R Arun Kumar, People's Democracy
THERE is an interesting story whose moral we all need to understand. A highly educated professional had gone to a village to meet his childhood friend who was a shepherd. Through the course of their conversation, the talk shifted to technology. The city-bred, foreign-returned friend claimed that he could tell the exact number of goats owned by the one who stays in the village without counting. The bet was that if he wins, the shepherd was to part with one of his goats. While the shepherd was wondering how would this be possible, our friend took out his laptop, connected to the net using bluetooth technology, got to know the total number of livestock in the country, that particular state, district, village and then the exact number owned by his friend. He closed his laptop and declared that his friend owned 32 goats and being so sure of his victory said that he has already taken the goat that was promised to him and put it in his car. Hearing this the shepherd started laughing aloud. When asked for the reason for his laughter, he said that the number of goats owned by him was indeed 32 but the goat taken as trophy was in fact not a goat but a dog. The moral is that however ‘knowledgeable’ one is, he should not be blind to local realities and common knowledge.
The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has been constituted at a specific point of time, with specific objectives due to the existing realities. The aam admi’s decree through the Verdict 2004 is loud and clear. This message has again reverberated in the 2006 election results: cater to the socio-economic needs of the poor and middle classes of the society or get ready to be shown the door. All the actions of the government therefore should be guided by this consideration and nothing else. However some of the technocrats in the government are blind to this historic reality because history teaches us to plan our future by understanding the present and drawing lessons from the past. It is true, as the chairman of the NKC, Sam Pitroda says, that “we cannot go back to what it was” but if we “have to think about what it ought to be tomorrow” this is imperative. It is unfortunate that the majority members of the National Knowledge Commission have voted against reservations ignoring the existing socio-economic realities. Is it really unfortunate or is it something expected knowing the profiles, economics and politics of the members? In fact, it is something that is expected.
In the words of our prime minister, to "leapfrog in the race for social and economic development" by establishing a knowledge-oriented paradigm of development, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) was established on June 13, 2005 and given a timeframe of three years from October 2, 2005 to achieve its objectives. The prime minister stated that the agenda of the commission will be shaped by a knowledge pentagon with five areas of action, “to increase access to knowledge for public benefit, develop new concepts of higher education, rejuvenate science and technology institutions, enable application of knowledge by industry to enhance manufacturing competitiveness and encourage intensive use of knowledge-based services by the government to empower citizens”. So the concept of ensuring social development and ‘increasing the access to knowledge for public benefit’ are some of the important functions of the Commission. The stand taken by the majority members of the Commission on the issue of reservations is quite contradictory to these two objectives.
The demographic advantage of having more than 54 per cent of our population in the below 25 years age group would be lost unless these human resources are tapped for national development. This can be achieved only by ensuring to the majority of our population access to the best of our knowledge building avenues. Unfortunately, majority of our population is poor, marginalised and deprived in economic terms. To identify them in sociological terms they belong to the dalit (16.23 per cent), adivasi (8.3 per cent) and other backward castes (little more than 52 per cent). Thus if the ‘majority’ of the Commission members are serious of their task, they should think of empowering them instead of taking a stand against reservations.
Expressing their opposition to the government's proposal of reservations to the OBCs, the majority has stated “How we go about doing this in a way that is compatible with the goals of a knowledge society is a difficult task and requires more social debate and careful thought.” With the above statement they have subtly stated that reservations are not ‘compatible to knowledge society’. Through this they cast aspersions on the achievements of the dalit, adivasi and other backward caste communities so far as also on their potential. This demonstrates not only their ignorance of the 93rd Constitutional Amendment but also of the Indian realities. More so when their objectives state affirmative action as "a cogent government policy on eliminating discrimination and widening access in education and employment”. It also clearly accepts: “So far efforts in this direction have been fragmented, compelling the judiciary to step in and make decisions that do not always sit well with government policy and public opinion”.
RESERVATIONS AND QUALITY
The issue that quality does not get affected by providing reservations has been discussed earlier in these columns. As the majority of the Knowledge Commission members raised this issue, it needs to be reiterated. All the premier institutes while calling for applicants prescribe a minimum level of qualifying marks necessary for appearing for the entrance examination. In the case of IIT it is 60 per cent. This is not decided randomly but with a scientific understanding that the students with this threshold level of knowledge would be able to cope up with the rigours of the course work prescribed in that institute. Likewise the exemption of a maximum of 5 per cent of the marks offered to the SCs and STs has been decided with the same rational understanding. The students are admitted in these institutes only after clearing these initial hurdles.
