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Reservation in the corporate sector

By Gail Omvedt

There is a story about Shahu Maharaj, the anti-caste non-Brahman ruler of the state of Kolhapur in the early decades of the 20th century. The Maharajah helped one Gangaram Kamble, a Mahar, to set up a teashop, and then after returning from hunting with his sardars, he began the habit of stopping at the shop, and not only taking tea himself, but forcing all his proud high-caste Maratha companions to take tea from the hands of a Dalit! The Maharaja's actions symbolise the various types of programmes of ``social justice'' needed to overcome the heritage of the caste system. For it is necessary, metaphorically, for Dalits not only to have the right to drink tea wherever they want, but also to have employment in the tea shops, and even more important, to have the capacity to own them and freely do business with them! And for this, state intervention is necessary.

Unfortunately, social justice or ``compensatory discrimination'' programmes in India have gotten stereotyped around the theme of ``reservation'' in the public sector. And so much of a complex has been built up around the subject that there are major assumptions, which everyone takes for granted, but which are mistaken and need to be overcome. Among these two are important: first, that social justice programmes are more or less equivalent to reservation and that reservation is limited to employment in the public sector as well as seats in educational institutions. Second, even more debilitating, is the pervasive idea that reservation is in some way at odds with ``merit'', that we have to give up on or ``relax'' certain standards of merit in order to do social justice for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes.

Today, as privatisation is frightening Government employees, Dalits are also worried about loss of the one area they have seen as a haven for employment. One result is that the idea of ``reservation in the private sector'' has been brought forward by a number of Dalit political leaders. There has been some limited discussion of this, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, has given an initial very negative response to the idea. However, the issue of reservation in the corporate sector (I use this term specifically because no one, after all, wants reservation in the informal private sector!) does not depend on the degree of disinvestment. Regardless of whether existing public sector companies are ``privatised'' or not, it is still true that the corporate sector is a growing and dynamic sector in India, and the question of who runs it and is employed in it is a crucial one.

In fact, reservation in the private corporate sector could have been legislated in India from 1947 itself. And after all, a state claiming to be a welfare state, concerned for the poor, regulating at the time every aspect of the way companies carried on their business, including adoption of new technologies and hiring and firing, could well have pushed for hiring policies that included jobs for the main discriminated against social groups in India, Dalits and Adivasis. There is certainly no legal bar on doing so. Any company, domestic or foreign, doing business within a nation has to obey the laws of that nation. However, hiring Dalits and Adivasis on a wide scale in the corporate sector was one very conspicuous bit of legislative restriction excluded from the scope of the otherwise all-pervasive ``license- permit raj''.

The reason is not far to seek: for all the socialism proclaimed by the nation's elite at the time, their mood was firmly against reservation policies, and what came to be included in the Constitution was done so only through the pressure of the anti- caste movement. The movement however, was not strong enough to push further. Thus, in 1947, the question of ``other backward castes'' was left hanging, and it was only the direct Government sector that was seen as an appropriate place to insure opportunities for employment.

In the United States, the story has been different. There, for decades even after the end of slavery, the employment situation for African-Americans was even worse than for Dalits in India. Prejudice excluded them from all but the lowest jobs; inferior education only worsened their situation, and they were taken into factories on a mass scale only when large scale industrialisation made this necessary, and even then they got the lowest and worst paid jobs. They were discriminated against in the professions, in landholding, and in Government service. If we compare Dr. Ambedkar's position with that of one of the greatest of early Black leaders, W.E.B. DuBois, the difference appears stark: Du Bois had been up for a rather minor Government post (as assistant postmaster) in Washington D.C., but could never get it, whereas Ambedkar could rise to the highest political posts in India.

In the U.S., it was only after the militant and massive civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s that the Government began to take up the issue, and start the process of desegregating schools and removing the economic discrimination against African-Americans through programmes of what were called ``affirmative action''. And when it did so, ``affirmative action'' did not simply include Government employment, but also comprehensive programmes of promoting and legislating employment in the private corporate sector, and aiding minority businesses and professions. For instance, in the U.S. today there is good representation of African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities in colleges and universities, in spite of the fact that most are not Government-run but ``private'' institutions. There is also a much better representation of minorities in TV and the media, inspite of the fact that these are entirely private. Finally, African-Americans are quite visible now in fields such as the military (the current Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, is the primary example) - whereas in India it seems that no one has even hinted at the question of the caste composition of Army officers. Many of these changes have come about in the last decades; they involved Government programmes and Government pressures; but none of them has come without struggle.

And it might be noted that these programmes have included efforts to build up minority-run businesses. Leading African-American politicians have also tried to sponsor efforts in ``Black capitalism'', but notably Government programmes have included not only access to credit and training, but also requirements that a certain percentage of Government contracts be awarded to African- American and other minority businesses.

Clearly, compensatory discrimination efforts, or social justice programmes, need not be limited to education and the public sector. In fact, today as India is ``going global'' faster than many sections of the society want, it is important to realise that a truly modern society requires the conscious creation of opportunities for all of its citizens, and a truly competitive society cannot afford to waste any talent. This means that social justice programmes are not only in the interest of Dalits and Adivasis, but in the interests of the nation as a whole - and they require policies that take account of every sector in a modern and growing economy. Universalising education and health care is a crucial part of this; access to land and other property is necessary; but so are special programmes ensuring access to employment - in the ``private'' as well as the ``public'' sector. If liberalisation is to be successful, the private corporate sector cannot remain an island of ``upper'' caste privilege.

