Sushma Ramchandran

Domestic industry cannot divorce itself from the social environment within the country. However, it may be counter-productive for the Government to lay down the law in the sensitive area of human resource for the private sector.

CORPORATE INDIA is disturbed over the latest remarks by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at one of industry's annual conclaves. The first worrying comment for India Inc. was the suggestion that the care of environment and rehabilitation of the dispossessed should be taken up on a priority basis by industry. The second and even more startling statement was the need to "broad base employment" and move towards "affirmative action" to include backward sections of society in recruitment by the private sector.

The immediate response to these suggestions has been sharp with Wipro chief Azim Premji insisting that high quality of human resources is essential to meet global demand for services in the infotech sector. Similarly, the new chief of the Confederation of Indian Industry, R. Seshasayee, has firmly opposed the concept of "mandatory reservation" for backward classes. Even so, despite the vocal opposition to the idea, the chamber has decided to set up a committee headed by Tata veteran J.J. Irani to consider the quota issue.

While the Prime Minister has virtually set the cat among the pigeons in the corporate world on the reservation issue, the other aspect of environment and rehabilitation of displaced workers due to industrial projects will also assume grave proportions in the days to come. With the Narmada Bachao Andolan having gathered greater strength in recent weeks, the voices of the dispossessed are being heard more loudly even in the normally apathetic corridors of power. The report of the United Progressive Alliance Government's Group of Ministers on the tardy progress in rehabilitating those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam has come as an eye opener. Chief Ministers are now seeking to deny that the situation is as bad as has been portrayed in the report.

There is no doubt, however, that the report and the NBA's agitation to prevent the height of the dam being raised have served as a wake-up call even for those who are pro-economic reforms and view the dam as a vital infrastructure project needed by several States. The complete inability of the State Governments concerned to provide rehabilitation in time to those affected by submergence is surprising, given the considerable lead time available. The question that must be asked is whether State Governments are prepared to care for the dispossessed within their boundaries or whether the interests of weaker sections must always be subservient to infrastructure projects.

The Prime Minister has sought to put the onus for rehabilitation issues on private industry as well since it is involved in many giant projects. The executive alone, he has indicated, can no longer carry this burden and industry must take environmental issues into account while planning investments. The concerns of those displaced by large industrial projects will also have to be the responsibility of those implementing them, be they in the public or private domains.

The other key question is whether those affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam have tasted the fruits of the country's higher economic growth. Is it possible for an eight per cent growth rate to completely bypass huge segments of the population, and provide benefits only to the urban middle class, is an issue we must all ponder. It is here that the issue of providing support to the displaced links up with the other proposal for providing reservation in private sector jobs for backward segments of society.

The contentious quota issue is really part of a wider problem of the growing divide between rich and the poor in this country. The gap has always been wider here than in other Asian countries such as China. The rapid improvement in income levels in urban areas has further extended this divide leading to social unrest, expressed in many areas as naxalism or other forms of extremist movements. The progress in uplifting those below the poverty line seems to be moving far more slowly than the rapid impact of reforms in urban areas. The growth of affluence has been palpable in the metropolitan areas of the country. The rise in employment as a result of the call centre boom is certainly a positive development to meet the needs of millions who graduate as potential educated unemployed from the country's schools and universities. At the same time, there has not been a matching rise in employment opportunities in rural areas. The net result is the current widening chasm between the rich and the poor.

Whether quotas for backward classes in the private sector will help bridge the gap is an issue that needs to be debated and discussed for some more time. The proposal for introducing a quota for OBCs in premier educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology or the Indian Institutes of Management has already begun agitating young people. A suggestion to extend such quotas to private sector recruitment is bound to create more unrest. It is, however, only a logical extension of a policy that already exists both in the government and the public sector. There has so far been no agitation over the existence of such quotas for employment in these segments of the economy and these have always been accepted unquestioningly. Neither has the government nor the public sector ever been faulted on efficiency issues because there are quotas for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The reasons for inefficiencies and failures of performance in the government have been attributed to the lifetime employment policy, which gives prospects of complete job security without any matching performance requirements. Similarly, the ills of the public sector enterprises have been mainly due to lack of autonomy rather than the special job quotas.

It may thus be advisable for private industry to approach the issue as the Prime Minister has suggested, in terms of "affirmative action," rather than to view it as "mandatory reservation." The principle of affirmative action has been accepted all over the world. Even in the U.S., such special measures to increase recruitment based on gender as well as race are adopted in most educational institutions as well as corporates. It may well be argued that the quota percentages in this country are too high and need to reconsidered. At the same time, domestic industry cannot divorce itself from the social environment within the country. The centuries of discrimination against certain sections of society have affected both their economic and social status. Even the private sector will have to play its role in making an effort to redress these societal imbalances.

Strengthening basic education

It may be counter-productive, however, for the Government to think in terms of laying down the law, literally, in the sensitive area of human resources for the private sector. As a leader in the information technology industry Mr. Premji has candidly pointed out, it has been possible for India to meet global demand by providing an international level of employees to implement projects. A rigid mechanism of job reservation may adversely affect industries that need to be at the cutting edge of technology in order to maintain global standards. In fact, the government really needs to look at the other end of the spectrum to provide better educational opportunities for backward segments of society. A beginning has to be made in primary and secondary education where even now large numbers are dropping out of schools. The lacunae in the mid-day meal schemes are well known by now and it has been widely recognised that better implementation of these schemes will ensure much lower dropout levels in elementary education.

Unless basic educational facilities are sound for those at the fringes of society, it will not be possible for them to make it up the ladder to reach institutes of excellence such as the IITs. Even quotas may not suffice, as the recent turmoil over Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh's proposal for OBC reservation in higher education has thrown up stories of cases where students taken in through quotas have not been able to finish the course. For some reason, HRD ministerial incumbents have a penchant for looking more closely at higher education issues rather than elementary and secondary education. This is an area where much more work needs to be done to provide simply the most basic of education facilities for children both in rural and urban areas. While Indian Ministers may like to speak more about the IITs and the IIMs, the former Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, on a visit here several years ago, pointed out that China was far ahead of India in terms of providing primary education to its people. He had then observed that this was where the focus was needed for India rather than on its admittedly excellent institutes of higher education.

In any case, the comments by Dr. Manmohan Singh clearly indicate a recognition that private industry has now reached a stage where it needs to take on more social responsibility. In the past, it was the public sector that was given this onerous role and most public sector units had a very specific "social role" to be included as part of their mandate. With the liberalisation of the economy, this mantle has to be donned by the private sector since it has been freed from controls. As always, freedom has to be dealt with maturely and, in this case, it means taking on the burden of social responsibility.