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The death of meritocracy
May 29, 2006
It was too good to last.
Stop the presses. Party's over. Bad news, folks. It's the same old, same old. Just as the world was turning flat, India has decided to retreat into its own spherical bubble of class warfare. The quota raj is over. Long live the quota raj. Plus ça change, at least in Bharatvarsha.
While the 'enabling' amendment was passed by Parliament, the actual act of imposing a quota has yet to be passed by Parliament. There is a nation full of young men and women of the Rang De Basanti generation who believe in har desh mahan nahi hota, use mahan banana padta hain (A country can achieve greatness only if its citizens strive to make it great). And there are a few constitutional issues to consider.
Constitutional experts may have an explanation for this, but Indian citizens should be asking the question as to why 'classes' become the same as 'castes', especially considering that the 2001 Census did not even enumerate any caste other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which are specifically mentioned in the Constitution.
But the idea that society 'owes them' harks back to Ram Jethmalani's speech in Parliament about how 'the present generation, the people of so-called merit must learn that the present society will have to pay for the sins of our ancestors.' It is the reimposition of the quota raj that will slow India's economic growth and ultimately hurt the poor.
Yet another supporter of reservations states that 'if we think we can arrive at a solution to the core issue of denial of opportunity without resorting to reservation, then why have we not done so all these years?'
Of course, that would require Indian politicians to work hard to actually propose and implement something tangible and meaningful. And the vote bank benefits would not come for years, if at all. It should not come as a surprise that the Arjun Singhs and V P Singhs end up choosing the quick fix of mandating quotas at the professional college level.
On this issue, some IITians have proposed that the IITs, non-profit organisations or the government itself could provide study guides and material to prepare for entrance examinations on the Internet free of cost. If this material is on par with the kind of coaching that the Bansals and the Brilliants (private ecoaching classes that train students for the IIT and medical entrance exams) provide to those who can afford them, the playing field can be leveled for the underprivileged.
Another argument made is that 'quotas are an accepted practice the world over and many NRIs are getting the same benefits especially in the USA.' For one thing, to the extent US universities try to encourage diversity in their incoming classes, the quotas actually work against Indian-American children since they tend to be over-achievers who are rejected because there are too many Asian-Americans who all have to stay within the unspoken quota limits.
In any case, no other country in the world sets quotas for admissions that can reach up to the absurd level of 50 per cent being proposed in India. Even in the US, racial quotas are being challenged in the courts and through the electoral process.
Courts in the US have started outlawing preferences in college admissions and job promotions, and even the fairly benign quota raj in the US is being rolled back, slowly but surely.
Thus OBC candidates who are in the top 10 per cent, but not in the currently admitted top 5,444 ranks, would still get a seat in the IITs.
The 'almost as good' argument is probably the most dangerous one being made in support of quotas. This is social engineering at its worst and represents the death of meritocracy in India. Do we want the very best doctors or engineers in the world, or do we want professionals viewed as being the 'almost best'?
Instead of diluting the hard earned reputation of India's top educational institutions, why not set up other colleges and institutions of excellence to admit those ranked from 5,445 to 10,000? This is not a matter of elitism, but instead it is all about building upon the success already achieved.
India was beginning to win precisely because Indians were viewed to be amongst the most talented professionals that any country could produce. Now, while the Chinese are working to make their universities the best in the world, Indian educational institutions will change their mantra to chase the dream of being the 'almost best.'
The reincarnation of Arjun Singh in a coming epoch will demand quotas for non-OBCs, and so the cycle will perpetuate itself. Sort of like the Steinhardt-Turok universe that goes through infinite cycles of expansion and destruction. The sins of the fathers will always visit upon the sons. And Mera Bharat will aspire to be almost, but not quite, Mahan.