The course work in these institutes is known for its scientific design and the methodology adopted in teaching is also modern. Every class, and this includes even a class constituted without taking into consideration reservations, has in it a top-ranking student and also one at the bottom. A preliminary rule in teaching is that one should not teach only to the top one/few or the bottom one/few, but to the class in its entirety. So, it is this scientifically moulded system that ensures quality and not the caste of the student. Moreover, there is no exemption or consideration shown to any student on the basis of his or her caste at the passing out examination. All the students are expected to clear the exam, which is again scientifically designed to ensure top class quality for the award of degree.
Here some bring the argument of coping with the stress of the course. Leading from the above argument stress is not caste specific but student specific and it is the concern of the education system to reduce the stress. A recent report in the Hindustan Times talks of a suicide of an IIT Kanpur student. He is not from the castes that ‘enjoy’ reservation but is from the forward caste. The above quoted report states low grades and the failure to cope up with the stress as the reason for the suicide. Shall we infer from this that students from that particular forward caste cannot cope with the stress of IIT course and thus be advised not to enter? That would be ridiculous to state the least. The cases of students from the dalit and adivasi communities too should be viewed in the same way. Hundreds of students are committing suicides at the pass out stages of 10th and +2 examinations. It is the f
ailure of the education system, the increasing stress on getting a ‘good’ result, depleting opportunities of higher education and employment that are leading them to commit suicide and not the caste into which they are born.
That these arguments against reservation in the name of stress and quality are emanating from some of the members of the Knowledge Commission, in spite of their assertion that they are for ‘social inclusion’, is really sad for the country. This reminds one of the obsession Hitler had about the superiority of the Aryan race and responsibility for the progress of civilisation and nation. Hitler argued that all other races were inferior and associated them with the decay in civilisations. He further argued that all the inferior races should provide with physical labour subjugated and put under the command of the Aryans. (Hitler Mein Kampf) The argument that SCs, STs and OBCs are not fit for premier institutes but can be allowed in other institutes appears to hinge somewhere to the argument made by Hitler and other fascist forces. At least Hitler was more explicit.
All those who are expressing concern about the quality of education are not so much concerned with the vacant teaching faculty posts in the IITs and IIMs. According to sources, out of a total of 406 posts that exist in the IIT Kanpur only 330 faculty members exist, leaving the rest 76 vacant. This would indeed adversely affect the quality of education more than anything else.
DENIAL OF JUSTICE: FOR WHOM?
Unfortunately the statements against reservations made by the ‘names’ among the majority in the Knowledge Commission and their like are misguiding students. One of the important demands being raised by them in the course of their protests is their ‘right for justice’. They are also saying that they are being ‘denied’ by their ‘own country’. However, they have to understand the Indian reality and look behind the media prisms. Only through this will they understand that in our country there are millions of people who are really denied social justice and economic justice. And added to this, the policies of successive governments at the centre have denied them their just due. Reservations are only one of the means that gave succour to them. While majority of the dalits are landless agricultural labourers, majority of the OBCs are from the artisan class. Out of the 2.8 crore OBC population of Andhra Pradesh, 1.87 crores are engaged in 63 types of activities are artisans. These are the very sections that are hit hard by the neo-liberal economic reforms. We have heard and seen of hundreds of weavers committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh unable to bear the distress under which they were subjected to live because of these neo-liberal policies.
On top of this, their social status heaps more insults and binds them to subjection. In Rajasthan, last year a dalit woman magistrate was removed from her post as she dared to go against the upper caste people of that region. After nearly 59 years of Independence, even today there are many such instances where dalits are not allowed to sit in the front benches in the class rooms, wear new uniform to the school, ride a bicycle to the school (the recent example of police protection provided to a girl in Orissa who rides to her school on a bicycle to save her from the upper caste people's threats) and wear chappals. These are some of the forms of social oppression on students in educational institutes not to speak about those prevailing in the society. The most shameful incidents reported in UP are about teachers refusing to take classes in the schools where majority students are from the dalit families. Thus in our country students are denied access to education not just on economic grounds but also on social grounds. Providing them with reservations is not denying others their due but sharing the fruits equitably.
