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Dronacharya Mindset

By Gail Omvedt

05 September, 2004
The Times Of India

The UPA government intends to expand the ambit of social justice beyond public sector employment and education. Minister for social justice and empowerment Meira Kumar made this clear at a recent conference on 'Affirmative Action including Reservation in the Private Sector'. Industry and upper caste spokesmen have been in a tremor since the new policy was announced.

The main response is sad but predictable: The private sector cannot afford the 'inefficiency', loss of productivity, and incompetence that, it is claimed, would occur if the domination of upper castes was challenged. Modern corporations need flexibility; they cannot be constrained by the rigidities of reservations. All the presumed sins of inefficiency and corruption in the public sector are said to be bound up with reservations. The associated arguments about the limitations of reservations — charges that they actually leave the vast majority of the Dalit poor untouched — serve to back this up.

Those who talk of "competing on a world scale" rarely look at the role affirmative action programmes have played in not only democratising American society but also diversifying and energising its industry. Indian businessmen would do well to learn more from their presumed model, the dynamic American industrial sector.

Almost all elite Indians view affirmative action in terms of "reservation" versus "merit". This contrast assumes that the present heavy preponderance of Brahmans and other "twice-born" castes in industry, especially in areas such as information technology, comes about solely due to their abilities. The backwardness and lack of employment of Dalits and OBCs is said to be a result of an inherent, even biological, backwardness. There is an undeniable reality that upper castes perform better on tests, in getting marks and in interviews. The assumption is that this reflects their innate biological capacity: They perform better because they are better. Furthermore, performance is assessed exclusively in terms of percentages and marks. This would be regarded with surprise in, for instance, US society, where college admissions are gone over by committees and reflect not only marks and "objective" criteria but also written essays, assessments of motivation and even community service — leave alone affirmative action.

What the rigid Indian mindset ignores is the vast inequalities that pervade Indian society — inequalities which leave the low castes deprived in everything from education to simple nutrition, not to say the home atmosphere and socialising tradition that equip elite communities with the confidence and articulation to perform better. Meira Kumar called this the "Dronacharya mindset" — the mindset which systematically deprives groups of people of the very capacity to compete, and then cites "performance" in a limited arena of competition as proof of superiority. The continuance of the Dronacharya mindset in India is undoubtedly a result of thousands of years of caste-linked occupational 'reservation'.

As a result of delimiting the arena, there is a tremendous wastage of talent in India. It is as if the recruitment base for Indian industry were limited to 200 million people, not one billion. The segmentation of the labour market, as many contemporary economic theories also show, reflects itself in inefficiencies and loss of production. Affirmative action programmes are designed to correct these market failures, not to heap a burden on industry. Reservations are forms of state action that make up for market failures. Affirmative action is justified not in terms of "social justice" for the marginalised, but in terms of efficiency and productivity. Critiques of reservation which look only at what they do for the "marginalised sections" miss this point of the public welfare which affirmative action programmes serve.

The fact that India has one of the most unequal educational systems in the world is deeply linked to the low representation of Dalits and Bahujans as high-level employees and managers in industry. Jotirao Phule, the first to articulate the needs of the caste- deprived, knew this when he put forward, in 1882, the first demand for something like reservations. Government departments, he said, should only employ Brahmans in proportion to their population; if for the time being educated shudras and ati-shudras were not available, then the posts should be filled with Muslims, Parsis, even Englishmen residing in India. Only if this were done, he wrote, would Brahmans stop putting obstacles before educating the masses.

In other words, the accepted ideology justifying the dominance of upper castes in employment — the ideology of "merit" — is associated with a distorted education system that gives the poor and caste- deprived an education inferior to that of the elite. The linkages that create and maintain the caste society are all pervasive; they are reflected in educational, social, political and cultural institutions.

Western "management gurus" have recognised the value of a diversified work force and management structure. In contrast, Indian companies continue, by and large, to operate in terms of traditional values; even as they begin to compete in the world, their feet remain mired in the mud of centuries of privilege. It is time one addressed this problem: Time for industry to recruit from a population of one billion, not less than a fifth that number.






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