Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Travesty or Social Justice

The HRD ministry has issued a notification mandating 27% additional quota for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in higher education. This will take the overall reservation to institutes like IITs and IIMs to almost 50%. Now in an increasingly competitive scenario (Typically for 1300+ seats at the IIMs more than 1,75,000 people appear) this is obviously a shock for students from the general categories. On a gut feel a very small percentage of people appearing for CAT would come from the OBCs.

Reservations in Perspective
The fundamental concept of reservation is seemingly to bring the oppressed or exploited communities to the mainstream. For decades, we have reservations varying between 20% and 50% depending on which state one belongs. We need to examine the result of reservations of these decades for a better perspective of the concept.

For want of any organised study on this subject (at least none that I know of) lets make some informed gut feel guesses. I am sure one can feel the all so palpable presence of people belonging to these communities (SC/ST and OBCs) in almost every walk of life. These communities who were once considered to be at the services of the higher castes have learnt to assert their rights and to stand up to upper caste “exploitation”. One may feel their assertion is rather crude, but it is very much present. One can mock at the styles of Laloo Yadavs and Uma bhartis of the world but they can no more be ignored – far less be expoited.

It is to be accepted that reservation has been one of the enablers of this revolution. Reservations created role models to communities from within oneself. It also helped develop confidence in these communities – some might argue that to be over confidence. I am remembered of my college days when some of my fellow students belonging to SC/ST/OBC categories used to sincerely study for days and nights asking for help from fellow students like me and would still find it difficult to pass – but they would try and would eventually make it.

The point is – reservations has made a difference to the lives of these people. Their aspirations and confidence has grown. They have started to stand up to their convictions which is often seen as opposing the other (intellectual high caste perspective).

The Merit Angle
The strongest argument against reservation is that of punishing merit.
On a rational ground this argument is impeccable. A quota system by its definition is unfair. But the logic is we are trying to compensate for another unfair act of society. It is difficult to digest but is the truth. There is really no answer to the question why am I the victim?? Someone always is – these communities have been a victim for decades. We react very strongly to such unfairness in the system – but our system is unfair in many other ways to most people – may be we did not feel that so much because it affected our lives the least. There is increased acceptability of women reservation – why??
And if that’s OK whats wrong with reservations of OBCs.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying these wrongs justify another. The point is this – “Reservations is one of the ways we can and do address the problem of uplifting classes”

There is increasingly a problem of classes not being same as castes any more – that needs to be addressed.

The Extent of Reservation
Another problem with reservations is the extent to which it is offered in our country – thanks to a supreme court directive – it does not cross the half way mark. Yet 50% is incredibly high a figure to be reserved. Sure, no arguments here – we go unnecessarily high on reservations. If the idea is to help the communities we need to provide incentives to the initiated not to provide them crutches. Invariably what is happening is we are unable to find enough deserving candidates to fill the reserved seats. We then make a mockery of the system by relaxing the rules of admissions further for these reserved categories – making the system not just unfair but unjust.

The Political Angle
The problem, as always, lies in the politics of reservations. Vote banks and not rational economic sense governs decision making in Governments across the world. By offering specific castes sops of these kinds politicians aim at the next elections. It’s the same for all parties – check the return of BJP/Advani to the hindutava chant. Politics is also the reason why reservations will stick with us far beyond the time of its need or relevance.

Obviously in our country we do not need caste based reservations any more. We must switch to class based on economic criteria for reservation. Alas that will not happen till the time we as a country will keep voting along caste lines.

We are responsible for the mess?
How can we balance the need for upliftment of socially backward classes and that of fair play. In a democracy the only solution is voting. Till the time the educated, the middle class, the semi urban and urban population and the intelligentsia comes out to vote – reservations in its current form, like other anomalies in our system, is a reality we have to live with. We do not need revolution or a revolt to handle it – we need close to 100% voting percentages in elections.

Make the politicians feel that you will respond to their decision making and they will learn to take care of your thoughts and feelings as well. On a hot summer day, in the convenience of your cosy room if the thought that “how does it matter if I don’t vote” crossed your mind then you are crying over spilt milk – when politicians make such decisions as caste based reservations.

The Way Forward
In the current context, I feel there is no point fighting for a roll back – that can only increase tensions and further division among caste lines. We must work towards achieving clear definitions of deserving candidates under various categories. We must also aim to achieve a firm commitment from the Government that the criteria cannot be relaxed in case the seats are not filled. Further, such seats then can be filled by deserving candidates of general category. This will ensure an effective rate of reservation which is much lesser then the current proposed and also would have enough cushion for the deserving candidates from the backward castes.

What say you??