The argument that social inequality is a thing of the past in this country can be put down to naivety, but the failure to recognise the impact of affirmative action can only be self-defeating. After decades of implementing a reservation policy, India has come a reasonably long way. All the same, the debate on reservation, its impact and effectiveness seems never-ending.
Equalizing Access is a collection of essays based on papers presented at a conference on ‘Affirmative Action in Higher Education in India, United States and South Africa' that was held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Scholars from different disciplines, including the social sciences, philosophy and law analyse affirmative action through varied experiences in the three countries.
Academics who have contributed to the compilation raise no doubts on the relevance of and need for reservation, but at the same time, point to certain inadequacies and contemporary challenges that threaten to weaken its impact. These serve as useful pointers that could help make the implementation of the policy more meaningful.
For one, they point to the absence of penalties to arrest loopholes that are used to evade quota requirements in educational institutions. Secondly, the absence of a monitoring agency or an enforcement mechanism, in addition to the lack of follow up support and remedial programmes to enhance the performance of quota entrants, is a major weakness, as is observed by editors of the book.
Considering the reservation policy's achievement, reflected in the sizeable presence of OBCs, SCs and STs in the Indian middle class, it becomes all the more important to address some of the challenges identified in this book. And in flagging some of those concerns, this book serves as a useful resource.
Bringing in the Unites States' experience offers an interesting perspective that enables comparison. While affirmative action in India and the U.S. might differ in many ways, both democracies seek to address structural inequalities prevalent among different groups.
Despite historical, social and structural differences, the two countries witness similar objections to affirmative action — that it dilutes merit simultaneously promoting a notion of minorities being less meritorious; that the really needy are often left out; and that economic deprivation should be the criteria, rather than ethnicity or caste, in the Indian context. The book does well in rendering these arguments unjustifiable by systematically raising some current realities that warrant the policy, as illustrated in Prabhat Patnaik's paper on the efficiency argument. He argues that even if affirmative action were not efficient, it could still be justified based on its sheer ability to yield a socially preferable allocation of resources.
Satish Deshpande's analysis also looks at the question of efficiency, and suggests that strategies of implementing affirmative action be renewed to suit current challenges and help deepen access, sustain enrolment and importantly, quality.
Zoya Hasan's chapter probes the claim of inclusiveness to see if the policy has actually helped overcome inequalities, particularly in regard to minorities. The story of the IITs, as told by D. Parthasarathy, points to a range of practices that disadvantage some sections of students even today. Rajeev Dhavan's chapter looks at the political treatment accorded to the debates around reservation, by examining Parliamentary discussions. Jayati Ghosh's emperical study examines educational achievements of different caste groups and concludes that if India has to ensure wider and more democratic access to higher education, in addition to reservation, we need more public provision of higher educational institutions, scholarships and incentives.
The essays, together, make for a responsible critique of how the policy is being implemented, giving quite a few points for policy makers to reflect on.
The book also situates the debate on reservation within the larger purpose of higher education itself. While the impact of reservation can be measured in terms of economic success of those the policy is targeted at, it is important to understand that affirmative action also paves the way for understanding and respect for diversity — and these ought to be seen as important goals of higher education. This books is a highly readable and valuable guide for anyone trying to understand affirmative action or the need to retain it as an instrument of inclusion.