams, says Shivani Saxena, who obtained a BTech from IIT Kanpur and went on to get an MS from Berkeley. "There is a severe disconnect between the class work and what are the real issues around infrastructure projects. It took me many years to develop a holistic view of my work."

This disconnect comes not just because of the demands of the curriculum, but also because there are very few students who have been displaced by construction projects. How different would the classroom be if tribal students from the Narmada valley also present?


  1. Anonymous said...

    Abhi, granting that all the issues cited are real, how is 'reservation' the answer?

  2. Anonymous said...

    How different would the classroom be if tribal students from the Narmada valley also present? Maybe not very different at all.

    That student may well turn out to be like Dr.CS Prakash, Tuskeegee University, a proponent of technology intensive agriculture and agribusiness. 100 years ago an American farmer fed about 2 people. Today the American farmer feeds probably 1000s upon 1000s?There is nothing romantic about poverty.

    ...and conversely these elite institutions have not developed any linkages with such industries and their people. While the elite institutions may not have, many 'elite' companies have, and for years helped artisans increase their share of value added.

    The claim that some IT companies hire people with no skill greater than the ability recognise a keyboard, is so obviously fantastic that it isn't worth rebutting.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Thanks Abi for that link.

  4. Anonymous said...

    So, how will a poor kid who has never seen a computer be able to become a better computer engineer compared to a rich kid who had a Mac since the age of three?

  5. Abi said...

    Raj: There are tons of questions for why 'reservation' (or, more broadly, affirmative action) is the answer. Questions about diversity, integration, etc. This critique of the current way of doing things by Rahul Varman and Tarun Jain goes straight to the heart of the question about 'diversity'. If you know of methods superior to reservation or affirmative action -- in the here and now, not in some distant utopia -- do let us know.

    Shiva: Spare the sarcasm that implies that the villagers are fighting so hard to keep themselves poor.

    MadHat: You are welcome!

    Barbarindian: Many of the whizkids (particularly the older lot) that have made India an 'emerging superpower' in IT also grew up with no access to computers during their school days, during which time the American, European and Japanese kids were probably playing with their Macs.

    Going by your logic, poor kids can never be good at any technical subject later on in life. A kid need not be playing with high-voltage transformers at a young age to become an electrical engineer designing power plants and transmission and distribution systems.

  6. Anonymous said...

    "In my civil engineering classes at Kanpur, we never discussed issues of displacement that accompanies big dams... And just as well.
    An engineering programme should certainly include courses discussing the engineer's impact on and responsibility to society. But it would be a very poor one that spends all its time talking about the displacement caused by "big dams" (dash it they are all big) instead of hydrology, soil mechanics, and structures. Engineering principles do not require one to "displace" people as one builds a dam. It is value neutral as it should be. For a better idea of the friction between technical ideas and worldly ideals see Arundati Roy's only brilliant work "In which Annie gives those ones," which must have been made when MS.Roy had a sense of humor and could make fun of our self-righteous, know nothing, vela and bekaar "social activism." And BTW how come no one who is struck bny those pangs of conscience ever talks about the ridiculous load factors in our power plants, transmission losses (aka power theft), and free power schemes that have bankrupted our energy sector?

    Srilata Swaminathan - "noted activist"? What's wrong with selling soaps and toothpaste? Between them our FMCG companies distribute their products to 1000s of stockists who in turn reach millions of retail outlets. It is a fiercely competitive field and is truly a pan-Indian project. Providing millions of people an affordable means of personal hygiene helping them look and feel better is a great achievement. Employees (MBAs or not) of these companies that SS disparages have a real job. A management trainee at these sought after FMCG and industrial mktg companies (such as Asian Paints) gets to travel for days on end thru the remote corners of the land, learns to sell stock and collect money and keep the business going, learns to take the pulse of the market, understand local customs, and above all learns to respect customers and their judgement howsoever humble they may be. This can be boring for some but a life of ease and indolence it cetainly is not.

    The Chairman's speeches at HLL AGMs makes a great read and in those grim days of the license-permit-control Raj (not ancient history me hearties) was one of the few things that sounded futuristic, while our budgets drearily plodded on taxing and spending and delivering little. Can you believe it? There was a limit on how many boxes a computer hardware manufacturer could make every year?

  7. Anonymous said...

    Shiva: Spare the sarcasm that implies that the villagers are fighting so hard to keep themselves poor.

    Where's the sarcasm my friend? "Villagers" aren't fighting hard to keep themselves poor. They are fighting hard to get out of the romantic haven our "activists" want to imprison them in. Check out what Chandrabhan Prasad has to say about "activists" and their "...isms".

