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For reservation, without reservation
July 25, 2006
If we do not act now, with our collective wisdom, India will be the only society where caste, class and knowledge based divisions coexist even in 2100 -- a madhouse indeed!
Suddenly, we are into another storm. As usual, we have shown that our interests and solutions are only peripheral. I have been concerned about the issue, but hesitated to write, as in our developed society, disagreement often damages career and personal well-being.
As John Ralston Saul* says it is normal not to react. Yet, to be alive, it is necessary to be sensitive to the world around. Maybe in the era of opportunistic politics, your reactions may not lead to much apparent benefit; nevertheless they may make certain individuals think differently.
The bottom line is that people largely are good, although those governing them may be the opposite. Let us not, however, forget that we have a functioning democracy, its defects notwithstanding, with several well-meaning individuals at responsible positions, which makes it possible to discuss issues.
In this column, I plan to look at the reservation issue in totality and not to comment on the various aspects of its OBC avtar.
I have been fortunate to study in the best institutions in the country and abroad and had opportunities to work with the best minds in my chosen area of science, although born in a village where electric bulbs glowed when I was in the Masters. I have not forgotten the days of the kerosene lamp and the weeks spent tilling the land and tending to the vegetables grown in the paddy fields during summers.
During my school days, over 25 years ago, the Dalits, who worked in the fields, were given rice porridge in banana leaves placed in pits dug in the courtyard, several metres away from the house. The quality of food and the way it is served have improved these days, but still done outside the house, in the veranda, in the back or in the front. At least some of us eat with the workers, but there is some hidden separation.
This is the situation today in one of the forward looking, pro-Left houses of Kerala, the most forward (?) state of India. This may be contrasted with the situation where I teach, in an IIT, where in some houses, the cookware, washed by a servant from the lower caste is re-washed before use. Extreme situations of untouchability prevail in certain parts of India.
Discussing caste in public is not considered welcome social behaviour, although it is deeply rooted in the society. In the fifty plus years of independence, we have only increased caste-based divides. In fact every form of inequality is on the rise. Look at the rise of the wedding extravaganza, dowry and sex mafia: women have not been liberated. Look at the land holdings in metros, positions of importance in public service, respectable jobs with reasonable income and any number of parameters you take: the marginalised communities do not have adequate representation. Those who do not have money are not listened to; their dignity is robbed in police stations, hospitals and offices. They can give birth in the open and their nudity does not arouse media attention. Black is still not an accepted colour of skin when it comes to beauty, aristocracy, wealth, prosperity, etc.
Yet, it is the black (well, in the international sense, the black side of the brown) who produce grains on which this country lives. It is the underprivileged whose sweat makes the roads and the buildings; the development you see out there is due to their muscle. It is true that a majority of the Dalits, even today, are manual labourers. Some of us, fortunate to be here in these rooms to discuss (or read) the issue of reservation will burn out in one day, if subjected to the torture they go through day after day, year after year.
Yet, in the ultimate analysis, their work may have produced far better social good than ours. They too have to live in this 'develooooping' and gooooogling India, which they contribute in building. Of course, we owe something to them, because this country is built on their generations of suffering. In fact on this point, no one disagrees.
But charity is not the way as it has not served any social purpose in any nation. It has not lifted people from the drudgery of day-to-day life. It has not removed child labour and violence in impoverished societies. We need something better.
Caste-based reservation, as an option for removing social inequality, has failed in the past several decades. Those with better vote banks, more control over them and with better pressure tactics gained and got themselves included in the reserved list. Now every community is trying hard to be reserved in some category or the other as being 'reserved' brings security for the next generation. For getting themselves reserved, parties are born.
We wanted to remove social inequality, but instead more divisions appeared. In fact the present growth of pressure groups would make the whole population reserved in some class or the other in the foreseeable future. The policies we frame, work against the very objective for which they were created!
What has reservation produced?
A privileged group among the reserved has been created, who compete against their brethren to enjoy the benefits. This competition goes on and on and as a result, a creamy layer or super-caste within caste, has evolved. Its members are similar to the privileged of the unreserved class, except for the apparent biological manifestations, which unfortunately the years of reservation could not erase.
The reserved who enjoyed the benefits refused to acknowledge the fact that they were recipients of social support and considered the two-three letter acronym a curse and tried to hide it as much as possible, except when it came to admissions, recruitment, jobs and promotions. Mind you, I do not blame them as these acronyms are treated with contempt, even decades after the word, Harijan was coined.
The fortunate among the reserved, who got admissions for better courses, did their best within their ability; got jobs, promotions, accommodation, social benefits, contacts, etc. and this continued for decades. It is natural that once the benefits of reservation are available to an individual, those continue along his/her family tree, forcing others in the community to compete with them.
