Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

On Anti Quota Protest

Expand Messages
  • Shaji John K
    The Politics of Affirmative Action in India o o o The Telegraph (?/?/ 2006) OBC QUOTAS: TO DEFEND OR NOT? By Achin Vanaik What should be the response to Arjun
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2006
      The Politics of Affirmative Action in India

      o o o

      The Telegraph (?/?/ 2006)

      By Achin Vanaik

      What should be the response to Arjun Singh's proposal for 27% OBC
      quotas in higher education by those who are deeply committed to
      promoting greater social equality through and beyond measures of
      affirmative action? One says 'beyond' because affirmative action in
      jobs and tertiary education while politically necessary and
      practically helpful is not the main pathway to the construction of a
      more egalitarian society. For that, far more foundational changes are
      required such as major redistribution of income and wealth generating
      assets like land, structural reorganization of the public primary and
      secondary education system to ensure quality education to all
      independent of social background, employment-generating economic
      policies, and so on.

      But this does not mean that affirmative action, though basically a
      supplement to these far more fundamental measures is not important.
      It widens the caste composition of the middle classes and elites
      which is a good thing. Even more significantly it is a constant
      symbolic reminder that we have gone nowhere far or deep enough in
      creating a more egalitarian society. Its persistence is a standing
      affront (which also is a good thing) to rightwing conservatives who
      argue that the pursuit of equality has gone too far. Though lip
      service might be paid to the principle of affirmative action, such
      conservatives are for the weakening or even rapid abandonment of the
      principle of affirmative action in the name of efficiency
      (excellence) and liberty.

      There are then two levels at which one must engage with this issue of
      OBC reservations in higher education. There are the specific pros and
      cons of the proposal, the motives behind it, the effects it is likely
      to have, possible superior alternative forms of affirmative action.
      And then there is the more fundamental level of strongly resisting
      the more or less systematic attack waged by powerful sections of the
      Indian elite against the sustained pursuit of social equality but
      disguising itself behind the tirade against Arjun Singh's proposal.
      In this regard it is extraordinary that there are some who see no
      contradiction between claiming that they do endorse the principle of
      affirmative action (though not further reservations) to promote
      equality and their espousal of an Indian economic agenda clearly
      neoliberal in its overall thrust. Neoliberalism creates ever greater
      inequalities of income, wealth and power justified in the name of
      higher growth rates and 'prosperity for all'. It operates with a
      conception of efficiency-excellence that effectively ignores the
      prior extremely skewed social distribution of financial-material and
      cultural capital. In all societies the three most crucial
      determinants of one's social position, status and prospects are (in
      that order) inheritance, luck of birth, and then lagging way behind,
      merit; where merit must never be measured or assessed by the end
      point reached, i.e., how far up one has traveled economically,
      professionally or academically, but by the distance travelled between
      one's starting and end points.

      When neoliberals oppose egalitarian measures in the name of
      'defending liberty' what they have in mind is 'freedom of choice' of
      the individual. But the rights elevated here as being primary are
      those of the individual as consumer, not as citizen or producer and
      is to be exercised through the 'neutral' market. It is a 'freedom'
      whose content is thus inextricably linked to wealth which gives one
      the capacity to exercise greatest choice in the marketplace. Not
      surprisingly, neoliberals are among the strongest advocates of the
      steady privatization, commodification and monetization of education
      and healthcare services. Since this very Congress-led government,
      like its predecessor, is deeply committed to neoliberalism, the
      current proposal of OBC reservations can quite justifiably be seen as
      a pre-election and political gimmick, a way of establishing false
      egalitarian credentials on the cheap, and as a way of pushing more
      upper caste and better-off students into the private tertiary
      education sector that is anyway being assiduously promoted by various
      policies and practices. With some exceptions, entry into private
      colleges and institutions is not primarily a function of excellence
      but of money. Even enrolment to public 'centres of excellence' such
      as IITs/IIMs and the best government engineering and medical colleges
      is now overwhelming filled up by candidates who have taken expensive
      pre-exam courses in specialized training institutes that have cracked
      the entrance examination system of enrolment.

      There is an issue of quotas restricting 'merit-based' competitive
      access to good public institutions. But with an ever expanding
      private education sector, it is not an argument that can be given
      anywhere near as much weight as claimed for it. Once it is clear
      where one stands - against neoliberalism; for foundational changes in
      the redistribution of income, wealth, power and life chances; for the
      investment of greater resources in, and more egalitarian
      restructuring of, the public primary, secondary (e.g., neighbourhood
      schooling) and tertiary education systems; for unequivocal defence of
      the principle of affirmative action - then there is certainly a
      strong case to be made for alternative, more sophisticated forms of
      affirmative action than OBC quotas. Mandal I was vital because the
      stakes then were so much higher. It is often forgotten that at the
      time influential voices were clamouring for an end to reservations
      for SCs and STs. Mandal I diverted upper caste attention away from
      this to the OBCs effectively protecting affirmative action programmes
      for SCs/STs. Furthermore, it inaugurated the 'politics of
      recognition' for other lower castes, highlighting especially in North
      India, the moral unacceptability of all-pervasive caste

