A point of view

Issued in Public Interest: Very long and serious post ahead. Finish whatever it is you were doing first. 🙂

Dipali’s blog led me to a very interesting discussion another blogger called “The Bride” was having on her blog, on the subject of Reservations in Education. Something I feel very strongly against, and have always been vocal about. A few very valid points were discussed in the post and the comments section, and I’m glad she had the patience to host the discussion and reply to all the comments. But my comments were getting longer and longer, and it became quite clear that the discussion got very repetitive after a while, with the two of us not budging from our viewpoints. She suggested I take it to my blog if I had more to say, and so here I am, sharing the link and saying what I want to. Here’s what are the common perceptions/ ideas based on which a lot of people support the concept, and my take on those:

Caste-based reservations redress a social imbalance, because the elite classes continue to do well while some sections of the society remain where they were: This also happens to be the basic premise of reservations, as oft-heard. What it fails to convey, though, is the exact import of the terms ‘elite’, ‘doing well’ and ‘some sections’. To my mind, elite = economically advantaged and there are other ‘sections’ = ‘people living in places that nobody is sure are there on the Indian map, and are also earning less than Rs. 10 a day’ that are not ‘doing well’ = ‘getting access to basic education facilities, and being a part of the educational framework with ease without worrying about 2 square meals’. How did these sections then come to be defined by caste? Let’s for a moment even consider the very lateral logic that most sections of the society that may be living a life deprived of basic amenities are essentially the same as those who belong to the lower castes that are, therefore, reserved. How come then the caste-based group is called the “Minority” while the economics-based group came to be known as the “Broad Bottom of the Pyramid”? Are they lesser than the General category or are they more? Why then, in fact, should we have an SEC (socio-economic class) classification in the Census at all; the caste-based one should be enough? Both these concepts are true, and both are exclusive of each other. There are Jats (reserved category) who might be dairy farm owners in Haryana. There are Rajputs (unreserved category) who might be dying of hunger in Rajasthan. Which imbalance are then we looking to redress? Why take a proxy of social caste = economically disadvantaged? If we need to reserve, let’s reserve seats based on per household income, per capita income. If you cannot undertake an exercise that detailed, take a proxy of tele-density, media penetration, % of pucca houses of the area the student comes from, distance from nearest town, occupational trends: just pick any of the categorizations from the Census, they will make more sense than a caste proxy. Think about this.

They were not wronged once, they continue to be wronged: There is no denying this. There are still water-wells people from certain castes are not allowed to go near and there are still temples they cannot enter. I may not do this personally, and you may not either. But as a collective bunch of Indians, however heterogeneous the bunch, we do it. So no matter if it’s those remote villages that follow these practices, their urban cousins are expected to be compensating in a totally unrelated way (in case you do not understand this concept, think “all politicians are thieves = let’s throw shoes at any one of them = shoe flung at P Chidambaram”. Think “most terrorists were born Muslims = Islamophobia”). So what if that sort of inhumanity cannot be compensated with this particular freebie – we’re doing whatever we can right? So what if someone needs access to clean drinking water today, his son – if he survives – will go to a top class college tomorrow. So what if all they crave is acceptance in the only corner of the world they have seen, their daughter will go places someday.

However, the law and order situation – since it’s irrelevant in this case – will continue unabated. Drinking water will still not be accessible, nor temples. Abolishment of a caste system is not a priority. In fact, the term ‘other assorted backward classes’ will make its way to the Constitution.

Also, very soon, we’ll have another fresh set of ‘exploited’ and ‘wronged’ sections – the urban Indian student, born hale and hearty, to parents who migrated from small towns and worked very hard to keep their neck above the sea of debts, rents, fees and bills and send their kids to school and then college and since it’s not enough to be a B.Com grad today, an MBA. But once that happens, it’ll be easy. We’ll just flip the ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ tags, and then it is Rinse, Repeat.

