A few days ago I happened to watch an NDTV news programme featuring Gurcharan Das and Meira Kumar on the issue of private sector job reservations.
While the show's anchor prodded them in different directions, the core of Das' argument boiled down to saying that "merit" should not be compromised.
Mrs Kumar failed to offer any coherent rebuttal to Das' argument. She just kept saying that she was hopeful the private sector would come around and underlined her confidence that reservations were just round the corner.
I believe both parties went off track -- though I may be doing both Das and Kumar an injustice by basing my observations on a TV programme.
TV dialogues do not allow for a cogent presentation of any argument. At any point, dialogues get adjourned mid-sentence either because it's commercial-break time or because the anchor has to put in his two bits to show he is the boss of the show.
I am against job quotas in general, but I am all for affirmative action -- and the two things are not the same.
While job quotas are about pushing people into jobs on the basis of some law, affirmative action is about companies themselves pulling in the right people from the target groups through a far-sighted and effective HR intervention.
The only difference is that the focus of the intervention is on people outside the company.
The end goal of both job quotas and affirmative action may be the same -- to ensure that people from all sections of the population get adequate opportunities for employment and career growth -- but the road to achieving the goal is divergent.
Coming back to the TV show, Gurcharan Das' main argument was that you cannot have quotas because jobs must go on "merit".
A lot depends on what Das meant by merit. In India, the term has broadly meant scholastic merit -- or people with high marks or high-sounding degrees.
But merit should actually mean something else: Having the right talent, skills and competencies to do a job. Talent is innate, it cannot usually be taught; skills and job-related knowledge can be.
For example, if you are good with people and have the ability to make them comfortable or follow in your footsteps, it is not a skill you learn in school or on a job.
It is part of you as a person. It is a talent. But learning the right words to say to a customer who calls you is job knowledge; it can be taught to anybody with the talent for being friendly with customers.
The point I am coming to is this: skills and knowledge relating to a job can be taught to anybody with the right talent.
And the right talent does not reside only with the people who top the merit lists in board exams or those who get into the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management.
Look at the chain of academic achievements and you will find that a high proportion of people who do well at the board exams go on to get into the IITs or various engineering colleges and then into B-schools.
This is not because these people are full of "merit" (that is, having the right talents for managerial jobs) but because they have the financial means and the will to get into these career-enhancing institutions.
Few Dalits can hope to invest so much to compete on equal terms -- if this is the "merit" companies are looking for. They will also fail to achieve their corporate goals if they reduce merit to high IQ or high theoretical knowledge.
On the other hand, real jobs need real talents that are innate -- the skills and training required to improve competencies can be taught by companies willing to invest in people.
A good manager is not a good manager because he got educated at the IIMs, but because he has the talent to manage people -- and himself. In other words, managerial talent is substantially innate, and related to people skills and leadership abilities. No MBA institute can teach these things, though a theoretical grounding may be useful.
If we define "merit" as a mix of innate talents and skills and knowledge that can be imparted in a short while, affirmative action immediately becomes possible.
In a huge population, talent can be found in plenty not only among the upper classes, but also among the disadvantaged sections -- whether they are Dalits, OBCs, Muslims, or women.
All you need to do to tap this wider talent pool is to define the talents needed for higher paying jobs, develop an infrastructure to impart the special skills needed for specific jobs, and choose better from the disadvantaged classes.Surely, the Narayana Murthys, Azim Premjis, Ambanis, Birlas, and Tatas can spare a few crores every year to invest in affirmative action. So can many others. If they don't think so, they don't deserve to be called India's most forward-looking businessmen.