      Fifteen years later we now have to think more perceptively about how
      to use a variety of means to make constant and cumulative progress in
      deepening and widening social and economic equality. Quota
      reservations are the bluntest of instruments unable to cope with the
      considerable variations in power, wealth and suffering within the
      OBCs themselves and responsible for reproducing a creamy layer rather
      than for substantially expanding it. That most political parties
      today would not dare to oppose such quotas is testimony to the
      political resonance that lower caste resurgence now has in Indian
      politics. But these parties, including those that most strongly
      identify with OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis, have done little or nothing to
      promote the more foundational changes required. In that respect the
      'politics of recognition' has not led to, or promoted, or even
      seriously joined with, a 'politics of redistribution'. This is the
      crucial strategic need of our times and utterly incompatible with the
      ideology or policies inspired by neoliberalism. As for affirmative
      action, we must move towards devising a range of more sophisticated
      and subtler forms of affirmative action that can be sufficiently
      sensitive to the complex specificities of the social, economic and
      educational terrains to which they are to be applied.

      o o o

      May 30, 2006

      Praful Bidwai

      As students from some of India's most privileged educational
      institutions continue their protests against reservations for
      socially disadvantaged OBCs (Other Backward Classes), it becomes
      clear that the agitation has not been a spontaneous, but a highly
      organised and orchestrated phenomenon.

      At least three groups of people have played a role in sustaining it:
      upper caste-dominated professional guilds like the Indian Medical
      Association; captains of industry and owners of private colleges, who
      stridently oppose any extension of Dalit-Adivasi (Scheduled
      Castes-Scheduled Tribes) reservations; and Bhartiya Janata Party

      How far will the student protest go

      Weighty evidence for this comes both from the participation in the
      agitation by executives of Information Technology companies, and from
      the disclosure that 'event management' specialists -- who charge
      hefty fees -- were hired to foment protests in Mumbai. Evidently,
      many tycoons decided to kill the very idea of affirmative action in
      educational institutions -- so it can't be extended to the private
      sector, as the government proposes to do.

      Those who run private capitation-fee colleges also have a huge stake,
      running into thousands of millions of rupees, in opposing affirmative
      action. A year's delay in implementing quotas means that private
      institutions, with an intake of over 534,000 students, could make
      landfall profits of the order of Rs 10 billion (Rs 1,000 crores) to
      Rs 25 billion (Rs 2,500 crores) by selling seats which would have
      gone to OBCs.

      Regrettably, even the National Knowledge Commission played a partisan
      role in the whole business. First, off its own bat, it opposed OBC
      reservations and publicised its opposition through its majority (6:2)
      report. Then, two members decided to quit, adding more grist to the
      anti-affirmative action mill. They couldn't have been unaware that
      their action would raise the pitch of the crusade against affirmative
      action in favour of disadvantaged groups per se.

      'We can't build the nation with 19th century mindset'

      The agitation put at stake not just the fate of Human Resources
      Development Minister Arjun Singh's limited proposal to introduce 27
      per cent reservation for OBCs in all central universities and
      institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology and of
      Management. It attacked the fundamental principle of affirmative
      action itself. This would have jeopardised the hard-earned gains of
      India's social reform movement.

      Had the agitation succeeded, India would have turned its back on the
      imperative of correcting the distortions and inequalities caused by
      unbalanced growth over the past decade or more of neoliberal or 'free
      market' policies.

      The inspiration behind the anti-affirmative action agitation had
      nothing to do with promoting the public interest or any universal
      collective or national objectives. Rather, it was driven by a highly
      individualistic urge to defend and extend privilege against the
      common good. The bulk of the agitating students are children of the
      new middle class which burgeoned under the inequality-enhancing,
      skewed and dualistic economic policies launched in 1991.

      Many of them don't see the unprecedented prosperity and rising
      incomes of a small minority -- namely, themselves -- as the result of
      certain larger economic processes and forces, such as higher rates of
      savings, the Indian state's elitist macroeconomic and taxation
      policies, or globalisation, which has given rise to new technologies
      and divisions of labour, thus creating new opportunities in IT and
      related services.

      Even less are they aware that their own prosperity is the obverse of,
      and rooted in, the squalor of the majority and the further squeezing
      of India's most backward regions and the fragile economies of the
      labouring poor. Rather, they attribute it to their own 'talent',
      'merit' and individual initiative. They oppose affirmative action
      because they want to perpetuate the status quo and grab the
      opportunities it offers -- to the exclusion of the vast majority.

