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The Logic Of Affirmative Action

By Sarbeswar Sahoo

17 February, 2005

The proposal of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government’s Common Minimum Programme to introduce job reservations or affirmative action for ensuring the betterment of underprivileged and deprived sections of society in the private sector is being viewed with scepticism by experts as well as ordinary people in the recent days. This has created many debates whether dalits and disadvantaged should be given some preferences in the employments and education sector. The initial question here is what this preference (affirmative action) is and why is this to be given to certain people based on their mere birth in a particular caste or community (ascribed status)? An affirmative action is, to borrow the words from Nicholas Smith, “preferential access to social resources for persons who are members of groups which have been previously disadvantaged by adverse discrimination”. It is not about charity. It is about building workplace diversity and competitive advantage by using the innate motivations of the disadvantaged to succeed in life. Those who have been oppressed for too long deserve preferential treatment.

Two kinds of arguments have been forwarded in this respect: one constituting the industrialists and employers in the private sector argue against any form of reservation in the private sector as it leads to compromise in quality and efficiency which can be detrimental to the private sector where efficiency is a prerequisite to meet competition and the other being argued by the beneficiaries of reservation such as lower castes, dalit leaders, and some of the social scientists that reservation or affirmative action breaks the age-old discrimination and oppression of the higher and dominant castes against the schedule castes, schedule tribes and other backward castes in the social structure of Indian society.

From the above argument, the later seems more valid and authentic as far as the issue is concerned. The question of ‘merit’ is raised whenever the issue of reservation crops up. R. Jagannathan (2004) argues that the word ‘merit’ means different things to different people. For the person who is just entering the job market, merit means academic excellence. For dalits and others who can't wave a high-90s mark-sheet in a recruiter's face, merit is an entry barrier erected by society to deny them a decent job. For the corporate recruiter, merit should merely mean competence – the ability to do a job well. It is not ultimately about marks and academic brilliance.

Going by the corporate recruiter's definition, affirmative action immediately becomes a possibility. The truth is you don't need 17-19 years of education to do most corporate jobs competently. Competence and job success depend not so much on the initial fund of knowledge one acquires in school but on the willingness to learn and determination to succeed. Today, most companies prefer to employ women in many areas not because they bring great new skills (though there is some of that as well), but because they bring in better attitudes and a will to succeed. As a general rule, the disadvantaged always bring a greater determination to succeed than the rest. Applying the same logic to dalits and minorities, I believe they will bring a greater motivation to succeed against the odds. If we accept this assumption, the job of preparing them for specific job competencies is easier and hiring dalits may add to competitive advantage.

Another argument is that however, there is no such thing as ‘pure merit’ in selecting or hiring people. In different situations, we look variously for ‘qualified’ or ‘very qualified’ or even the ‘best qualified candidates’, knowing that we are inevitably basing our decision, in part, on convenience, familiarity and intuition. In India’s history, merit based systems have not operated in the best way. Infact, most of the systems rely on connections, patronage and nepotism, which masquerade as merit based system. There is also no guarantee of the fact that the lower castes and dalits students are always inferior in their intellectual and cognitive capacity and background in comparison with the higher castes. It consciously overlooks the fact that among the dalits and the tribals there are candidates who are meritorious, competitive and skilled. It is true that in all the cases they are not able to compete with the students from the higher castes.

The main intention behind the reservation policy was social justice, thereby the empowerment of the dalits and tribals. It also tries to address 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 socializing 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. The policy of job reservations intends to bring about proportional equality as it is a mode of distributing benefits based on the proportion of population i.e. 16.5 percent for the dalits and 8 percent for tribals. It is based on the principle of distributive justice and compensation for past disadvantages. All in all, it has been a project of ‘capacity building’ among the weaker sections of Indian society. It clearly mentions the fact that the schedule castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and other backward classes (OBCs) in our society have hitherto been neglected and discriminated not only educationally but also in all spheres of socio-political life. They suffer multiple discriminations. Although the national government spends a good amount of the GDP for the development of education, still 35 percent of the population remains illiterate. It is not the matter of education; here, it is the matter of quality education, which the lower castes cannot afford because of their low socio-economic condition. Due to the discriminatory beliefs in the caste system, the lower castes were not even allowed to move outside lest their shadow may pollute the people from the higher castes. Thus, under the caste system, the Brahmnical upper castes have undue, unearned and unjust privileges, where as the lower castes and untouchables suffer from suppression, neglect, and discrimination. Because of the graded inequality practised based on the mere incident of birth of a person in a caste group, the lower castes were denied educational opportunities and a share in the administration by the priestly and the ruling classes. The system and its effects still continue to make them socially and educationally backward. In this kind of situation how could we expect that the dalits would have been able to participate and compete equally in the educational sphere with the twice born Brahmins? So, K. Veeramani (2004) argues that how could there be free, fair and equal competition among unequals?

It is this discrimination in the social life that has forced the people from the lower strata to remain as they were. As I have said else where that all the higher and clean occupations were occupied by the higher and dominant caste people and the lower caste people were left with no options than serving as slaves (bonded labour) and carrying the human waste by cleaning their latrines. In this situation, could we expect that they should be able to compete with the twice-borns in the socio-economic and educational sphere? In the age of liberalization, privatization and globalization where education is sold in high prices; how will they be able to buy the education from the privatized educational institutions? These institutions before testing the intellectual standard capacity of the students they see how heavy the pocket of their parent is. Thus, the lower caste students are not able to buy the standard education required for the competitive job market and the so-called private sector.

So, the longstanding exploitation and oppression of the SCs, STs and other backwards castes people need to be given a fair chance through certain kinds of affirmative action not only in the public sector but also should be extended to the private enterprises. Reservation explicitly acknowledges the fact that the State needs to affirm and uphold the economic and political rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups who have been historically discriminated against or are generally in an economically and socially disadvantaged position. This is an arrangement to make up for the handicap or disability from which the lower classes suffer due to the caste system. Reservation in education and job opportunities is one of the various means that could act as a corrective to the historical disadvantages based on caste discriminations. This argues that those who have been victimized in history have to be compensated through assured educational opportunities and income; so that the social injustice and inequality imposed by the caste system could someway be reduced. This would enable the weaker sections to participate in the public sphere i.e. job market as well as employment and ultimately in the process of decision making at a higher level. This will enable the people who have been historically disprivileged to get the same chance as the privileged to demonstrate their capacity for hardwork, their entrepreneurship and their skills. Thus, the culture of affirmative action should not be seen in terms of a ‘favour’ that is bestowed upon the minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged sections but as a ‘social need’.

Sarbeswar Sahoo is Doctoral Fellow, Dept. of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore, 11 Arts Link, Singapore, 117570












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