Quota conundrum: Nitish Kumar's demand on increasing reservations may not lead to empowerment

After becoming the JD (U) President last Saturday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has demanded not only raising the limits of reservations beyond the 50 percent limit for the SC, ST and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in education and the government jobs, but also extending these provisions to the private sector jobs. It is not surprising that Nitish Kumar, a product of OBC politics, is making this demand. This is a demand which has been periodically made by all the OBC leaders. Their point has been that the quantum of reservations should be dependent on the number of the people to be benefited; that means that if the combined population of the SC, ST and OBC in the country is 75 percent, then reservations for them should be of 75 percent. That the OBC for them has nothing to do with backward “classes” but everything to do with intermediate “castes” is a different matter altogether.

In a sense, this demand is the logical outcome of the recent recommendation of National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) that legislation be passed under which private entities, including businesses, hospitals, schools, trusts, etc. will have to reserve 27 per cent of jobs for OBCs. It is important to note that this recommendation has not been opposed by any political party that matters in India today. The Communists have wholeheartedly supported it. The ruling BJP and the principal opposition Congress party want a national debate over the issue, but there is a difference between the two. While the Congress has not indicated its thoughts on the issue, the BJP sees a "valid ground" for reservation in private sector “only after creating a conducive atmosphere” as it "should not be imposed." A BJP spokesman is on record to have said that “there is valid ground for working towards making a conducive atmosphere as private sector gets many government concessions, including tax rebates and infrastructure like land and water at a concessional rate”.

 Quota conundrum: Nitish Kumars demand on increasing reservations may not lead to empowerment

Nitish Kumar. File photo. PTI

With the idea of furthering reservations becoming a “holy cow” for Indian politicians, it is no wonder that many communities want to be “desanskritised”. “Sanskritisation”, a term espoused by the great Indian sociologist M N Srinivas, denoted the process by which castes considered lower in the hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. But now 'upper' castes want to come 'lower' to become SCs, STs and OBCs. Gurjars in Rajasthan demand reservations as part of the ST quota, and Jats in Haryana, Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh, Patels in Gujarat and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh want OBC privileges.

Where has this quota politics taken us? Quality and efficiency have become big casualties. So much so that I came across this story recently—a leading champion of quota politics, who is a member of Parliament, went to a hospital for a checkup, but insisted that he should not be checked up by a doctor who has got a job through quotas! In fact, the day is not far off when people will avoid doctors and engineers and students will not opt for courses taught by professors if they have come through quotas.

Secondly, the implications of the demands that every community must have reservations in proportion to its actual number are that those who opt for smaller families are punished, not rewarded. It will also mean that talent and hard work are useless and those who have it need to be taken to task. Kumar’s thesis means that people should produce as many children as they can, not educate them properly, but demand that the State gives them jobs even if they are not competent enough. If this thesis is taken to its logical conclusion, it will be the beginning of the end of modern India.

Thirdly, there have been many instances of reverse discrimination because of quota politics. Genuinely talented people, many of whom are economically much poorer than their counterparts under quotas, are denied admissions in schools and colleges and are virtually out of the race for jobs. Because, all told, in a developing country like India it is the “State” that is the biggest provider of jobs and the most important source of education (schools and colleges that are funded by the government). And here, more than half of the seats and jobs that are available go to those who enjoy reservation facilities. Naturally, there are widespread resentments. In fact, the new phenomenon that is represented by Hardik Patel comes from this resentment. As a prominent supporter of Patel told the press recently, “unless we come under reservation, our children will not get admission into the schools and thus be deprived of education.”

Thomas Sowell, a scholar at the Hoover Institute of the US, has proved that affirmative actions, which begin as means to help the less fortunate, end up, in practice, helping the more fortunate. Sowell, an American Black, whose community has been the main target of the affirmative actions in the US, says that his conclusion is based on hard facts that he collected in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the United States, among others. The time is long overdue to start looking at what actually happens under this programme (affirmative actions), as distinguished from what people hope or fear will happen, he advises.

In Malaysia, the quota raj started under the notion that ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power because of a colonial legacy under which the country’s more urbanised Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper. In reality, however, under the British colonial rule, there was free education to the majority Malays but the Chinese minority had to provide their own. The Chinese still completely outperformed the Malays, both in educational institutions and in the economy. But that is a different story. The point is that three decades of the quota system produced more Malay university graduates and professionals than the Chinese; but it did not produce performers or quality workforce. As a result, the Malaysian government announced in 2003 that admissions to the universities would now be by academic records, with computers determining who gets in and who does not, without regard to ethnicity.

According to Sowell, there is now increasing evidence that “students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as Bar exams for lawyers)”. In contrast, studies have shown in America that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, Black and Hispanic students—as well as the smaller numbers of preferentially admitted athletes and children of donors—excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called ‘mismatch.’

Unfortunately, in India, we really do not have quality data to judge the effectiveness (mostly, the lack of it) of the reservation policy. But the fact that reservations have been there for the SC and ST categories since 1950, and yet there has been no perceptible change in their overall conditions speaks poorly of the efficacy of the idea. Whether it is the SCs/STs or the OBCs, most fruits of the reservation have been eaten by what is called the creamy layers within these groups, but even here most of those who have become famous are not because of their work and competence.

We must be clear that the quota raj in India has nothing to do with affirmative actions and social justice. Social justice is really the capacity to organise with others to accomplish ends that benefit the country as a whole; but reservations aim at uplifting one section of the society at the cost of the other. In the rest of the world, affirmative actions aim at creating equality; but in India, reservations are encouraged to create and legitimise, rather glorify, inequalities, as long as they fetch our political parties’ votes.

It is no wonder that none other than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter to the chief ministers on 27 June, 1961, had emphasised on the need for empowering backward groups by giving them access to good and technical education, and not by reserving jobs based on caste and creed. “If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let's help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second-rate people?”

Should we not listen to Nehru?

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2016 21:04:48 IST