      The death of meritocracy

      Supporters of the anti-affirmative action agitation take refuge
      behind many specious (or half-valid) arguments and dubious data: for
      instance, that affirmative action will kill or devalue 'merit'; that
      Other Backward Classes and even Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
      Tribes, are already fairly well-represented in many professions,
      according to a 1999 National Sample Survey Organisation estimate; and
      that in any case, the benefits of educational quotas in institutions
      will inevitably be cornered by the 'creamy layer' of the OBCs, which
      is already politically privileged or affluent.

      The 'merit' argument is bogus, in fact disingenuous, especially in a
      society based on inheritance of private property, and privilege
      related to birth, which largely determine one's social position.
      Property inheritance means that the affluent are at a vastly
      different, higher starting point from the disadvantaged. Merit makes
      sense only when it measures the distance between the starting point
      and the end point. Most upper-caste people enjoy unfair advantage
      over OBCs or lower castes primarily because of their disparate
      starting points. Merit is only one, usually small, component of their
      overall achievement.

      Merit is not easy to measure, quantify or compare. A single
      'objective test' is a disputable measure. One's score in it often
      depends upon familiarity with the type of questions asked, time
      management and speed, rather than comprehension. Merit can only have
      a limited place in a public-oriented policy of admission and
      recruitment. In a large country like India, other criteria are
      equally relevant: for instance, gender, ethnic and regional balance,
      and diversity.

      'What more do the upper castes want?'

      The fundamental point is that a person born in a highly educated
      savarna family will have a totally different universe of knowledge,
      social contacts and elite acceptability -- and wholly different
      access to information about the availability of study courses,
      colleges and private tutorial institutions, career options,
      professional advice, etc. S/he can always call 'Uncle' so-and-so in
      the civil service, judiciary or the medical profession to get useful

      Typically, such advantage outweighs even (small) differences of
      wealth and income. Past discrimination continues to produce
      inequality of opportunity even when there is no discrimination or
      exclusion at present. The critical issue is how to level the playing
      field so as to give genuinely equal opportunity to the disadvantaged.

      Affirmative action is the best, if not only, solution to this
      problem. It can take many forms, including voluntary targets set by
      institutions and companies for recruitment of disadvantaged groups,
      special counselling and training, non-quantitative diversity
      promotion programmes, etc. Reservations, admittedly, are a rather
      blunt instrument with which to crack the problem. A case can be made
      out that in India we have used reservations as the sole form of
      affirmative action. But this should not be used to make the best the
      enemy of the good.

      As for the 'factual' argument cited by many affirmative action
      opponents, namely that OBCs have nearly the same level of
      representation as their population share in numerous professions,
      including in private sector jobs, the evidence from the NSSO is
      dubious. The NSSO is simply not equipped to identify hundreds of
      local caste groups accurately.

      Caste identification is the job of highly specialised
      anthropologists, sociologists and historians familiar with caste
      configurations which vary from district to district. Neither
      self-ascription nor crude state government caste lists can be a
      substitute for this.

      The NSSO data seems be of very poor integrity. This should be obvious
      from the fact that it estimates the SC/ST population at 28.5 per cent
      of the country's total -- when the highest credible estimate is 23
      per cent.

      A lot of rage, a little Rang De

      The 'creamy layer' argument is certainly valid. Social and
      educational backwardness is a changing phenomenon. There is upward
      mobility among the OBCs. But it doesn't follow that their upper
      layers will automatically corner quotas. They can and should be
      excluded from doing so along some of the criteria specified by the
      Supreme Court in the Mandal judgment. After all, only half of India's
      OBCs (52 per cent of the total population) can get accommodated under
      the 27 percent quota. It is imperative to ensure that this is the
      lower half, not the upwardly mobile, relatively privileged layer.

      It would be ideal in the long term if different institutions and
      governments could devise varying affirmative action formulae based
      upon a number of different criteria besides caste -- including
      gender, economic status of family, quality of schooling received by
      parents, backwardness of region of origin, etc. Delhi's Jawaharlal
      Nehru University has a decade-old admissions policy which gives extra
      points to OBCs, women and regional backwardness over and above a
      candidate's entrance examination score. This has significantly raised
      JNU's OBC intake.