    "...It'd be nice if society did not need people like me but while it does... I will be right there."

    "We talk of the good of society. Is this society apart from and transcending the good of the individuals composing it?" Nehru

  8. Anonymous said...

    A nice one again.
    We unnecessarily give too much hype to our elite institutes. Its not my intention to deride them, but their student body comprises a very selective group based on entrance tests- and unfortunately that results in people from similar backgrounds. Diversity is completely forsaken.

    Diversity brings in a social consciousness which is vital for our country.

    Coming to technical output of these institutes, I have a low opinion. I reason that it is so because there is no sense of reality amongst academic institutes of India barring the works of few professors. I know you come from an elite institute of India and I have great respect for your institute. But please, look at outside India. Even the smallest of the universities in US are doing great work. One can come up with hundred reasons for telling me why we can't do, but I am not interested in it. It would be nice to hear 'why not?'. Also, out of 280 or odd universities in India only few of them are considered elite. There are many others out there fading away into oblivion. Too much stress on few very institutes is not healthy. May be we should have 20 IITs or more.


  9. Anonymous said...


    Merely wanted to point out that it does not require one to be actually displaced by a dam building to become a civil engineer just like it does not require access to modern tools to become an engineer. All you need is just a little imagination, which sadly the pro-reservation lobby seems to be lacking so much.

  10. Anonymous said...

    Full text of the article

  11. Abi said...

    Shiva: Rahul mentions the 'soap selling' incident in the context of our high-flyers end up neglecting other things which are equally -- if not more -- important. I think that's a valid point to make, without seeming to diss soap selling MBA high fliers.

    If you feel that the villagers are not acting on their own free will, I guess there is no further argument, is there?

    Barbarindian: I appreciate the clarification. Just as familiarity with computers helps one in the process of becoming a better engineer, the presence of someone who is more tuned to the realities of Narmada villages would also help, no?

    Sujai: Thanks for your comment. While I agree that we need many more highly competitive institutions, they should be full-fledged universities offering a diversity of programs, including strong social science programs. Not IITs.

    Albert: Thanks for that link.

  12. Anonymous said...

    Abi, this is Amit and I din't prune the article.

    To the 'curious' Raj:
    Reservation is not the only solution, rather its a part of the entire
    solution. Caste based reservation is one answer because of its transparent
    nature, easy enforcement and its direct relation with the poverty and
    social backwardness. In the sector of government jobs and constituencies,
    where the reservation has been implemented in a fairer way, the effect of
    reservation could be easily seen. The answer to why it has not changed the
    entire situation should be looked within the failure of the society to
    supplement the reservation policy with other measures like land reforms,
    easy loan availability to farmers and backward-caste people, breaking the
    roots of the monopolised (and mostly caste-based) employment sectors,
    improvement of the rural infrastructure, increment of the share of education
    and helath facilities in the budget, making the plans for the people and not
    for the project...

    To the 'romantic' pennanthur:
    Any project/idea/discovery has no value if the causes and concerns of the
    people have not been met. The inclusion of tribals in a classroom will not
    only lead to know the problems in a much greater way but the specific
    solution and experiences of that human being would certainly add another
    valuable dimension. Had the classroom been full of students from a
    particular culture/region/caste/religion, we could feel that the knowledge
    coming in our way is limited. Limited in another sense also, when the
    imperfect solution coming out of the discussion devoid of people belonging
    to different caste/culture/religion/region is considered 'complete'. And
    then this solution is 'imposed' over all the people irrespective of their
    needs and their social behaviours.

    True, nothing romantic about poverty. Poverty, the greatest form of
    subjugation and the most corrupt form of the society, is the greatest
    evil. You understood very right that poverty has no element of romance.
    But it has to be confronted with the direct contact, not by living in the
    air-condition rooms, its ugliness has to be felt by each and every member
    of the society. Then only the person can know how bitter it is. Then only
    the person would be able to think about the people coming from backward
    castes. Its also true that poverty doesn't differentiate between castes,
    but can anyone deny the continuous chain of poverty among them? Can anyone
    deny that ratio of affluents vs destitutes in forward-caste group is more
    or less same of its inverse in backward-caste group? And now amidst so
    much hullabaloo, "history is catching in its own imperfect ways."

