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India is marked by cascading inequalities
August 12, 2004
In 1990, at the height of the anti-Mandal agitation in India's northern states, us editorial page writers of The Times of India were divided over the issue of reserving government jobs for the non-savarna backward castes (OBCs). Our differences sharpened as upper-caste students immolated themselves in protest against the new policy. So some of us decided to conduct a survey of the staffing practices of our Delhi office.
The results were stunning. There were no Dalits and just three OBCs among the 300 journalists of the newspaper group, most of them Brahmins, Kayasthas and Banias. This was not due to conscious policy: it was just how things were -- 'naturally,' 'spontaneously', as a manager put it, emphasising that 'merit' alone guided recruitment and promotion.
It is astounding, and, of course incredible, that the upper castes, who form a tenth of the population, concentrate within themselves nine-tenths of India's entire pool of 'merit.' But that's the nature of the discrimination in this super-hierarchical society, where ritual purity assigned by the varna system is far more important than educational achievement, professional talent or diligence.
Fourteen years on, this systematic discrimination and denial of social opportunity has not changed. The Times of India group only embodies a trend that's pervasive in all private business. Contrast this with the frankly capitalist United States. There, two-thirds of all newspapers with a circulation of 100,000-plus, draw 15 percent to 20 percent of their journalists from racial linguistic minorities like Blacks and Hispanics. Thus, 16.2 percent of The New York Times' staff belongs to such minority groups. The proportion is 19.5 percent for The Washington Post and 18.7 for The Los Angeles Times. Presumably, 'merit' counts as much in these papers as in the Indian press! Even the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal has 17.1 percent minority recruits.
This change hasn't come about through government directives, but through a 1978 decision of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to raise the minorities' representation from a pathetic 3.95 percent to the same level as their share in the population. This was done through special programmes such as diversity promotion, scholarships, ethnic and racial censuses, training schemes, and job fairs to recruit historically disadvantaged minority groups. The key is affirmative action or positive discrimination.
This worthy principle must be strongly commended and adopted in a horrendously unequal society like India's -- where discrimination is so deeply ingrained and pervasive that anthropologists like Louis Dumont were tempted to posit a new category of social organisation to describe it -- Homo hierarchicus.
India is marked by cascading inequalities. If you are born underprivileged, you face growing discrimination in education, freedom, employment, income, etc -- each step of the way. In most people's case, the injustice is never compensated. This denial of social opportunity destroys the very possibility of realising the human potential of millions of people. It can be effectively countered by levelling the originally tilted playing field -- through affirmative action.
This is the framework in which we should debate the reservations issue, which is being raised afresh in respect of the private sector (especially in Maharashtra) and of Muslims. In Andhra Pradesh, 5 percent of government jobs have been declared reserved under a policy initiated by Chandrababu Naidu and continued by his successor.
The policy of extending reservations for SCs and STs to the private sector is part of the UPA's National Common Minimum Programme. It promises to 'initiate a national dialogue [on this] with all political parties, industry and other organisations' to 'fulfil the aspirations of SC and ST youth.' This is unexceptionable. But reservations for Muslims as Muslims may be undesirable.
The proposed affirmative action in the private sector has drawn a negative industry reaction. Confederation of Indian Industry chief Anand Mahindra 'welcomes' a dialogue, but says 'reservation without reference to merit may have a distorting effect.' Some magnates have threatened to relocate in case Maharashtra goes ahead with the move. This is bizarre coming from business families in which birth and inheritance count infinitely more than 'merit.'
Indian business families jealously guard their lineage and privilege at the expense of all else -- as the latest controversy over Priyamvada Birla's will shows. Efficiency and 'merit' aren't exactly the forte of India's business culture. Or else, we wouldn't have 250,000 private factories lying closed, with tens of thousands of crores tied up in non-performing assets. Nor would we have scandals in every major industry. In private business, most people are recruited on the basis of contacts, sifarish, loyalty and political influence, not 'merit.'
