When things are looking up, something has to go wrong.
In an ill-conceived political move, Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh is spearheading a government move to bring in enhanced level of reservation (or positive discrimination or affirmative action as known in the West) for Other Backward Castes in specialised and technical educational institutions, like the IITs and the IIMs. Worse, apparently, even super-specialised courses may be brought in the ambit. Now, admission to such courses is determined by merit alone.
WHY WRONG TIME
This issue comes at time when the world -- especially the scientific and intellectual community -- has acknowledged the superior educational standard of Indians. Our level of excellence is being rewarded, well deservedly, by way of plum postings and lucrative pay packets on global scales. Indians are going places. Economy is booming. India is no longer the country of rope tricks and snake charmers.
Politicking is the last thing we want now. Arjun Singh is playing with the future of citizens, the future of the nation. This is anti-national. Isn't there any law against this?
Arjun Singh clearly has eyes on the votes. Had politicians really meant to better the lot of the underprivileged, over the last half a century, he, his predecessors and other members of his ilk, would have uplifted these sections of people, and the issue of reservations for underprivileged would haven't existed now. After all, the provision of reservation in the Constitution is only a temporary one.
WHY IS ARJUN SINGH WRONG
An understanding of two aspects will cut through the clutter.
One, at higher levels of education -- from post-graduation onwards -- quotas, under whatever head, will only result in compromising the quality of professionals we produce. An important parameter of a nation's greatness is the high level of intellectual and scientific attainment of its citizens, however intangible it may be. Ironically, every tangible achievement rests on this intangible parameter. To emphasise the need for technological superiority in today's world is merely to state the obvious.
We need good doctors, good engineers, good managers, good teachers, good professionals. It is competence of the doctor and not his caste that will save my life. It's the efficiency of our professionals and not their caste that will make my life better and my nation great.
Two, the Constitutionally mandated reservation policy adhered to in letter and spirit over the last 50 odd years has, to be fair, done more than its share of good. It has helped millions of people raise themselves to better their standards of living; the legion of beneficiaries itself being a testimony to that fact.
We can't be blind to this level of progress. When things have got better let's capitalise on it. Things have improved to the extent that caste is no longer a credible indicator to a person's level of educational, professional or financial status. So, instead of enhancing the level of quotas, the government should customise the policy to the present level of progress.
Are we to then say that there aren't any more underprivileged sections in our country? Definitely not. Caste-based discrimination continues. And, it continues not just in the illiterate backyards of our society but also in the upper class.
Social ills never go away. It only metamorphoses. As time passes, old problems need new solutions. The solution can definitely not be a half-a-century old one. The entire provision of reservation in the Constitution must be revamped to conform to the present-day reality.
WHAT IS THE WAY OUT
Caste can't be cast away. It will continue to dictate terms at least in our subliminal level. We can only make less apparent the absurdity of the primacy of caste. There are many ways to do it.
1. Change the way we look at caste itself. It is looked upon as a handicap, a social handicap. But unlike other handicaps (physical, emotional, intellectual or financial) this is addressed in a generic manner. That has to change. It has to be addressed in an individual manner. In fact, the age of generic solutions is gone.
X belongs to caste AB. The question that needs to be asked -- wherever and whenever it is relevant -- is: Is the caste a handicap for X? But how do we, even X, determine whether it is a handicap? One indicator is denial of an opportunity or a material object because of having been born to a particular caste. The solution can't be generic. It has to be on an individual basis, depending on the context, situation, place, time and any other parameter particular to the issue on hand.
Caste could be a handicap for a village woman when she draws water from a well. The same caste could be a handicap for a software professional when she seeks her parents' approval for marriage. Caste is the same; problems are different; so, solutions too are obviously different.
2. We need to remove the mention of caste where it doesn't really matter. If we are trying to remove discrimination, then continued and unwarranted mention of caste just defeats the purpose. Any application form, mostly government, has a column where the applicant's caste has to be mentioned. Just scrap it. Scrap it from school admission forms, college admission forms, examination application forms, job application forms.
3. If the idea is to address the social handicap of caste, reservation in schools and jobs on the basis of caste is not the solution. In fact the current policy on those lines is having the opposite effect. The inefficiency in any field for that matter is being attributed to non-meritorious candidates benefiting undeservedly from reservation. Here is where we need to stress on nothing but primacy of merit. If good doctors happen to be from a particular caste so be it; because we need good professionals. What we trying to achieve desperately is equal number of doctors from all castes. How ludicrous!
4. There are underprivileged sections of society, and one indicator is their financial standing. At elementary levels, a concern has to be shown to the deprived sections of people, so that they don't miss an opportunity that is theirs too. Enhanced opportunities can be provided by fee concessions or discounts on sales prices for educational material or such other devices depending on the particular context. But after creating conditions equal for all at elementary stages, when time comes to pick the best, the only determinant should be professional merit.
SEIZE THE CHANCE
The current reservation convulsion is not new. There was a violent one in 1990. We missed a chance to set things right. We just had spirited debates, agitations and a few lives lost. Unlike then, today we have technocrats and professionals at the helm of even our political establishment.
Today, as history repeats not so much in all its ferocity, we have a chance, yet again, to redeem the situation; for the benefit of all of us; for the benefit of India.