Reservation for OBCs will work only if implemented with farsightedness
Ashok Kumar Pankaj Rohtak, www.hardnewsmedia.com, May 2006
The recent proposal of the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry to reserve 27 per cent of seats in Central government educational institutions for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has triggered a fresh debate on the merit of a caste-based reservation policy that was introduced first by the British colonial government in India and retained and reinforced by the post-Independence nationalist elite as a policy of socio-economic upliftment of the marginalised sections of the society.
A fresh row has arisen over the April 5, 2006 declaration by HRD Minister Arjun Singh to reserve 27 percent of seats for OBCs in educational institutions funded by the central government like central universities, IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, and other professional institutions. The OBC reservation in educational institutions is being called Mandal-II in media, as it was not covered under the existing reservation for OBCs. The 93rd Constitutional Amendment Act brought by the UPA government to supersede the Supreme Court judgment in the Inamdar case, that gave immunity to private educational institutions from reservation policy, was quoted as a constitutional mandate to extend the reservation policy in educational institutions. This declaration was not supported by the cabinet decision and the Cabinet Secretary had turned down Arjun Singh’s proposal citing limitation of the code of conduct as Assembly elections were in progress in five states. The UPA Government has later clarified that it would go for Mandal-II by developing political consensus.
It is reported that Arjun Singh has played the Mandal card to check his sagging political stature within the UPA government and the Congress party. OBC reservation has, unfortunately, happened not because of sensible policy discourse but because of political ambitions of leaders and factional fighting within the party and government. But a fresh debate on the issue has arisen in political and public discourse. Merit versus social justice is central issue. A new theme of incompatibility of market economy (based on free selection of merit, efficiency and competitiveness) with reservation policy (based on birth and caste identity) has also been added this time. There are other issues and arguments in favour or against reservation. But once again, the voice against reservation has acquired prominence in the media. Views of industrialists, trade chambers, professional association and certain intellectuals and academicians who are opposed to reservation have been given prominent space.
The whole process of socio-economic upliftment of OBCs through reservation has been vitiated by wrong reasons. The merit of the policy has been lost in merit vs social justice and other pro and anti reservation arguments. Reservation is definitely not a very laudable public policy. But given India’s socio-economic conditions, it becomes instrumental in socio-economic upliftment of the marginalised and deprived sections of society. However, the reservation policy needs to be rationalised by: elimination and inclusion theory (Madhu Limaye), priority for economically deprived families; strengthening of the creamy layer theory (Supreme Court); restricted only to two generations; and by setting a minimum standard of entry. That would make it more useful, rational and productive. But in any case, it should not be allowed for years and years. For, reservation indicates a malady of a democracy and its inability to include a large section of society into the mainstream through natural democratic process.
Let us begin with the merit theory. It is held that the extension of 27 per cent reservation to educational institutions would be against the principles of merit. Candidates low in merit will be selected at the cost of candidates high in merit. 22.7 percentage of the seats are already reserved for the SCs and STs and an additional 27 per cent for OBCs will leave only fifty percent of the seats for meritorious candidates. The argument is that the academic institutions will produce 50 per cent meritorious candidate and 50 per cent ordinary. Secondly, a few academics argue that the mental and intellectual development of even meritorious candidates will suffer as the quality of teaching will have to be ‘dumbed down’ to suit the reserved category candidates. The problem will become more serious once the policy is extended to selection of faculty members. Thirdly, this will produce over a long period of time an army of incompetent candidates that will adversely affect the quality of public and private life. Fourthly, IITs, IIMs and AIIMS that have made mark in professional education and have given prestige to the country will not be able to command that respect as its overall performance will decline substantially after reservation. Academic excellence of other institutions that have excelled will also be throttled by the same logic.
On the other hand, protagonists of reservation policy argue that the upper castes are not born with merit and intelligence. There is nothing like gene theory to support the inborn intelligence argument of upper castes. The educational backwardness of OBCs is primarily because of their social and economic conditions. Their poor schooling, economic conditions and the social surroundings in which they are brought up do not promote sufficient educational capability to compete with the better-educated children, often of upper castes. There is hardly any study or evidence to suggest that OBC officers are less capable, less efficient and poor performers. Above all, reservation is only for the entry into professional and other institutions of higher learning. Once the OBC candidates are admitted, they are required to go through the same process of learning and examination to complete the course and to get the degree. Opponents of the caste based reservation policy forget to mention that a very entrenched system of reservation for economically resourceful persons have been ensured through capitation fee seats in private professional colleges all over the country. And the number of seats reserved for paid candidates is quite substantial. Apart from capitation fees, a few candidates get entry also through malpractices like leakages of question papers and use of unfair means in examination. And it is often the powerful and resourceful segment of society that gets advantage of such practices.
