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Part I - Search for the Right Reasons

Last week, I was talking to one of my old college chum, and during the course of our conversation, we went off tangent from our discussion of babes, books, etc… to the issue of reservation for OBCs that has been in the news since almost the past couple of months… He said that he would like to know my opinion as it would be interesting. I wonder why it would be; perhaps because I graduated from IIT and would begin pursuing my studies from IIM later this month and to add to it the fact that I am an OBC. I seem to be in an ideal catch-22 situation. It makes me appear like the Hamlet split between moral integrity and the need to avenge his father's murder or like Vijay in Zanjeer – torn between his duty and his love.

I guess I did disappoint him though, since there was and is no dilemma for me. Two roads do diverge in the woods on this issue, and I chose my path in a split second, without any second thoughts.

Then he asked me to put up my thoughts here. It was then I started thinking about the entire issue – not only about reservations in educational institutes but reservations in general – deeply. Till then, I had taken the call subconsciously.

More I thought about it, the more it confused me. The issue indeed is complicated. But, it was not the complexity of the issue itself that vexed me but the perspectives of the pro and anti lobbies. Both sides have made intense arguments attacking or defending the logic of reservations. Somehow, I could not grasp what cause was being fought for by either side.

And if you are puzzled as to why is this important?

I was watching this comedy “Still Standing” on Star World. In the episode I am talking of, the teenage girl kid tries to get a hicky (I really don’t know what that means or if it is spelt the way I did, but what I gathered from the context is that it is somewhat akin to a love bite or a deep-long-suction kiss) from her boyfriend next door. Her parents are obviously furious at this. Apparently, at her school the achievers identify themselves with colored wristbands for their achievements (read hicky, kiss, etc… you got the point). The poor girl was trying to get a red one (the lowliest of the colors). When her boyfriend refuses to do or give so, taking the morally high road, she and her friend give it to each other (don’t let your imaginations fire up) with a vacuum cleaner. Her mother on learning this explains to the kid that whatever she does (right from getting hicky, kiss, etc…) it is OK if it is done for the right reasons.

Right reasons, I guess those are what I am looking for. Do the reasons that have been given qualify as right, or to use a less ambiguous word, rational? Let’s find out.

Reason: Merit is compromised if reservations are in place

My ex-girl friend – an OBC – was a topper all through out her school years. She gathered one of the best scores in PCM in standard XII exams and during her engineering years, at one of the best departments of University of Mumbai, too was a topper. Now, she is pursuing her Ph. D. studies in States on full scholarship.

One of my other chums, again an OBC, secured admission to one of the best engineering colleges in Maharashtra. At the time of graduation he had offers from 3 companies including 2 MNCs. He took a job with one of them and has been a consistent performer at job. At his job, he leads a small team and is also up for promotion this year.

Then there was this chap at IIT, from the reserved category, the best of chess players at that time in the institute. He also acquired superb skill with drums and drumsticks at IIT. His solo composition had rocked the Institute Day celebrations.

Lastly, I topped at school in standard X exams and was ranked 30th in State. I was ranked 5th in the department at IIT. My clients here at job are pleased with my work and have appreciated the innovation I have brought in my work. And, I made it to the IIMs.

And I have to add this example: Dr. K R Narayanan, the former President of India also belonged to the reserved category. I need not say much. The man’s achievements speak for itself.

So, how accurate is this statement that merit is compromised. Once into an institution like IIT, IIM or AIIMS the reserved category students compete and study just like others. Some perform, some flunk - just like others. There is no real objective way of measuring the so-called compromise of merit. The reality as I know from my personal experience is that they, the reserved category students, are as hard-working and as capable as any other unreserved category student.

The logic of its anti-reason is far more unconvincing. By refuting the argument, reservations can not be justified. Personally, it is hard to see why someone who is capable and hard-working wants reservations.

One reason that is offered to answer the question posed is…

Reason: The social and economic backwardness for thousands of years disables them from competing

It is true that the lower castes have been and are socially and economically backward, for some this is truer than others. But, does a person’s social and economic background deprive him/her of his/her intelligence? It does not, right! Yes, but due to their backwardness, they may not be able to nurture their intelligence through out their blossoming years. So, adequate avenues are required to learn and grow for such students in the young years? The need is to expand the pie and not to divide is proportionately.

Another closely tied reason has evolved taking cues from this reason.


