90% IIT-Roorkee dropouts are backward caste: A case against affirmative action?

The revelation that 90 percent of the students that IIT Roorkee gave a second chance to after expelling them for poor performance last month belong to backwards castes (SCs, STs and OBCs) is hardly surprising because the writing has always been on the wall.

Affirmative action (reservation in Indian terms) does give backward caste students opportunities for engineering education in the country’s premier institutions, but once admitted, many of them struggle to cope with the twin-pressure of academics and neglect by a merit-driven ecosystem. Many of them drop to the bottom and, as the Roorkee experience shows, gets ejected from their dream of a high-paying profession and class transition.

 90% IIT-Roorkee dropouts are backward caste: A case against affirmative action?

Representational image. Ibnlive

The decision of the Roorkee IIT to expel 73 students with poor performance (measured in terms of CGPA — cumulative grade point average) was an eye-opener to the condition of many kids who make the near impossible entry into the hallowed IIT campuses. On Wednesday, The Indian Express reported that 90 percent of them were from SCs, STs and OBCs. The proponents of meritocracy will like this statistic because they have long been arguing that technical education is not for everyone and merit should be its bedrock.

The alleged suicide of a Dalit student at IIT Mumbai last year provided a glimpse of the suffering of backward caste students in institutions such as IITs: his performance in exams had been poor, he had uncleared papers for three years, and was a victim of taunts by general category students and even a faculty member. Reporting the case, DNA said that about 56 percent of students at the institution under reserved categories felt discrimination. More over, about 60 percent of them also felt more pressured by academics than the general category students. Their difficulty showed up in their CGPA as well — while the average CGPA for the general category students was 8.09, for the OBC-students it was 6.6, and for the SC/ST, 5.9.

This is a serious problem — governments upholding the country’s constitutional guarantee to a level playing field for students from backward castes, but failing to ensure that they benefit from it. About 50 percent of the seats are set aside for them, but if substantial number of them fall through the cracks — as the Roorkee figures show — it serves no purpose. Even if they sail through, what’s the use of an average CGPA of 5? Will any company hire students with such a low CGPA? A wasted guarantee and opportunity indeed.

This social chasm is not without underlying reasons. An earlier study by the prestigious Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram that analysed the academic performance of all the engineering colleges in Kerala during 2004-08 showed that only 17.7 percent SC/ST students passed their final exams. The corresponding figure for the OBCs was better at 40 percent. According to CP John, a member of Kerala’s state planning board, this was because of poor fundamentals. Reservation helps the backward caste students to gain admission, but their poor schooling pulls them back. “The SC/ST students who come from these schools (poorly run government schools) and get into engineering colleges cannot comprehend what is being taught there.”

This is exactly what’s happening in the IITs too. The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to IITs is the toughest admission test in the world. Although about 9000 students get shortlisted from about 13.5 lakh aspirants, only those within the first 2000-2500 rank can get a good course and a decent location. The rest end up doing undesirable courses in also-ran IITs. This means that only 0.2 percent of the candidates make the final cut. Although this top layer students are extremely competitive, many of them also succumb to pressure and lose out. An anonymous post on Quora categories them as hope, dope and rope. Yes, it’s tragic that a few of them end up in drugs, while some even commit suicide.

In such a competitive environment, reserved category students with limited preparation (mostly because of poor schooling and poor exposure to a fierce exam-based academics) are at a far greater disadvantage, which is not going to disappear until the reservation policy is deepened with a greater sense of purpose. It calls for a system-revamp to ensure that the backward caste students get good school education right from elementary levels (means strengthening government schools and a lot more scholarships) and an additional layer of affirmative action — in the form of extra tuition classes, one-on-one consultations etc — even after they gain admission into places such as the IITs.

What we see now is the problem of an impersonal, quota-based system. Governments and political parties don’t mean any purpose, than wooing their vote-banks, while setting aside quotas and filling them. Every single case needs to be audited and taken to its logical end. And it has to start all the way from the bottom when children are enrolled in schools.

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Updated Date: Aug 06, 2015 11:53:29 IST