The constitution allows it, so why make an issue out of it? Why make a fuss over homosexuality being illegal and unnatural by constitutional definition either? After all, it’s just a minority group half of which is not even going to speak up for itself! Why celebrate Delhi court’s point of view on Section 377? Why link up to Gay Parades? Why support our closet gay friends? Because the Constitution is a document we can appeal to make changes in. It’s called appeal for amendment. Simple and beautiful. That is the only way you get your money’s worth for being born in a democratic country. Not by voting in one govt. or the other. Not by flinging shoes when you want. Not because of a free press either. Half of us vote against someone rather than in favour of someone. Those who fling shoes do it because they’re sure this is Liberal India where nobody is flogged to death, instead you’re let off with a warning. The free press is well, free to write whatever crap they want including all celebs’ take on John Abraham’s butt.

Reservations are not the easiest way out for the Indian government to instate an equal ground either, since getting consensus is tough: Considering that the alternative to reservations is revolutionizing primary education, creating more schools, bearing huge losses for the long term and seeing the fruits only once your reincarnation has come and gone, the question of ‘consensus’ does not arise. It’s more about the effort and the commitment involved, than about getting consensus. Effort in reserving seats for any category = propose it for your own caste and (so that it’s not too obvious) a few others as well, be prepared for 3 very long and heated sessions in the Parliament, face the media with ‘all for those who cannot afford’ gyaan, increase Z+ security since charged up students will take to the streets, get the bill passed by a thin margin, ignore opposition’s hysteric ‘virodh’ and finally dispatch the memorandum to all universities and institutes. Effort in improving primary education = work with boring strategic advisors to plan out a fund deployment plan, actually deploy tax collections the way it was intended, tendering, bidding, making it attractive for privately owned conglomerates, making it compulsory as a part of organizational CSR for multi-nationals, monitoring progress for sample projects, and then dying before the program gets where the dream intended it to be. Not so attractive and easy eh?

A large votebank benefits from this measure and therefore, wants it. Why is it wrong for their leaders to provide what they want? I am going to say exactly what I said in the comments section of The Bride’s post. A large votebank wants that female infanticide should not be a punishable crime in India. It’s their children after all, and they can decide whether or not they can raise, protect and marry off a girl given their circumstances. So, we should be ok with a political party that says and provides exactly that. And we should be ok with Shiv Sena throwing all of us outsiders out of Mumbai, because a huge Maharashtrian vote bank demands it. Large Hindu, Islamic, Christian groups condemn homosexuality and even a SECULAR political party can safely make this their agenda and ask that the legislation stays as is. Why does it bother us then? Because there’s a section of the society that is harmed by these decisions and no decision – personal or legislative – can be taken without accounting for the other party.

Students from reserved categories, sometimes, do not do well because they need extra support. Institutions should put in the extra bit to bring them up to the level: Even General category students do not do well all the time. I did not do well in my post graduation. Not as ‘well’ as was considered even acceptably well, that is. Then there were others from reserved categories who did not do well either. And the insti, to its credit, did whatever it could for all of us. Which was really 10% of the effort that all of us needed to make the cut. Because the rest depended on who you were, what you wanted, why you were there in the first place and how hard you worked. And come to think of it, even THAT was unfair. Why should X have a senior mentor or a tutorial with a professor, when the rest of his/her classmates don’t? Someone (an IIT/IIM professor conducting interviews for everyone) thought X was as good as the rest to come attend this program. ‘As good as’ and not ‘Worse’. Else, they would have done a slow track program right from the beginning, or given extra support from the very first day. Because they did that later anyway, so it was never like they didn’t care. So at one point, we were all leveled and the same expectations were put on all of us. Why should X then get a lead on the rest? Why at all? So that X beats the rest? Because the rest are robots that were programmed to always do well at their expensive coaching classes? If X was really not suited to this kind of pressure, then why exert this pressure in the first place?

Secondly, if you’re into a bit of math, assuming reservations were economic class based, you would have a larger set of students to choose from, for the reserved seats. And your probability to select worthy students increases by that much.

