After Patel agitation, here's how to clean up the quota mess

When economically strong groups like the Patidar Patels of Gujarat demand reservation, it is clear that quotas have become an end in themselves. The system will atrophy into pointlessness when everybody thinks he is entitled to special treatment.

One of the reasons why we always end up with sub-optimal solutions to any problem in India is that we simply refuse to define what we want to achieve, and equally adamantly refuse to measure the success of policies that we are advocating. And when we do measure something, we measure the wrong things.

 After Patel agitation, heres how to clean up the quota mess

Hardik Patel along with other protesters. PTI

This is the clear case with caste-based reservations and quotas in jobs and educational institutions. Advocates of quotas – fake Left liberals or caste-based political parties – blandly assert that quotas have helped Dalits and other backward classes (OBCs). However, we still have not done any serious study to confirm if the reservations for SC/ST have actually helped or have merely entrenched caste in all spheres of life. We do not know if the benefits outweighed the costs.

It is not enough to say that the percentage of SC/STs in government service is up by such and such proportion compared to 1947. Reason: we can assert that reservations have worked only if there is another comparable situation where nothing was done to help SC/STs and how they fared in that case. If we don’t study both cases, we can’t say whether quotas have helped or not.

Another thing we don’t measure is whether there is any downside to reservations over and above the plus factor of there being more Dalits and OBCs in government. Does the fact that we have recruited and promoted several disadvantaged caste groups enough in itself, or does some other thing have to be measured? Has reservation improved inclusiveness in society, or has it worsened the issue?

More questions: Has reservation created a new segment of upper class SC/ST and OBC groups who are now inimical to the interests of their less fortunate caste brothers and sisters? Has OBC reservation make discrimination worse for Dalits, as appears to be the case in Tamil Nadu, where political power is not in the hands of the upper castes, but the anti-Brahmin Dravidian parties? At what point does discrimination in favour of disadvantaged castes become counter-productive overall, leading to reverse forms of discrimination? And what is the measure that will tell us that there is no further need for reservation?

Another question arises over what is the most effective means of helping the disadvantaged.

We have straightaway concluded that quotas are the only way to help the socially and economically backward, but there is no evidence that this is true. Why shouldn’t the disadvantaged be helped by free scholarships, discounted loans, and effective mentoring instead of being offered the crutches of quotas? Why have we not even tried out pilot projects to establish what works better?

And then we have the stupidity of what we measure. In the run-up to the Bihar elections, Lalu Prasad and other OBC politicians have been vociferously demanding details of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC). They obviously believe that the census will show a larger proportion of OBCs in the population, so that they can demand more reservations.

However, even this kind of number-crunching is counter-productive when powerful caste groups – like the Patidar Patels of Gujarat – demand reservations by declaring themselves backward. Presumably, the SECC 2011 will show who is really backward both in terms of social and economic status, but politicians being what they are, they are unlikely to allow this data to be used to exclude castes or groups from reservations. Politicians never allow data to interfere with their vested interests – unless the data supports their politics.

Sensible ways to end the phenomenon of people gaming the reservation system could include the following:

First, expand supplies of good schools and universities by opening up the market for education. Free tuitions and scholarships should be offered on a sliding scale of subsidies for students from SC/ST and OBC groups, with the former getting more subsidies and the latter less. Politicians never do this for without shortage they cannot collect rents from promising quotas.

Second, allow private parties and even states to try out experiments in affirmative action that involve offering mentoring and financial help to the backward classes in education, but not job quotas. If this works better, the results can be used to justify the gradual elimination of quotas.

Third, create an apparatus to continuously monitor and measure how various castes, communities and ethnic groups are doing before and after quotas. We need long-term longitudinal studies to check if quotas work (and how much) or if they don’t. If they actually work, they can even be strengthened or expanded. It will not affect the rest of the castes because supply of good institutions is to be expanded for everybody.

Fourth, income cutoffs for castes entitled to reservations must automatically be raised every three to five years, so that only the genuinely needy are benefited.

Fifth, keep records on community performance on admission tests and jobs. Communities that consistently get more than their share in population in educational institutions and jobs obviously don’t need quotas.

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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2015 11:20:55 IST