It is true that 55 years have passed since India was proclaimed as a Republic and its Constitution adopted. Reservations have become part of the Constitutional guarantees to the Indian people because of the social reform movements, the freedom struggle and the aspirations harboured by the people on them. Reservations initially were intended for only 10 years. But so was the case with the achievement of universal literacy rate among the age group of 0-14 years in 10 years. The same is the case with the Act on untouchability passed in 1955. Official statistics prove the prevalence of untouchability and the growing incidence of atrocities against SCs and STs and the State’s inaction in most of the cases.
However, all this should not lead to the conclusion that we abandon all these endeavours because of the failure in achieving the set target, as some seem to suggest in the case of reservations. These people forget that through this argument they are in fact demanding punishment for the people who were deprived of the promised rights instead of making a case against the government. It is not the people but the caged political will of the ruling parties at the centre that is responsible for this non-implementation. Time and again it has been proved that only through popular vigil and pressure would we be able to actualise a right promised to us and this is true even in the case of reservations.
DEBATE NEEDED ON ALL ISSUES
The chairman of the Knowledge Commission in a press conference has stated that the time has come to ‘review all these issues’ and that ‘reservations have to be thought ‘in terms of where we are headed in the 21st century’. ‘Social debate and careful thought’ is necessary on all the issues concerning social life but in this name things cannot be put in abeyance forever. It speaks of bias if we speak of ‘social debate and careful thought’ only on the question of reservations, shunned from all other issues like disinvestments, closure of public sector units, trade and economic policies.
The Knowledge Commission terms this as a ‘historic opportunity to craft more effective policies to make educational institutions more socially inclusive’. If the majority of the Commission is sincere about this they should immediately recommend for the implementation of the land reforms act, protection of the interests of the artisans and small producers. Pitroda himself has promised that the body will not come out with a "voluminous report that gathers dust but give concrete actionable points". This is a good actionable point even for the government as it increases productivity and address their ‘growth’ concerns. Together with this another suggestion should be made to direct the entire government machinery towards a time-bound eradication of social discrimination in our country. The government should take the campaign to the ‘deserving’ people, involve its officials as in the pulse polio campaign and make them lead peoples’ action against discrimination. The government and the judiciary should be asked to be ‘pro-active’ in disposing off the cases dealing with the atrocities on these marginalised sections. These alternate and effective steps will really empower people and then may be we can think of doing away reservations.
One heartening fact is that the chairman of Knowledge Commission has asked for the increase in the number of IITs and IIMs. Of course the mention of private-public partnership is part of the suggestion. The deputy chairman of the Planning Commission immediately joined with the proposal for the establishment of private education companies. All these suggestions are being made in spite of the knowledge that worldwide the experience of expansion in higher education shows it to be possible only through government action. The apathy of the central government towards this is apparent from the fact that it is sitting on the unanimous recommendation of the state legislature of Andhra Pradesh for es
tablishing an IIT in the state, which was passed not once but twice and forwarded to the centre. The offer, together with the promise that the state government will provide land and other infrastructure facilities, fell on deaf ears. The government should immediately start many new educational institutes and thus do its duty for the expansion of education.
The number of applicants to the IIT entrance at the time of its inception and today has increased many times – much more than the seats available to them have increased. The Indian society has not achieved the saturation point vis-à-vis the number of engineers and doctors required to it. In Rajasthan, for example, the number of doctors per thousand population has in fact come down. In 1996-97 there was one doctor per 7418 population while now it is one doctor per 9816. The Indian average for doctors too is not encouraging and stands at 52 doctors per 10,000 population (1998). These statistics prove the fact that we need more and more numbers of professionals to serve the people of our country. So it is towards this end the fight should be directed and not towards getting ourselves divided. The Knowledge Commission has to do its duty by equipping the people with ideas necessary in this fight and never play a divisive role. These are the answers for the Knowledge Commission as one year has already passed and they have only got two more years. Otherwise its whole concept of access to knowledge being “about increasing the reach and opportunities of individuals or groups excluded from mainstream knowledge systems” would be mere empty talk bereft of action.