WHILE RESERVATION in the corporate sector is now a very strong possibility, a major factor hampering all programmes of social justice in India has been their extremely reluctant acceptance by the ruling elite. In spite of Constitutional guarantees and official policies, ideas are still widespread that somehow ``reservation'' and ``merit'' are opposites, and that programmes to achieve ``social justice'' will slow down the development of a truly open, caste- free, merit-based society.

The reality is that in a caste (or race)-affected society, only by recognising the disabilities of caste or race can true openness and mobility be achieved. In a genuinely open and dynamic society, people of talent from every social group, and from rich and poor alike would have a chance to rise to the top. Such a society, however, has never truly existed in India; it exists only as aspiration and hope. It has never truly existed in the U.S. either, which is why programmes of ``affirmative action'' have had to be taken up there why the fight for racial justice still goes on. For that matter, nearly every country in the world has some form of discrimination, and the upcoming United Nations Conference on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination in South Africa indicates that the effort to build a world-wide open society still has to go on.

In India, the barriers to openness and merit have taken two main forms, that of patriarchy or gender discrimination and that of caste discrimination. Since the Indian form of patriarchy is largely affected by caste, we focus on caste discrimination here. It is easy to understand how in the past birth was a determining factor in a person's life chances: those of castes considered ``low'' had little right to education, little political power and small access to property. Those classified as ``untouchable'' were even worse off than the ones considered ``shudras'' in the official varna classification; they had no land, were excluded from participation in nearly all public spheres of life, had not even the glimmerings of a right to education, and had work opportunities limited to the most polluting and arduous jobs.

But social justice and the creation of an open society is not really about the past; it is about the present and the way discrimination operates today. India has moved ahead in many ways in the 20th century; it has opened up education and employment opportunities. Yet caste continues to be a determining factor in social life, and caste and kinship networks very often play a major role in access to employment. People of ``low'' castes, and particularly the ex-"untouchables`` still are deprived in many areas of rights to equal participation in public life in simple things such as the right to drink tea in a public tea shop - leave alone the question of owning the shop!

Employment is only partly the result of merit even in examinations and interviews; it has a large element of ``influence''. And for those trying to run businesses, even very tiny ones, the role of influence and access to power is even greater. These are direct factors of discrimination; indirectly, the limited spread of education and the vast discrimination in land ownership and property rights means that Dalits and the former ``Shudra'' castes (especially those classified as ``most backward'') do not even share the same starting line as those from families and castes who have as background generations of education, intellectual and enterpreneurial orientation and the economic resources to back it up.

Those industrialists who have talked about a ``level playing field'' for Indians in the sphere of international business competition, who have wanted support to compete with multinationals, have rarely publicly discussed the issue of how company ownership and company employment works in India. While the sociological data on caste and economic achievement is rather minimal, what studies we have show a heavy domination of upper castes. Strikingly, Brahmans seem to be outdoing even the traditional ``bania'' groups in industry today! Not only are people such as Mr. Gurudas Deshpande and his brother-in-law Mr. Narayan Murthy among the richest of Indians, but a study by Santosh Goyal of the caste composition of top corporate officers in 1979-80 showed that out of 2082 whose caste could be identified (of a total of 3129), 858 or 41.2 per cent were Brahmans; Khatris and Vaishyas were a poor second and third with 18.5 per cent and 17.9 per cent. Only 4.2 per cent were ``Shudra'' of any type. It is doubtful if this situation has changed significantly.

Many of the readers of this article will, consciously or unconsciously, continue to think that such a situation has come about because in fact people from the ``upper'' castes are more skilled, more talented. There is still even a tendency to think in genetic terms, in spite of the fact that nearly all scientific studies show little ``natural'' or ``biological'' distinction among different social groups. In fact, it might be said that if there is a genetic distinction between ``upper'' and ``lower'' castes - which would assume that there has been almost no intermingling of genes between the two groups over centuries - the advantage would be for the latter: the arduous life that the deprived sections have faced would mean that only those who are stronger and more intelligent would survive to pass on their genes! However, there is little evidence for any such separation in India, rather there is evidence for a good deal of intermingling between social groups in spite of formal caste barriers.

What this means is that the apparent difference in ``intelligence'' and ``achievement'' between ``upper'' and ``lower'' castes is a result of social factors - of poverty, ill health, lack of education and all the other factors that have served to smother the abilities and potentials of people from Dalit, Adivasi and OBC backgrounds. The result is that those from ``higher'' caste backgrounds, with long traditions of education and intellectual activity behind them, have advantages in developing their potential that the masses of people do not have. This situation means that there is a vast wastage of ``human resources'' in India. It should be of concern not only to Dalits and OBCs themselves, but to any true nationalist.

It is often argued that globalisation means that issues such as ``social justice'' and programmes to develop the talents and skills of the deprived no longer have relevance. But the opposite is true. A closed-in nation with little involvement and trade with the rest of the world can afford to move along slowly, to stagnate, to let the talent of its vast human population go to waste while a few take on responsibility for ``guiding'' the society. But an open nation has to stand the test of competitiveness. And the fact is that trying to compete with so much human deprivation continuing to exist is like trying to engage in trade or become a world power with a population of only a couple hundred million, instead of a billion energetic, talented, people.

This is why programmes of social justice, including the universalisation of education, access to property and resources, and the ``talent search'' which we otherwise describe as reservations, all of them essentially programmes to develop the talents and potentialities of the entire population, should be of concern not only to Dalits and other deprived groups, but to policy-makers and business leaders as well.