Why quotas for promotions are a bad, bad idea

Sixty years after promising job reservations, we are extending this bad idea even further - to job promotions. It's time to abandon it.

R Jagannathan August 23, 2012 15:59:23 IST
Why quotas for promotions are a bad, bad idea

It’s easy to dismiss any argument against caste-based reservations on the ground that it comes largely from the upper castes. But this is an illiberal stand, for an argument should stand on its own – and not depend on who is saying it. One could use the same logic to say reservations are supported only by its prime beneficiaries – and hence suspect by definition.

Now, with the UPA government planning to introduce caste-based promotions in government services, it is time to re-examine all the arguments again. But let me plead guilty upfront to being an upper caste writer – though I deny being overly caste-conscious. If you want to dismiss my arguments for that reason, please don’t read any further.

In the kind of first-past-the-post and fractious political system we have built, bad ideas have a way of expanding beyond their original intent. Since elections are won by tiny margins of votes, no party wants to anger any caste group, howsoever small. This is why barring the Samajwadi Party – which is gung-ho about reservations in general – no one was willing to oppose caste-based promotions when the PM called an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.

Caste-based reservations are an idea whose time has gone. Sixty years was long enough to prove its efficacy or lack of it. But one can be certain it will remain forever. We started with Ambedkar’s promise that Dalits need it for only 10 years, but have found various excuses to extend it forever, and for all kinds of groups, and for all kinds of reasons. From SC/STs, we now have reservations extended to OBCs, Muslims, and even economically backward upper castes. Worse, we are not even willing to ask tough questions of the idea's backers (read here). This is nothing but incentivising backwardness.

Why quotas for promotions are a bad bad idea

Does giving in to the demand for more reservations really help? AFP

Centuries after some backward castes abandoned Hinduism for Islam and Christianity, the latter have not found nirvana. Now they want reservations.

Ambedkar called for the annihilation of caste. What we have erected instead is a complete political and institutional support system for the regeneration of casteism. Indian secularism is supposed to root out discrimination on the basis of religion, but when it comes to caste – another form of communalism – we water its roots and apply fertiliser.

Today, the only forces working against caste are urbanisation (which is erasing caste consciousness in the metros) and the market economy (where talent is what matters, not your caste-mark). Politics is helping and hindering the erasure of caste: it is helping, because in the race to win seats, different castes end their unwillingness to sup with other castes by banding together to aggregate votes; it’s also hindering, because castes become vote-banks that also emphasise stronger caste identity consciousness.

Coming back to issue of caste-based promotions in government services, our starting point, let’s see where the arguments are coming from.

The main reason adduced for giving promotions on a caste basis is that there are very few SC/ST candidates in the higher echelons of government. This is why Mayawati introduced a law in Uttar Pradesh to ensure this, but it was struck down last April by the Supreme Court on the ground that it was ultra vires of the constitution. While some constitutional amendments after the Indira Sawhney judgment (which declared this ultra vires) provided for reservations in promotion, the Supreme Court said this could not be done unless a state could demonstrate that a particular caste was backward and grossly under-represented in a service.

This should normally have been easy to prove, but our politicians do not even want to provide even data to support their cause. So, clearly, this is not about giving SC/STs a helping hand against discrimination, but a political ploy to further complicate the reservations issue. Mayawati wants this small caveat squashed through a constitutional amendment that guarantees reservations in promotions with no riders. The rest of the political class, with Dalit vote-bank politics in mind, is willy-nilly acquiescing in this gameplan.

In any case, the question really is this: why are the SC/STs under-represented in central and state services despite 60 years of reservations?

The answer is counter-intuitive. Government jobs usually go by seniority upto a point, and then by merit. The reason why so few Dalits are up there near the top is that their average age of entry is around 29-31, when other candidates enter in the range of 24-26. Little wonder they lose on the seniority criteria.

The solution is clearly not reservations in promotion, but lowering the age of entry of SC/ST candidates in the administrative services. What the government really needs to do is focus on getting younger Dalits to enter the services through quotas, whether by giving them better mentors, or spotting them earlier, or financing better for pre-test coaching, or some other means.

The second argument pro-reservationists use is that the merit claim of the upper castes is bogus. This is both right and wrong. It is a good point to make – but also beside the point. In competitive exams like the IIMs’ CAT or the IITs’ JEE, what is being tested is a certain kind of narrow intelligence, and no less a person than Infosys’ ex-chairman NR Narayana Murthy has criticised the quality of students the IITs are now getting via the coaching classes route. It is also a moot point whether maxing CAT makes you fit to be a manager – after being processed through an IIM. SC/STs, with no resources to attend coaching classes, clearly don’t face a level field here.

But what is the real argument here? One, that merit may be wrongly defined, and that, gaming the system by attending coaching classes is not the same as merit, for which SC/STs should be excluded.

Nobody is saying that merit is not important; just that what is now considered merit may not be real merit. There is no substitute for competence. We can always redefine what constitutes merit, and use other yardsticks to avoid this kind of bias against Dalit candidates. But the argument for promotions, and reservations based on caste, and not merit, is clearly without merit.

A third argument is to say, “see, it already works.” In TV shows, we often find Dalits saying that they would never have made it without reservations. The case of Tamil Nadu (where reservations now are close to 69 percent, despite a Supreme Court order capping it at 49 percent) will also be trotted out. See, here is a state making progress due to reservations.

Of course, if you do give me a job, I will say it works for me. Very few interviews are conducted with Dalits who made it even without reservations. This is a selection bias in the sample which talks of reservations.

I doubt if any serious experimenter would accept this logic. The only way one can prove that quotas work better than no quotas is by comparing two states which undertake opposite policies – one through reservations, and another through mere voluntary affirmative action coupled with growth-oriented, employment-generating policies that benefit everybody.

So when anyone in India says reservations have worked, the answer is that they have no proof. We know a medicine works only when we can show a placebo given to another control group does not work. If the placebo works as well, then the medicine is worthless.

So there is no compelling reason to claim that reservations work – for we don’t have a placebo case where there was no reservation, and the system worked just as well, or even better.

I would conclude thus:

It is time to abandon quotas and substitute it with a time-bound affirmative action programme.

To give Dalits or OBCs or even Muslims the opportunities that they are justly entitled to, we need to create alternative programmes that allow states, government bodies or even private organisations to do it differently.

Rather than embedding a proviso in the constitution that ensures reservations in promotions, what we need is a constitutional amendment that will give any state or institution currently subject to reservations a 10-year window in which to try out alternate affirmative ideas and plans, subject to periodic reviews.

At the end of 10 years, if the plan is a flop, the amendment can be made to automatically lapse and compulsory reservations mandated instead.

It is time for India to take the road not taken to help the classes that have been most discriminated against. The worst baggage our Dalits carry is the stamp of mediocrity writ large on their foreheads all their lives, thanks to mindless quotas.

If Ambedkar could do it without reservation, it is downright insulting to argue that all his followers are so incapable that they deserve reservations.

Indians need to have the courage to admit that quotas may be mere placebos – they are not the cure for social backwardness.

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