However, the strongest argument for affirmative action derives from the persistence of cruel and often barbaric forms of discrimination against marginalised groups such as Dalits. This discrimination enjoys the sanction of the Dharmashastras. One only has to take a fleeting glance at the Manusmriti to note the hierarchy it stipulates and the gruesome punishment it prescribes for the Shudras (including Dalits and most OBCs), who must forever obediently serve the other, twice-born, varnas. They must be 'gentle in speech' and 'free from pride,' and own no property 'other than donkeys and dogs.'
Should a Shudra try to place himself on the same seat with a man of high caste, say the scriptures, 'he shall be branded on his hip and banished. If out of arrogance, a Shudra spits on a superior, (the king) shall cause both his lips to be cut off... If a Shudra threatens a Brahmin with a stick, he shall remain in hell for a hundred years; he who strikes a Brahmin, shall remain in hell for a thousand years... A Chandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating women must not look at the Brahmin when they eat. The Chandalas shall be outside the village and their dress shall be the garments of the dead... they must always wander from place to place. A Shudra who sleeps with a maiden of the highest caste shall suffer capital punishment.'
To this day, inhuman and degrading casteist practices prevail in India: Dalits must take off their shoes and their women must uncover their faces while passing through an upper-caste area; their dead cannot be carried through savarna streets. In many states, Dalits are banned from making ghee.
In Andhra and Tamil Nadu, they have been punished for asserting their legal rights by being forced to eat human excreta. One only has to read the reports of the SC/ST Commissions to verify this. Such vile discrimination against Dalits and most OBCs cannot be eliminated by calling for equal opportunity -- among unequal people whose starting conditions are grossly unequal. Correcting them demands affirmative action.
Affirmative action's principal function is not individual betterment, but acknowledgement of historic injustice against a group and compensation for it through preferred recruitment, etc. So long as anti-Dalit discrimination persists, we must continue with reservations.
For the same reason, the Mandal principle cannot be faulted. However, we must recognise that reservations or quotas are a particularly strong form of affirmative action and pose practical difficulties. It won't be easy to implement them in the private sector, which creates very few new jobs. The organised private sector accounts for just 8.4 million jobs -- down from 8.8 million in 1998. The whole organised sector employs just 27.2 million.
What might be preferable to reservations are other forms of positive discrimination, either voluntary or promoted through bodies like the remarkable Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the US. By fighting for employment for ethnic minorities, EEOC has brought a major change in countless industries and occupations like automobile dealerships and even television anchorship. It ruled that 5 percent of all government purchases must come from minority suppliers.
Thus, major Fortune-500 corporations like Exxon-Mobil, General Motors and Wal-Mart recruit 16 percent to 23 percent of their workers from among the minorities. GM and Ford have been buying components from minority suppliers for years. IBM has 15 percent of its staff drawn from the minorities. Over one-third of the faculty at the Harvard Medical School belongs to such groups. By contrast, Dalits and Adivasis (23 percent of our population) have abysmally low representation: just 7.1 percent in factories, 3.1 percent in construction, 4.1 percent in trade, 3 percent in transport, and 3.4 percent in domestic industry.
India must emulate and adapt affirmative action methods from the US and post-apartheid South Africa too. To start with, we must ensure jobs for Dalits and Adivasis roughly in proportion to their share in the population.
Finally, a word on reservations for Muslims. In recent years, many Indian Muslims have suffered discrimination, especially at the hands of the State. But they don't fall into the category of Dalits who face historic injustice. Nor are Muslims homogenous. They will be better served through education, especially for girls, modernisation of madrassas, opening up of special state services (police intelligence and RAW) which are closed to them, and conscious recruitment of professionals through EEOC-type programmes.
Given the history of communal conflict and the active social-political presence of the Sangh Parivar, there will be a strong backlash to reservations -- through screams of 'appeasement.' Instead of reservations, the Andhra government should announce affirmative action for Muslims in education and job training.