Reason: Provide reservations in primary & secondary education and spare the institutes of higher learning

This is a loose argument, extremely speculative and kind of oversimplifies the larger issue of social and economic inequity by making it a total function of a person’s educational background.

Education, be it primary or secondary or higher, is not just teaching the person to read, write and count. It is not about teaching a person to sign using a pen instead of a thumb-print. Education metamorphoses the thought process. After each level, one gets wiser. Can we claim that our primary and secondary education accomplishes or has accomplished this?

Not to say that primary and secondary education does not help and emphasis on it is not required. But, given the dismal primary and secondary education infrastructure in the nation, will it really make a difference, and if it will, will it not take at least another 15 years to see any results. Reservation has been proposed as a solution to present socio-economic inequity. So what do we do about the present; nothing is it? Blame it as a failure of the successive governments for the past 55 years and sit back?

Reason: Is 55 years of reservation not enough to reduce socio-economic inequity?

This argument is a perfect example of the “wisdom” that the present standards of education endow on the youth. Does today’s youth live in a real world?

A few days back I received an email mocking reservations. It was supposed to be a transcript of a statement by Azim Premji, which I believe was put in the email to sell its contents that not only reflected the immaturity of thought of the mind that composed it but also the sheer ignorance of, indifference and insensitivity to the realities. And this email reached me thrice in 3 weeks from 3 different sources (which is some measure of the power of internet as a propaganda tool).

There were some ridiculous suggestions that 60 runs scored by a “reserved” player be counted as a century, or a “reserved” player should not be bowled at more than specific speed, etc. As I mentioned previously, the socially backward are only seeking an opportunity to perform. The entry criterion is the only thing that is relaxed for them and not the criteria for securing a degree or a job. It is a level playing field there.
But, it is saddening that today, we, the youth, tend to dismiss social inequity and its effects as unreal. Most of the flock at our institutes of higher learning is urban (and vociferous in anti-reservation protests). Caste based exploitation is quite unreal for them. But is it as unreal as it seems? Has this educated populace stopped listening to the news? Almost daily in crime news, we hear stories of how the lower caste boy/girl is punished (read killed) for loving an upper caste girl/boy. What do we have to say about upper caste people not ready to share emergency shelters with lower caste members after the tsunami? Is this not exploitation? And these are the stories which are reported. For a real understanding of the gravity of social inequity, one has to see rural India. Face it, social inequity exists – even after 55 years of reservation.

And, most of the socially backward are also economically backward. They do menial, dirty and dangerous jobs and live from hand to mouth. And those among the educated like you and me, what do we do for them?

The sewage workers, as an example, clean the sewage nearly bare-bodied. They get into the filth and clean it so that the environment stays healthy. And what has been done for them. I am not asking personally but professionally. Why have the educated in the administrative posts not enforced any occupational safety norms for the sewage workers? Not asking anyone to share the piece of their pies, just give these people what they deserve – not because they are socially or economically backward but because they are a part of the economy and contribute as much as anybody else. But do we or have we? It is not only the government that has failed but also the Indian society that has failed.

The Indian Constitution resolves to secure all its citizens equality of status and of opportunity. I read once: In a democracy, equality of results is the price the people pay for not ensuring equality of opportunity. And this is the premise, reservation is based on.

Reason: Institutes of higher learning should be forced with reservation

Having studied at an IIT, I have a first hand experience of its culture. Autonomy of these Institutes is a feature that has made them the best apart from having world-class facilities and teachers. I am not in favor of pushing anything down their throat.

All renowned institutions of higher learning around the world, be it Harvard, Princeton, Oxford or Cambridge, are differentiated not by the facilities or the teachers only but by the culture they have nurtured. And it is as true of the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS. Any short-sighted change forced on them might irreversibly damage what has been built over years. These institutes have built a system that has been successful. Trust them with their system! Give them a vision, but let them evolve themselves. And most importantly, as they house the best talents in India, seek their vigorous involvement to address these and other problems of the nation.

For example, IT penetration in rural areas would empower the socio-economically backward sections of the society with information to take intelligent decisions. Active participation from IITs should be sought towards implementing such systems cheaply and effectively. Already, IIT Madras has done some progress in this area.

Also, agriculture in rural areas and especially among the socio-economic backward sections of the society is largely fragmented and consolidation in this regard can do considerable good to them, socially and economically. The IITs and IIMs can both help in this regard. The former could suggest preferable crop-cycles across seasons and the latter could advise on how land resources should be engaged to achieve maximum profits. Although, these are definitely easier said than done, the best of the breed at the IITs, IIMs and other institutes of higher learning would and should definitely find it challenging.

