Thursday, April 13, 2006

Reservations about affirmative action

Where and how does one take a stand on affirmative action and reservations, particularly in education? Does one join the ranks of the general category students, who feel wronged by missing out on opportunities due to reservations? Does one sympathize with the recepients of affirmative action who claim, and not unjustifiably, that a) they have been wronged for eons and this is the only way to set the record straight, to achieve equal footing b) Students who have got in with the aid of affirmative action often do as well, if not better than the general category students. I am a huge supporter of meritocracy and generally view with scant respect, anything that interferes with free market forces. But as one of my friends has labored to impress upon me, India is not completely ready for a one hundred percent free market society. It is not yet ready for socialism to be given the complete boot. Then what is the answer?

I won't waste my written word on well-to-do people who claim reservations,. There's no question in my mind, that reservations should definitely not extend to them. There's a school of thought that says that reservations should be on the basis of the economic condition of the individual claiming the benefits of affirmative action. Then should a poor Brahmin be just as entitled to reservation as a person belonging to the so-called lower castes?The argument made against that is a Brahmin who is as poor as a SC/ST/OBC/NT/... will still have an environment at home that is conducive to learning, and hence should not be entitled to reservation. Implicit in this argument is the reasoning that it is the ambience and the learning environment that should decide if a person should benefit from affirmative action. My neighbours were a rich gujju family traditionally inclined to trading and business. Education in their household was pretty much the ugly step sister that had very little importance. In other words, an environment that was inimical to learning. Then if my neighbour's kid did want to go to college and get a higher degree in the face of this, why shouldn't he be entitled to reservation?

Do I believe, then, that there should be reservation in higher education? A categorical no. I don't care if you show me an instance of a reserved category student having done well. The fact is, the ends do not justify the means. That student is there in someone else's place in the first place. What about the possibility that the student might not have been eligible for the seat because he/she was not on equal social footing with the more privileged students? What about the responsibility we bear to make sure that the disparity and the chasm between the two sections of society does not widen any further? To these questions I have one answer. Attack the cause, not the symptoms. A person who is deemed by screening procedures to not have the requistite skills for a seat in an institution is not going to grow them overnight. Throwing such a person in at the deep end is counterproductive. As Sandipan argued in his post, it's like bringing into a national cricket team, someone who has not had the skills to make the cut at the ward, taluka or district level. Admittedly, he did not have the same practice facilities as his more privileged team members did, but so what? You really expect this poor sod to now suddenly negotiate Mcgrath and Lee?

Having said that, I reiterate that mere rhetoric and posturing of this sort is not going to get us anywhere either. The problem of the widening disparity is very real and needs addressing without any further delay. Attack the cause. Go back to the drawing board. Revamp primary and secondary education and make sure it is available to everyone across caste and class boundaries. Spend taxpayers' money on that. I can bet my bottom dollar they would prefer that to the opportunity costs they incur. It's too idealistic, but it can be done. By ensuring that everyone gets equivalent levels of preliminary education, help create a situation where you take out the argument that justifies reservation in institutes of higher learning. It will take time, but show me a better way that preserves the virtues of meritocracy without depriving the different strata of society of the benefits of a free market society and I'll accept that without complaint.


Blogger Anshul said...

Completely agree. Had an exact discussion/argument with a friend a few weeks back.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Tugga said...

@ Anshul: I am not surprised, it's a topic that has dominated conversation for almost a couple of weeks now:-)

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