By Gail Omvedt
05 September, 2004
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
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.
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