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Caste out of class

July 12, 2004

Among the privileged urban people, it is commonly and passionately believed that reservations based on caste are not fair, and that these should be replaced with affirmative action based on economic need. Nearly everyone in this group has a sister who didn't get into a computer science programme at engineering college despite getting 97% in high school or can remember an undeserving fellow who wasn't really a needy person, but simply got a government job or promotion simply because he happened to belong to the right caste.

Naturally, from these observations, many conclude that reservations are not helping anyone, while they're hurting plenty of people they know. They look at the growing debate over reservations in the private sector with absolute horror, imagining further denials of their aspirations if an already 'unfair' system should take even deeper roots.

But is caste really an unfair marker for social action or government regulation? The record of actual reform in overcoming the institution of caste and its attendant woes is quite poor; surely we mustn't be too hasty in abandoning our efforts. Besides, privilege is a combination of many things -- membership in select groups based on kinship or association, access to individuals from such groups, and social and economic attitudes between different groups. One's caste is a reasonable -- but admittedly not total -- proxy for socio-economic status in India, especially at the bottom of hierarchy. Just as importantly, those who lament the dilution of merit by reservations should focus instead on far more important things -- access to primary education, rights to worship, freedom from bondage, etc.

These are areas in which the equality of access and the promise of comparable outcomes provided in the Constitution aren't remotely real to most lower castes, and these are far more compelling and numerous than the incremental privilege afforded to a few hundred thousand people. The fact is, for too many people, their destinies are ultimately determined by their caste. It follows naturally that caste-based reservations are a sensible and necessary remedy to that condition.

The most commonly proposed alternative -- using income as the measure of one's need for reservation -- appears more defensible, but is seen by lower castes as a charade, an option that is offered without honest intent with the sole intention of killing off caste-based action. A recent Supreme Court ruling on government-aided schools in Delhi sheds light on this.

Although poverty is usually cited as the reason poor children are not all in school, in urban areas there is additionally one important factor -- places reserved for the poor are given away to the affluent. For many decades now, state governments have provided land at concessional rates to private schools on the condition that these schools reserve a percentage of their seats (usually between 10% and 25%) for poor children in the form of freeships. Even schools that did not receive land have made similar promises to obtain other clearances.

What really happened, of course, is quite different. The managements of these schools happily took the lands and certifications, and almost immediately forgot their contractual obligation to the indigent. As a result, millions of children whose freeships were bought by the concessional-rate contracts were fobbed off, and their places offered to families like yours and mine.

The evasion was always in plain sight. Schools declared that they had no vacancies to accommodate the poor, or advertised their willingness to admit the poor in upper-class publications that would never be read by the indigent. These were clearly indefensible -- where is the question of vacancy, in talking about seats that are supposedly reserved for the poor? You decide if state governments were complicit in this deceit, or simply not alert enough. In any event, over time this violation became the norm, so much so that most people aren't even aware that schools are under any obligation to serve the indigent.

Now, the justice system is slowly catching up with this charade. In April the Supreme Court ordered the directorate of education in the capital region to investigate compliance with the contracts by the schools and begin enforcing them wherever violations are found.

Ironically, this case landed on the Court's desk partly as a result of litigation launched by some parents who complained that continuous raises in tuition and other costs is turning education mindlessly commercial. While quite alert to the strain on their own resources, these parents were stunned when the Court, in its ruling, went beyond their plea and ordered that the promises made to the truly poor should also be kept.

This seems only fair. When so many parents are getting a break from the ridiculously high costs of educating their children, surely they shouldn't mind the Court extending its watchful pen to provide opportunities for some indigent children as well. Right? Alas. The same parents while pleading their inability to keep up with rising costs of their wards' learning may not be so keen on seeing their children put in classrooms alongside the really poor kids whose families can't even afford the first rupee of their education. The full range of upper class fears is now out in force, arguing that implementation of this ruling would be a retrograde step.

Managements and parents -- hitherto bitterly opposed on the question of fees and charges -- are suddenly friends again, since this time the target is a common enemy, the city's poor.

Now, their worry is that their illegal golden goose of all these years is about to have its head chopped off. School managements insist that the concession they got was too small to afford the cost of educating poor children for free, conveniently neglecting that they agreed to the deal anyway. They're worried that the high standards of their schools will be dumbed down by the poorer kids, and want the government to set up alternate facilities separately for the poor.

Of course, they are not talking about returning the land, or coughing up the costs of having neglected to provide those free seats all these years. They are worried that the 'reforms' that have improved education for the privileged all these years should not be destroyed, but they are readily blind to the lack of reforms to improve opportunity for the poor, and their own guilty roles in this.

There's much to be said about public education itself here, but let's return to the question of caste. Can we expect lower castes to have much faith in a system of affirmative action based on economic need, if it is immediately and so thoroughly perverted by the privileged? We have taken a defensible welfarist approach to public education and subverted it so much that the only alternative remaining with the underprivileged is to now make rights-based demands for the services they need.

If the populism and casteism of political parties angers you, then pause to consider how the proposed alternatives for progress actually work.

The privileged urban elite have repeatedly refused to acknowledge even the existence of discrimination and denial linked to caste, whereas among the victims themselves the lines of separation could not be clearer. Who can blame them if they conclude that our 'now you see caste, now you see class' arguments are a bait-and-switch scheme by which the indigent will become further marginalised, without allies even among their own communities?

The choice is a simple one. Either we accept a caste-demarcated society in which aspirations of different groups of Indians repeatedly clash in the political arena and undermine the progress of all, or we recognise the need for honest class-integrated solutions to the cries of the weak before they turn into cynical anger and deep polarisation.

As things now stand, we can intellectually advocate caste-neutral approaches to the myriad socio-economic ills that plague the nation, but the rationale for these is quickly defeated by reality.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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