The reservation debate: missing components

V.K. Natraj

The benefits from reservation that might and do accrue to society as a whole are rarely mentioned.

IN THE present debate on reservation for the Other Backward Classes, some components highly relevant to the issue are conspicuous by their absence. A feature common to all discussion on positive discrimination in India, independent of the view taken on it, is that its focus is restricted to only one dimension of reservation. The benefits emanating from the policy of reservation are seen only through the perspective of the direct beneficiary. The benefits that might and do accrue to society as a whole are rarely mentioned. In contrast, in the United States there is a marked emphasis on the contribution affirmative action makes to diversity in academia as well as in the workplace.

In fact, in a landmark case involving the University of Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court once again came down against a "formulaic approach," which adds a booster to ethnic minorities and other groups identified for affirmative action. But where the policy was not formulaic and likely to result in diversity it was upheld. This also explains why some retired generals of the U.S. Army filed amicus curae briefs supporting affirmative action. They did so on grounds of the importance of diversity.

In one of two cases involving the University of Michigan, the majority judgment of the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as one of many factors in selecting students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body" (Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the majority). Another significant observation is: "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."

However, even firm supporters of affirmative action do not countenance quotas and are generally disapproving of any policy that may adversely affect merit. In India, the beneficial consequences of diversity are rarely considered. Many from fortunate backgrounds would gain in social sensitivity from studying and working in a background of "diversity."

I am reminded of a young Indian student studying in the U.S. who said in all innocence that he "discovered" caste only in America and not while he was a student in Delhi. Not unsurprisingly it turned out that all his education had been in elite schools and colleges! The single-minded concentration on reservation as assisting only the direct beneficiary should stop. It is time we assessed them from a wider perspective. This uni-ocular perspective is the result of regarding positive discrimination as a concession to the backward classes rather than as their right and a social necessity.

A second missing component from the discussion is pervasive lack of attention to what reservation has achieved in India. While we suffer from absence of or limited data, there can be no doubt that the portals of higher education have opened out to accommodate pupils from the backward sections. Anyone who is familiar with the higher education scene, especially in State universities, and colleges in smaller cities and district towns, will know the truth of this even without recourse to data. It may be less applicable to `metropolitan universities' and elite colleges.

A related point too does not get noticed. And this has a vital nexus with the aim of positive discrimination. Fundamentally, reservation is expected to be a self-liquidating mechanism, that is to say, the basic objective is to empower educationally those hailing from disadvantaged backgrounds so that over a period of time fewer groups would require discrimination in their favour. It would be instructive to find out how many from castes entitled to reservation secure places in professional education in what is called the general merit or open category. My well-founded guess is that this proportion must be increasing. Incidentally, and contrary to popular misconception, places secured by `reserved' candidates in the open pool cannot be counted against reserved seats. Governmental agencies should take steps to publish this data. That will be an effective answer to those who oppose reservation and regard it as being the chief villain in diluting merit.

A third missing element in our debate is the enormous contribution positive discrimination makes to inter-generational mobility. Quite often the children of beneficiaries would not be in need of reservation. This is an example of the creamy layer, which as A. Vaidyanathan has argued in these columns (May 18, 2006) should be skimmed off. But I might add that we need to factor in the necessity of ensuring that in this process the emergence of leadership in the backward classes is not impeded. Possibly the creamy layer has to be identified differentially rather than uniformly across castes.

I have refrained from drawing attention to inconsistencies in the stand of the anti-reservationists such as their silence on capitation fees since they are too obvious to require specific mention. However, one other issue has to be discussed briefly. The imbroglio on reservation has largely resulted from the 1950s onwards due to the difficulty in determining who constitute the OBCs. Further, some among them have become prominent actors in the political arena as a result of favourable electoral arithmetic. Therefore, even though the proposed reservation in elite institutions is defensible on many grounds, a great deal of caution is to be exercised in ensuring that the policy does not end up strengthening the already empowered. Also it would be futile to attempt a national list of OBCs since the local context including State policies influence `backwardness'.

A final point I would like to touch upon is the plea made by virtually all participants in the debate to the necessity of improving school education. While there can be no dispute about this, can society and the state expect the backward classes to wait for that day to dawn. The message is clear, in arriving at a blend of equity and excellence, there is bound to be some trade-off. It would be advisable for us to admit this and be prepared for it instead of paying lip service to equity and in practice display benign indifference to it.

(The writer is a former Director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)

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