Similarly, the concern for quality of faculty and academic institutions are also not well founded. India has more than 10,000 colleges, about four hundred universities, and numerous institutions of learning and research. But how many of them stand for academic excellence and count well for production of bright alumni. Except for a few institutions, most of them have so far proved very ordinary in teaching and research. In a ranking of world universities, not a single university of India stands in the top 50. How many copyrights and patents we get every year? These are the questions that need to be addressed by the protagonists of merit theory.
But the social justice argument has been equally misleading. Reservation policy has so far proved ineffective in bringing egalitarian social transformation. The problem is that those who are better off corner the benefits of reservation policy. A vast section of OBC population is unable to afford education, not to talk of good education that is required to become beneficiaries of such reservation. This kind of policy is biased against resourceful and better educated. It has been learnt that the benefits of reservation has been cornered by a few castes, normally upper OBCs like Yadavas, Koeries, Kurmies and Jats, who have resources to afford education. Even in social hierarchy, they have better position: they are landowning castes; they have largest political representation; and they have ascended to political power on the
bandwagon of the OBC movement. But the vast majority of lower OBCs have not benefited much from either backward class movement or reservation policy.
Moreover, the quantum of seats available through reservation either in services or in central government educational institutions is so low that it would hardly cater to even 5 to10 per cent of the total OBC population. This fundamentally restricts the utility of social justice theory.
Protagonists of market economy vouchsafe that caste and identity based reservation stands against the principles and policy of market economy. It is argued that market economy is essentially based on the survival of the fittest theory. It works on the principles of free play of merit, enterprise and capital. It seeks the best talent and moves to the place where it gets that. Any policy that restricts operational freedom of market economy either through reservation of seats or through non-availability of skilled and technical personnel will scare the players of a market economy.
Moreover, the twenty-first century is being heralded as a knowledge century. It is reported that the strength of the developed economies lies in creation of (new) knowledge based service industries; any economy that ignores that sector would lag behind. India’s robust economic growth in the 1990s has been driven by the growth of the service sectors. The contribution of IITs and IIMs is well acknowledged in this respect. Multinationals (software industries) have moved in large numbers in India as they get good quality engineers and managers produced by the IITs and IIMs. India will lose significantly by throttling academic excellence of these institutions through diluting standard of quality intake of these institutions.
Quality intake of top academic institutions like IITs and IIMs should not be compromised by politics-driven public policy. India will definitely lose its advantage in service sectors if that happens.
However, representation of backward classes in higher and technical education, professional courses can be enhanced substantially without compromising quality. An NGO in Patna run by an IPS officer that trains poor student free of cost for entry into IITs has come out with amazing success rate. It is reported that 27 students from a batch of 30 preparing for IIT entrance examination qualified in the first instance. If the HRD ministry is really serious about the representation of OBCs in professional and higher education; it should collaborate with institutions and NGOs that prepare candidates for entry into these institutions. At the same time, without strengthening their school-learning process, all this would be no more than wishful thinking. If reservation policy were accompanied by such kind of efforts, it would serve the purpose better.
How we enhance the representation of OBCs in higher and technical education without diluting quality of intake and academic standard of the institutions is the real challenge of public policy. It seems that the HRD ministry has not chalked out any programme to make its reservation policy more rational, useful, productive and target oriented. A few suggestions may be enlisted here to make it more useful.
Firstly, Madhu Limaye’s formula of elimination and inclusion should be a part and parcel of the reservation policy. Benefits of reservation should be monitored at regular intervals, say 10 years. The caste that makes sufficient improvement should be eliminated from the beneficiary list. If representation of upper castes declines significantly, they should also be included. This would make the notion of OBCs more dynamic.
Secondly, the concept of creamy layer should be more strengthened. A prominent socialist leader and ideologue of the erstwhile Janata Parivar, Raghu Thakur (member of the Janata Dal manifesto committee that incorporated implementation of Mandal Commission Report as a key programme of the then VP Singh-led Janata Dal Government) argues for family based elimination process. A person who gets benefits of reservation policy should be allowed to inherit that status only up to the next generation, or the second next.
Thirdly, a mission-based programme for economic and educational upliftment should be launched simultaneously. This will allow them over a period of time to compete with the well-off children of their own caste and those of upper castes.
Fourthly, seeing the limited availability of seats, an “antyodaya” based beneficiary selection process should be developed. The most backward family and the most backward caste should be preferred first.
For that matter, democratic politics in India will have to move to the goals of rational public policy that appears to be a remote possibility amidst identity based politics. The first major challenge before democratic politics in India is to sort out whether individual or community should be the basis of politics and political mobilisation. So far, it has preferred community over individual; identity over policy. And that explains the origin of irrationality in public policy.