This is why I feel that reservations should not be thrust on the institutes of higher learning. But the common reason that has been given is quite not it.

Reason: Reservation as a solution has failed

Statistics collected by the IITs, IIMs and Parliamentary Committee on the welfare for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been given in support of this reason. These stats suggest that almost 50% of the reserved seats are going empty and that of those that are filled 25% fail to finish the degree in even 6 years.

Statistics themselves don’t say anything; their interpretations do. So, one might say that since of 100, 63 seats are wasted or not utilized efficiently, reservation is not working. But, one might even say, that since 37 are benefiting out of it, removal of reservation might help even fewer or none. So, by that we would be making somebody worse off to make someone better. Economic definition of optimality does not really allow for that. One interpretation of these numbers would be that when it comes to IIT they perhaps are not giving enough emphasis on the weaker students and hence they tend to fail. Interpretations, they are mere speculations; some could be more accurate than others.

To interpret them correctly, I believe that you should always go behind the veil of numbers and seek the realities that drive them.

One of my pals at IIT, from reserved category, flunked quite a lot. But I won’t say he was not capable or he could not cope up with IIT studies. He worked part-time to pay up for his mess fees. Yeah, the tuition fees were waived as a measure of financial assistance. But I remember him finding it difficult to even pay up the 4 digit tuition fees one semester. He never indulged in any kind of bad habits and lived an utmost simple life. I don’t want to write more about it hoping I have made the point.

Another class-mate at IIT, from reserved category, is perhaps the first in his family to perhaps earn a 5 digit salary. His family somehow managed to pay for his expenses at IIT. He worked hard and was serious of his studies and though he did not land a job at IIT, primarily because not many construction companies turned up the year we passed out, he got one as soon as he received the degree. Reservations do have an effect, they have changed lives.

The number of years a reserved student takes to finish a course does not really tell you anything. Efficacy of reservation has to be measured across more socio-economic parameters.

Clearly, the reserved seats that go unclaimed for lack of deserving takers in the reserved category should be awarded to deserving candidates from the general category. Wastage is something that should be curtailed whenever and wherever possible, because the opportunity cost of wastage is high.

Reason: Reservations work and hence implement them

It is true reservations have had an effect but nothing proves that it is the best solution of the problem of socio-economic inequity.Any solution should pass the test of marginal analysis before it is implemented. By that, we must analyze that assuming that the socio-economic inequity is at 100, by how much would the inequity decrease by introducing unit positive discrimination (or reservation). Such analysis should be done to anticipate any impact of the introduction of newer reservation.

But this is far too complicated – as I have explained earlier – the impact of reservations can not be fully understood. For one, we don’t know for sure what the size of population we are looking at is. The Mandal commission, the NSSO and the National Family and Health Survey have all come up with their numbers for OBC populations. We don’t know for sure, if it is helping the cause of the socio-economically backward sections, and if it is by how much. We also don’t know for sure if they are not helping or if they are causing any side-effects. The point is, if we don’t know where we are and where we want to be, how we can even decide upon a path.

I guess I have covered most reasons that I felt were relevant for rational argument. Apart from these, what have been mostly offered as reasons are either irrelevant, emotional appeals or is mudslinging by both parties at each other. They are too hollow to deserve any second thoughts according to me.

So, at the end of it, what do I think? I would have to do that in Part II, as this is how long I can really type continuously.

(Comments [criticisms, clarifications, seeking explanation to more reasons] are invited.)

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camelpost said... @ June 29, 2006

If you thought Reservations end with admissions in IIT, please read the following from Academics@ IIT Delhi http://www.iitd.ac.in/bsw/academic.htm
Department Change at IIT .. A student is eligible to apply for change of discipline at the end of first year only provided he/she satisfies the criteria: CGPA for the General Category students greater than or equal to 7.50 and CGPA for SC/ST category students greater than or equal to 6.50.

MHRD and the job reservation in private sector supporting UGC Chief must be working hard to set new standards for OBCs.
Let my country go to sleep, let my country go to sleep .......

will the respected Finance Minister talk of different income tax rates and bank interest rates for SC ST and OBCs. He should mind his own business. IMHO persons whose upper storey is empty should do mouthshut.com

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