      Some social scientists, including JNU's Purshottam Aggarwal, and
      Delhi University's Satish Deshpande, with Yogendra Yadav, have
      proposed affirmative action formulae assigning different weights to
      these factors. Despite their drawbacks -- controversially opening up
      the SC/SC quota, or providing an inadequate boost to OBCs -- these
      proposals should be seriously debated at length. However, the topmost
      priority last fortnight was to beat back the challenge posed by the
      anti-quota agitation, which opposed the very principle of affirmative

      The United Progressive Alliance government did well to uphold the
      principle and stick to the 27 per cent OBC quota. Wisely, it didn't
      resort to the undesirable device of phased implementation. But it
      will have to increase the total number of seats in central
      educational institutions by 54 per cent within a year, at an
      estimated expense of Rs 80 billion (Rs 8,000 crores). This is a
      formidable, but worthwhile, task. One can only hope that the upper
      castes accept reservations in the spirit of justice and of creating a
      caring-and-sharing society.

      o o o

      Outlook Magazine | June 05, 2006

      Vinod Mehta

      This column is not being written to defend Arjun Singh, nor the new
      quota regime, nor any formula/mechanism to implement reservations.
      That debate has been so polarised and distorted that any intervention
      which does not take one or the other side is destined to fall on deaf
      ears. No. My purpose is to point out that the passion-charged street
      power and the virulent rhetoric against reservations should be seen
      as part of a larger, disturbing pattern. India's smug, selfish,
      self-centred, satiated middle class, fattened on the fruits of the
      booming economy, is positively hostile to any policy which sets out
      to empower the poor. Over 900 million of our citizens live on less
      than Rs 90 a day. Of this, 300 million live on less than Rs 45 a day.
      Meanwhile, 200 million privileged have decided that these citizens
      must remain roughly where they are-or wait till the enormous wealth
      the rich, the ultra rich and the nouveau rich are accumulating
      trickles down. This is an obscenity. No fancy economic formulation
      can hide this appalling reality of India 2006.

      Take the employment guarantee scheme or selling cheap grain to BPL
      card-holders or the Right to Information Act (which allows the
      marginalised to check corruption in moneys spent in their name) or
      increasing subsidies for essential commodities used by the aam aadmi.
      You need to jog your memory only lightly to recollect the outrage of
      the haves at these schemes. They said India would be ruined, the
      finances of the nation would collapse if "utopian" proposals were
      implemented. The poor are poor because they are lazy, worthless,
      unenterprising, incapable of availing existing opportunities. Of
      course, I caricature the argument and the mentality. But only

      One understands India is an economic superpower challenging China, it
      is experiencing unprecedented growth rates, its middle class can buy
      Danish bacon and Spanish olives at the neighbourhood store.
      Conspicuous consumption reigns. But nine hundred million people must
      wait for market forces to somehow touch their lives. Sheer
      callousness apart, these 900 million people have something called the
      vote. And they use it extremely craftily. In 2004, they threw out a
      government which considered itself invincible. Forget the ethics,
      forget conscience, any political party which panders to the
      prejudices of India's fickle middle class is committing electoral

      Remember, the poor will not go away. You cannot tuck them away in
      Kalahandi or Bastar. They will haunt India's affluent in Mumbai,
      Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai at traffic lights, in unregulated slums,
      in shopping malls, outside five-star hotels. They will join Maoists
      and threaten the Indian state while slitting the throats of rich
      farmers. The 'Red Corridor' is an ominous development. Any moderately
      sane middle-class person must ask himself why the wretched of the
      earth increasingly decide to take up arms against a vastly
      better-armed and organised force in a war they know they are bound to
      lose. Better to die fighting than to die of hunger.

      Doubtless, there are many infirmities in the proposal to allot 27 per
      cent seats to OBCs. The percentage may be too high, some wrong people
      may avail of the benefit, a few genuinely deserving might be unfairly
      penalised, implementation could throw up anomalies. It will not be
      painless. But you have to live in a state of permanent denial, you
      have to keep your eyes, ears and mind closed to avoid the fact that
      poverty and extreme poverty in India are closely linked to caste,
      closely linked to historical discrimination.

      Let us take the crux of the reservation rejectionist's thesis. We're
      told that quotas and academic excellence are fundamentally
      incompatible. You can't have both.Added to the above is the rider
      that corporate India's "global competitive edge" will vanish. In
      other words, there is the firm assumption that affirmative action
      (AA), which in India takes the form of quotas (voluntary or
      mandatory), will produce second-class students.

      In the hysteria generated, with assistance from a conflict-hungry
      media, this assumption has become gospel truth with the honourable
      but publicity-smart members of the Knowledge Commission lending their
      weight to the flawed thesis. In Harvard, Princeton and Yale,
      institutions at whose altar the rejectionists worship, the experience
      of AA has been hugely positive with no dilution of academic standards
      (see Outlook cover story Two Faces of Reservation, May 29).

      Consider the story of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and
      Kerala where mandatory quotas ranging from 69.5 per cent to 49.5 per
      cent have been in place since decades without social turbulence. Are
      we to assume that engineers, doctors, mbas from these southern states
      are substandard?

      If notions of compassion and equity are alien to the rejectionists,
      perhaps the spectre of Maoists rampaging through pockets of urban
      India might help focus minds on the grotesquely unjust society
      superpower India is spawning. It could be the fire next time!

    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.