The majority, who does not enjoy the comforts, become further marginalised. As the size of the reservation pie is not increasing, the benefits of reservation do not reach the other sections of the less privileged. This goes on and the results of this are seen in all institutions. The first generation reserved will decrease in number (or has it started already?) as time goes on.
In the house of the officer, who enjoyed the reserved benefits, a maid servant from the reserved caste is most often not allowed to share the dining table. The class based tambra has replaced the caste-based one. It is unlikely that marriages happen between widely separated social hierarchies. The new rulers among the class evolved get economic, political and intellectual superiority. Another Animal Farm got institutionalised.
So, where do we go?
Let us understand the objectives of reservation policies. Ideally we want to create a system in which the less privileged gets an opportunity to compete and excel. The structure of such a policy should be such that it removes the very need to have it erased over a finite period. The statement, although simple, is hard to implement in practice. A successful application would imply concerted efforts of all, in various spheres of activity. It must remove social/religious/caste/creed based imbalances in all spheres, and if it happens, it would be our second freedom struggle. It is only natural that we, who do not have the might of the Mahatma, looked at softer options.
Enough of the Argumentative Indian-ness. What are the solutions? But, before that let us be clear of the facts: The caste system evolved over a very long period and it continues to thrive in our midst. It needs only common sense to see that any caste based policy will divide us further. You cannot negate one by using the very same yardstick. Obviously, a solution to this problem requires the wisdom of the whole country, since all of us have contributed to create this in the first place.
Let us also be clear of the following. Caste, in a larger sense of human inequality exists in every country and fundamentally it is impossible to get rid of this mindset. What is possible to create by any social system, however, is equality in terms of opportunities. Rest of the imbalances have to be removed by the competence of the humans themselves, by mechanisms such as education. By the practice of a proper policy, the Nair, Namboodiri and Iyengar suffixes may shrink to mere last names, but they are unlikely to disappear. I recall that some of the suffixes we have are centuries old.
I make the following suggestions in the time-frame of 25 years:
1. Every child, at the time of registration in a school should be given an electronic identity, which will be nationally linked. This will be the identity of the person, connected to every transaction.
2. Provide free and compulsory education to all children till high school (Class 10). That is, no child can be found on the streets or match factories, for whatever reason.
3. Free senior secondary high school education for the deserving of the marginalised.
4. The deserving, reserved category students after senior high school are given one option to choose their course of interest among the possibilities they are eligible for (in the 12 year period, from the point of implementation of this policy, it is assumed that college admission in the country will be e-linked). This will be the last and final option. Education for that course, till its successful completion, under certain established norms, will be supported by the government.
5. Those who did not qualify for point 4, will have the opportunity to appear against the reserved quota in government jobs till they get one.
6. Those who enjoyed the benefits of reservation will acknowledge this fact and it will be known to public.
7. There will not be reservation or quota for promotions.
8. The benefits outlined here will start from 10th and 12th year of implementation and the existing quota will be systematically reduced in a fixed time-frame.
9. Implement this policy for 25 years (with periodic review and modifications), through a separate mission, undisturbed by politics.
10. Implement it in such a way that the structure created for this can be fragmented and made part of other ministries and institutions after its intended purpose.
'Reserved' and 'marginalised,' in the points above mean those without means.
'Free' in points 2 and 3 means, with financial assistance, not waiving tuition fee.
Point 4: Various aspects of 'deserved' and 'successful completion' need discussion. Quantum and eligibility of support will depend on income levels and the generation of reservation benefit enjoyed.
Where to find resources? I say, the answer is: the Great Indian Will. As a teacher, let me also add, it is the young in this country who are going to pay for it and let them decide which India they want to live in. From what I know of the young Indians, I am sure, there will be enough and more to pay for it.
Is the timescale enough? Indians living abroad in developed (in the conventional sense) nations have a message for us. Regardless of their educational, cultural or economic background, their second generation is as good as, or better than the natives. They earned their position through competition, in a system of equal opportunities.
If we fail to realise the magnitude of the problem and do not implement the right solution with our collective wisdom, India will be the only society in which caste, class and knowledge based divisions coexist even in 2100. It will truly be a madhouse, this time the whole country, not only Kerala -- what a pitiful remembrance of Swami Vivekananda's disgusted remark!
T Pradeep is a professor at IIT, Madras. The views expressed here are purely personal. Comments, with concrete suggestions in view of a future India are welcome. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
*John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium The Six Qualities of the New Humanism, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2001.