    Well, you agree with the worthlessness of our elite institutes in the
    sense of not attaching any linkages with small sector
    industries/clusters/agriculture. But still you don't agree with the same
    worthlessness of elite companies, where most of the decision making posts
    are owned and controlled by the alumnii of the above elite institutions.
    May be you can discard this argument by adopting a general view about some
    basic differences between the two types of institutions. But the reality
    tells the different story, the data suggests something else, the
    interaction with these traditional industries defy all the neo-classical
    arguments, the contribution to the GDP by all these companies paints a
    different picture, the story of conversion of loan taken by these elite
    companies to NPA (Non-performing assets) says a bitter truth, the theft of
    electricity by these monstrous elite companies destroys our basic notion
    of electricity theft by people and farmers. But still you will say their
    importance in the economy and thanks to many for contradicting this.

    And please we need to talk to each other when talking about these IT

    To the 'rich' barbarindian:
    Numerous exapmles could be found how a child prodigy has become a
    mediocrity and conversely from a mediocre to the matured. You need just a
    bit of googling, I am sure we are expert at it.

    To the 'humorous' pennathur:
    Who has a larger share in power theft? Check some PhD dissertations/ books
    in this area. Go to some electricity board/ grid manager, she will tell
    you the truth. Add to it, read something on Enron project and the case of
    profit making Maharashtra board to bankruptcy. Read the history of
    electricity in California and its not-so-desired blackouts.

    Looking better!! now the 'poverty of philosophy' is coming into our way.
    Whites still think Blacks as the 'ugliest' creature of the world,
    'twice-born' Hindus still think the SC/ST/OBCs as the 'sinful' human
    beings destined to live in a piglike condition. Looking better is entirely
    a cultural/social practice. If people still insist that FMCG companies have
    improved the living standards by creating false demands, by exploiting the
    nature, by snatching a million jobs away from small scale and household
    industries then nothing can be uglier than this. More than half a
    population of India living in rural areas, Class II to VI habitants and
    class I slums still use 'daatun', they still use oil/soil/small
    maufacturer's soap(this small manuf. doesn't need any IIT/IIM for selling
    the brannd) or no soap at all. They still prefer home-made pickles (those
    who can afford it) to the packaged product. They have been using it for
    traditions and traditions and now at this modern time they are declared
    uncouth and dirty! Indeed the poverty of philosophy.

    The second aspect which we need to think about is the job creation by the so-called people and institute termed as 'center of excellence'. Jobs are also created by RSS activists, Veerappan giroh or Mumbai Mafia, but we never call them signs of excellence, or do we? Why don't we find the excellence in a Banares Sari weaver, who starts his leraning at the tender age of 9-10 yrs, who is not given a full sari to make until he achieves the true learning skill upto the age of 19-20 yrs, who applies his both physical and mental labor in such a way that even for weaving thousands of completely different designs over his life-time he gets a minimal amount for his subsistence? And ipso facto the employment and linkages of these small-sector industries are much ahead in terms of number than the FMCG and IT sector.

    Again we should talk to each other while giving the government and various tax benefits to IT industry in comparison to the cluster/agriculture.

    Upon the notion of activists, I would only like to say that all the privilages which we middle class people avail like freedom to express our thoughts, freedom to access different sectors with a relative ease (I know many books can be written on these humane privilages) have been the outcome of several movements and its activists. Why don't we do at least 2 or 3 courses in History and Social Sciences to learn these truths, either we believe or not that doing courses in subjects make us 'meritorious'?

    To the 'opportunist' (because whenever they use the reservation in the form of inherited property/jugad/socio-economic-political practices, they never protest, a clear sign of opportunism) anti-reservationist:
    Al last, I want to write many more on the people crying out 'protest ! protest ! and protest!', but could I write well than the poem written by Varavara Rao amidst the heating Mandal-I ? I don't think so.

    Special Thanks to:


    You are born rich
    To say in your language
    ``Born with silver spoon in the mouth’’

    Your agitation sounds creative
    Our agony looks violent

    You are meritorious
    You can break glass of buses
    In a shape

    As symmetric as Sun rays

    You can deflate the tires
    With artistic élan
    While indulgent police look on
    With their jaws rested on rifle butts

    You can tie `Rakhis’
    Even in
    The dark chambers
    Of a police station
    You do not buy bus ticket
    Not because
    Your pocket is empty
    That is practical protest

    The beautiful roads
    Are all yours
    Whether you do a `Rasta Roko’
    Or drive vehicles with `save merit’ stickers

    We are bare-footed
    Sweat-stinking road rollers
    What if we built the roads?
    The merit of plan is yours
    The credit of contract is also yours

    Those exhilarating sixty days, what fun!
    When your cute little girls
    And their daredevil mates
    Were going on a delectable rampage,

    Everybody was delighted
    Parents, their parents
    Brothers and sisters
    Even the servants
    And reporting Newspapers?
    Oh, absolutely thrilled!

