Quotas on the learning curve

The misgivings raised by the “Forwards Quota” Bill, which was moved and passed by the Lok Sabha on the same day with a 323-to-3 majority, has highlighted like never before the dichotomies in the debate over job and education quotas that have festered since the 1950s. Affirmative action in a country steeped in societal injustices is an unexceptionable value. But it is worth wondering whether the “top-down” approach that has long prevailed — ever-escalating quotas in government jobs and for admission in government-owned or –aided institutes of higher education — is the practical way to go about it.

Whatever the provenance of the recipient of affirmative action —  whether caste, tribe, or, the latest innovation, economic situation — neither tool is truly empowering or socially transformative. Note the fierce enduring controversy, in the public discourse and in the judiciary, over whether the lower castes benefit or whether the largesse is cornered by the “creamy layer,” the term that refers to the richer, more educated members of that sprawling category known as Other Backward Castes.  Then there is also the inconvenient truth, as bluntly articulated by Nitin Gadkari not so long ago, that since the government, at the Centre or in the states, are no longer job creators, granting job quotas to anybody are, essentially, a meaningless exercise.

Mr Gadkari has unwittingly highlighted the nub of the problem for any politician who is genuinely concerned about building greater social equity in India beyond vote-winning gimmickry. Since the bulk of jobs — and we’re not talking of pakora-sellers here — have been and are being created in the private sector, which is now also the major supplier of education services, the real conundrum is to nudge the corporate sector to do its bit in levelling the playing field for the socially marginalised. Obviously, mandating reservations would be the wrong way to go about it. These are commercial organisations, after all. 

The answer lies in a “bottom-up” approach to “capacity building” to use two terms favoured by civil society. If we set aside the deep-seated casteism that assails India even in the 21st century, the general hostility to job and student admission quotas centre on the fact that they narrow the already sparse job opportunities for a vast cohort of non-beneficiaries, compounded by lower qualifying criteria. This has the effect of heightening, however unfairly, the resentment and prejudices against beneficiaries of reservations, quite defeating the purpose of affirmative action.

Note, however, that reservations are limited to jobs and admission to institutes of higher educations. What happens at the formative primary and secondary school levels seems not to have occurred to lawmakers, though differential qualifying criteria acknowledges that their basic education may not be optimum. Given that, would it not make sense for the government to jettison its universal education policy and mandate reservations at school-level in all schools, whether government or private, and leverage its education subsidy to this end? The route for doing so has been demonstrated with some success in the school voucher system for poor students, first mooted by the Centre for Civil Society, and which appears to be working with some success at least in Delhi.  

The voucher system, which enables disadvantaged students to attend quality schools of their choice without forcing the institution concerned to forfeit revenue, has worked well in countries around the world, including the US. It has the double advantage of achieving social equity and integration, and delivering better education outcomes for a larger proportion of the population. Armed with this equal opportunity advantage, the socially disadvantaged student would be in a position to imbibe more fully the benefits of higher education at university or the premier B-schools. 

Which brings us to jobs. A legislatively mandated levelling of the educational playing field will make it difficult, indeed unnecessary for corporations to discriminate in their hiring practices. To prod them out of age-old prejudices, the government has one potent tool, which the US government leveraged to useful effect, starting with the new Deal, to mitigate the impact of racial segregation. It can mandate that all government contractors ensure a minimum level of social diversity in their hiring practices. Big Government has some uses! To be sure, such changes will not make India the just society that the writers of constitution visualised overnight. Positive social change can take decades, but starting at the grassroots raises, at the very least, the green shoots of hope.

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