‘Merit’ is a flawed concept because merit is the end result of the facilities made accessible to each student: Merit and grading, as defined today, are definitely unrealistic and put pressure on students. But if it was a function of what you have access to and what not, we won’t have any cases of diamonds in the rough, right? Other than that very emotional opinion, let me reiterate another point of view. If coaching classes, proper uniforms and extra-curricular activities (among other things) contribute to a student’s ability to excel, what makes more sense – having more schools or allowing whoever did not have access to these to jump the line and go straight for a post-grad? Or are we saying that we should not select on the basis of merit at all? What alternative do we have in that case? Consider the numbers we are dealing with here, where one student differs from another by 0.0001% and we unfairly call them ‘not good enough’ because we have 1000 applicants per seat, is a more ‘subjective’ parameter going to work? Operationally, a non-numeric approach has major loopholes that will eventually make way for seats being sold, workarounds being found and money winning over merit (in addition to what happens today for only management quotas). The other approach is increase the number of institutes so that the debate itself becomes redundant. But, from what I’ve read, apparently, it’s not the physical infrastructure that poses an issue for that but the sheer lack of people interested in taking up teaching beyond school level. Of my batch of 35 people in college, 5 went for specialization in the subject and 2 went for a doctoral degree – of which 1 teaches now and loves it, but it hurts her that she makes 1/3rd the money any of us make.

NRI and management quotas also exist. Quotas for the physically disadvantaged exist. Why does nobody say anything about that?: The % of quotas in all of these cases are much smaller, and the quotas are not used up fully, as opposed to caste based ones – specially the NRI quota. Also, most government-sponsored institutes do not have NRI quotas and management quotas. The quota for the physically disadvantaged makes sense because it’s not done for reasons of courting huge votebanks. Plus that’s one quota and not many that add up to 25-30%.

A few other points:

  • There are various other things too that put a student on a back foot as far as his/her ability to cope is concerned. Children who’ve lost one or both parents to terrorism, developmental disorders that make children lose academic years sometimes, parents’ divorce, children who are abused, beaten up by their parents / cousins / neighbours – there are hundreds of conditions society cruelly puts millions of children through. Those that become social disabilities in a big way. Specially, where competing in a big, bad world is concerned – how much do we expect a mere child to take? Yet, there are no quotas for these categories, are there? I’m assuming because the question in education is ‘providing access to basic facilities, to as many as possible’ and not ‘compensating for a larger societal problem at hand’. That’s the only thing an Education Ministry can do, like it or not. And that has to do with economic inequality. Social inequalities are not corrected by quotas.
  • Nobody I have met wants to be treated by an incompetent surgeon (coming from any category). We are paranoid about getting the most expensive medical facilities, to avoid such a situation. A less than competent professional pilot? Soldier? Policeman? Journalist? Teacher? Political Leader? We assume that they should have gone through the best training possible and be able to do their noble professions the justice it deserves. We want them to get selected on the basis of stringent criteria. We assume that the institutions put in place a set of parameters to select people. We know there’s a reason some of us cannot be professional pilots. How then can we support that someone be allowed to jump that line? How is merit of less importance when they’re being even chosen for a course, THAN when they become those professionals? Also, why is reservation not okay for these courses, and perfectly okay for engineering and management courses? Because too many people become MBAs, engineers in India? So it’s ok to let 30% seats go to those who were selected on grounds of caste, because volume makes up for value? Why this largesse for only these professions? They’re not life-saving or life-threatening, and do not yield national assets, is it? In these educational courses, however clichéd it might be to aim to be a good MBA/ engineer, students compete with far greater numbers than those for armed forces. Why then do you discount their effort? What exactly are they compensating for?
  • Let’s not contend for the sake of contending. This is not a measure of your capacity for charity or mine. It’s not our territory to be patronizing either. Imagine competition at whichever level you’ve encountered it. School, college, masters, doctoral, children’s pre-school, sports, work – any level. Think of how you feel when someone better than you makes it and you don’t. And now think of what you would have felt when you know the other person didn’t even need to compete with you, and you don’t know whether they were really better or not. The explanation is: you were always far privileged and that you represent the creamy layer. Maybe yes. But there is a chance you were far lesser privileged in many other ways, much more direct. Reservations discount that chance. For everyone in ‘General Category’.

Edited to add: As if on cue, this was in today’s news. You may or may not want to read between the lines.

Here’s the last thing I want to say: Do take my opinion with a pinch of salt. I haven’t posted a hajaar links from credible reports or made charts on regression analyses. Nor am I a political advisor or a strategist. I used to be a student, and that’s my source of information. Do feel free to prove I’m wrong. Send links, write posts and post comments. Comments are not moderated, assuming it will be a civil discussion.