    Boys and girls
    Hand in hand
    In protest
    Of buried merit and dashed future
    Going off to a picnic
    O Yaar,
    How heroic!

    You are the marathoners
    In merit competition
    Poor tortoises
    Can we run with you?

    You serve ``Chair’’ in Chikkadpalli
    Sell ``pallies’’ in cinema hall
    Polish boots in Kothi Circle
    Stop a Maruti or Priya on the Tankbund
    To demand agitation fund

    Media persons are `merit’ creatures
    Their camera hearts `click’
    Their pens shriek,
    ``Youthful brilliance’’!

    We are drab faced duds
    Sitting in the stink of dead animals
    We make shoes
    By applying color with our blood
    And polishing them
    With the sinking light of our eyes

    Isn’t the shine different
    When polished
    By someone in boots?

    We clean up your filth
    Carry the night soil on our heads
    We wear out our bodies
    Washing your rooms
    To make them sparkle
    Like your scented bodies

    We sweep, we clean; our hands are brooms
    Our sweat is water
    Our blood is the phenyl
    Our bones are washing powder
    But all this
    Is menial labor
    What merit it has?
    What skill?

    Tucked-in shirts and miniskirts
    Jeans and high heels
    If you sweep
    The cement road with a smile
    It becomes an Akashvani scoop
    And spellbinding Doordharshan spectacle

    We are
    Rickshaw pullers
    Porters and cart wheelers
    Petty shopkeepers
    And low grade clerks

    We are
    Desolate mothers
    Who can give no milk
    To the child who bites with hunger

    We stand in hospital queues
    To sell blood to buy food

    For the smell of poverty and hunger
    How can it acquire
    The patriotic flavor
    Of your blood donation?
    Whatever you do
    Sweep, polish
    Carry luggage in railway station
    Or in bus stand
    Vend fruits on pushcart
    Sell chai on footpath
    Take out procession
    With `Save merit’ placards
    And convent pronunciations

    We know
    It is to show us that
    Our labor of myriad professions
    Is no match to your merit

    White coats and black badges
    Hanging over chiffon saris and Punjabi dresses
    `Save merit’ stickers
    On breasts carrying `steth’s (stethoscopes)
    When you walk(ed) in front of daftar
    Like a heaven in flutter
    For EBCs among you
    And those who crossed 12000 among us
    The reservation G.O.
    Is not only a dream shattered and heaven shaken
    But also a rainbow broken

    Is movement for justice
    On the earthly heaven
    That is why
    `Devathas’ dared more for the amrit

    The moment
    You gave a call for `jail bharao’
    In the press conference
    We were shifted out
    From barracks
    To rotting dungeons
    Great welcome was prepared
    Red carpet was spread
    (`Red’ only in idiom; the color scares even those who spread it.)

    We waited with fond hope that
    The pious dust of your feet
    Would grace not only the country
    But its jails, too

    How foolish!
    The meritorious cream
    The future
    Of country’s glorious dream
    How can they come
    To the hell of thieves,
    Murderers and subversives?

    We read and rejoice
    That function halls
    Where rich marriages are celebrated
    Became your jails

    Ours may be a lifelong struggle till death
    But yours is a happy wedding party of the wealth
    If you show displeasure
    It is like a marriage tiff
    If you burn furniture
    It is pyrotechnical stuff
    If you observe `bandh’
    It is the landlord’s daughter’s marriage

    The corpse of your merit
    Parades through the main streets
    Has its funeral in `chourastas’
    Amidst chanting of holy `mantras’

    But Merit has no death
    You creatively conduct symbolic procession
    And enact the mourning `prahasan’
    In us
    To die or to be killed
    There is no merit

    We die
    With hunger, or disease,
    Doing hard labor, or committing crime,
    In lock up or encounter
    (Meritorious will not agree inequality is violence)

    We will be thrown
    By a roadside;
    In a filthy pit;
    On a dust heap;
    In a dark forest

    We will turn ash
    Without a trace
    We will `miss’
    From a hill or a hole

    Our births and deaths
    Except for census statistics,
    What use they have
    For the national progress?

    We take birth
    And perish in death
    In and due to
    Miserable poverty
    You assume the `Avatar’
    When Dharma is in danger
    And renounce the role
    After completing the job
    You are the `sutradhar’

    You are lucky
    You are meritorious.


  13. Anonymous said...

    Poor Rahul.. checkout

    and also: