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Arvind Kejriwal's 85% quota for locals in Delhi colleges undermines India's diversity, will deny quality education to brightest

I grew up in Allahabad. In the final year of school, I had my nose to the grindstone pretty much all the time. This was a quarter of a century ago. My incentive for studying so hard was to get out of Allahabad at the first opportunity that presented itself. The local university, where my father taught, had slipped into decline. But more than that, I was the frog who wanted to jump out of his pond and explore the mainland. At the age of 16 or 17, one wants to ‘see the world’, sample a new city, make new friends.

 Arvind Kejriwals 85% quota for locals in Delhi colleges undermines Indias diversity, will deny quality education to brightest

Representational image. Getty images

The AAP has done excellent work in Delhi especially with regard to education and government schools. Much of the credit goes to Atishi Marlena who, in her role as advisor to Delhi’s education minister, Manish Sisodia, has brought about a 360-degree transformation of the government school experience. The vastly improved CBSE class 12 results—the best in 21 years— are proof.

In many ways, this signals a return to a post-Independence golden age. My uncles and aunts on the maternal side studied in Bombay’s municipal schools in the 1950s. The schools were close to home and easy to get admission to. They were sympathetic to financial needs. Municipal schools imparted an education that was on par with that offered by private schools. One was not in any way handicapped in the race of life—of careers and opportunity— that was to follow school.

The recently released AAP manifesto promises, among other things, 85 percent reservation for local students in all Delhi colleges. Justifying the decision, party chief Arvind Kejriwal said: “Our children do not get admission in colleges even after they secure 90 percent marks. If we get full statehood, then 85 percent of seats in colleges would be reserved for students after they pass Class XII from Delhi.”

It’s an idea that has been around. In 2016 the Bombay High Court had upheld the Maharashtra government’s domicile policy reserving 85 percent of seats in medical colleges for students who had taken the Maharashtra school board’s exam, in the process overriding NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Test) results. Other states too have similar rules, prohibiting students from ‘outside’.

It’s not a good idea for many reasons. For one, it prohibits an Indian citizen from accessing (educational) resources in her own country. While Indians flock to foreign universities in droves, they erect barriers around their own institutions.

If I were to apply for college today in the projected reality that AAP promises, I probably wouldn’t stand a chance in the 15 percent open quota. I would have to stay in my Allahabad pond and make the most of it. Those in Delhi will still be drinking lemony banta with the same friends they went to school with.

Marlena, like me, went to St Stephen’s College. I’m sure she’ll agree that what made the college unique was its cosmopolitanism. A lot of one’s education happens outside the classroom when one meets students from across the country. We Indians even have a word for it: ‘exposure’.

One hears dialects and languages one has never heard. In a country like ours, with its thriving plurality, college or university is the first time we become aware of the depth and diversity of Indian society.

It has its comic moments, like the student from Madras who was disallowed from entering the St Stephen’s dining hall because he was wearing a lungi. It also has its serious moments. One night I woke up to see my Naga roommate doing push-ups. He looked angry. He was going to attend a rally at Jantar Mantar the next day.

When I asked him what happened, he said: "I am Naga, not Indian." To calm him down, I said I agreed with him; to show my support I partook of some of his delicious smoked beef, which he kept in a jar in his cupboard, hidden behind a stack of clothes.

It was in my college that I met Mallus and Bongs and Biharis and Jats and Tamilians and Kashmiris and Assamese and Khasis and Phoms. One became aware of the seven sisters of the North East of India. One became aware of caste and class and religion and tribe—how it mattered and how it didn’t.

I figured out the different types emanating from different schools. Kids from Modern School, Vasant Vihar, were filthy rich. If you went to Modern Barakhamba, it was likely that your parents were in the IAS. Those from Sardar Patel and Rishi Valley had an intellectual bent; Mayo, Ajmer, produced the jocks. DPS provided the assembly-line conveyor belt, while students from Air Force Bal Bharti, Lodi Road, were the friendliest. The Doscos were always the misfits, coming to terms with the new normal, still coming down from the high of Charbagh, their beautiful campus in Dehradun, where I would later teach for three years.

‘Outsiders’ should not be seen as posing a threat. In doing this, AAP has started sounding like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Reserving seats for locals, and stopping the influx of talent, only leads to universities becoming moribund parochial hellholes. The college experience—a once in a lifetime opportunity, is diminished significantly. Like the national cricket team, college is an opportunity to experience the vastness of the country first hand.

Experience shows that academic standards slip when universities close themselves off to the brightest and the best. They suffer from a loss of prestige. They are not constantly renewed and refreshed by new talent. Imagine Oxford University limiting its intake to those who come from Oxfordshire County. Will it continue to remain a world-class institution?

The solution to everyone getting 99 percent in their boards (and not getting admission) lies in fixing our exam system and marking regime, not in blocking access to Indian ‘outsiders’. Delhi students themselves will be the more experientially and intellectually impoverished for this.

The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation and the editor of Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays

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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 20:21:41 IST