//AIIMS : Unsure steps

AIIMS : Unsure steps

AMAN SETHI

While the protests made headlines for days together, few seemed familiar with the exact demands of the striking doctors.

"QUOTAS," reads the poster on the wall at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), "this cure is worse than the disease." Standing around the poster in white "No Reservation" T-shirts, a group of students from medical colleges around Delhi discussed how best to ensure that reservation reached only those "who truly needed it the most", ensuring that the benefits were not siphoned off by the "creamy layer".

The doctors' strike was called off on May 31 following a Supreme Court order. But 20 days of agitations, strikes and protests by upper-caste students, doctors and faculty members of the AIIMS and other medical colleges across the country had ensured that the anti-reservation campaign got a more-than-fair hearing. The protests were organised in opposition to the proposed 27 per cent hike in reserved seats in Central universities, from 22.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent, under the banner of Youth for Equality – a forum initiated by students of five medical colleges. In a statement to a news channel, Youth for Equality spokesperson Anirudh Lochan explained that while the doctors had decided to call off the strike, students from Delhi University, Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi and others across the country would continue the protests.

While the protests garnered hours of television footage and miles of newsprint, few seemed familiar with the exact demands put forward by the striking doctors. A possible reason could be the lack of coherence in the movement itself. What began as a strident desh bachao movement against reservation in the name of merit, equality and "the future of the country" transformed into a movement in support of "affirmative action" but not "reservation" and culminated in an impassioned plea against the "misuse of reservation".

The first charter of demands put up on the Youth for Equality web site demanded the deferral of the proposed hike in reservation in all Central universities. However, hours before the strike was called off, it carried a new charter of demands that simply asked the government to ensure that the general category seats were not reduced below 50.5 per cent – thereby accepting the 27 per cent hike in reservation, withdrawing their most important demand, and leaving a trail of flummoxed students, unsure what they were fighting for and to what purpose.

Dismissing insinuations of incoherence, Dr. Anindya Banerjee, vice-president of the Association of Resident Doctors, Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine, Chandigarh, argues that the movement was never against reservation: "It was against the use of reservation for political ends." Banerjee believes in the urgent need for an "apolitical" review of the entire reservation process and for the formulation of a transparent reservation policy on the part of the government.

Another major concern that the doctors claim to espouse is that reservation would go to the "so-called backward castes" and not to the "truly backward". Truly backward castes, the argument goes, have not even gained access to schools and hence are unable to take up seats that are rightfully theirs. Being unavailable to the general category, these seats are then taken by the so-called backwards. The solution, according to most, is affirmative action without reservations where the state invests in primary and secondary education and provides scholarships and asistance to outstanding students from under-privileged backgrounds.

The anti-reservation camp has also been categorical about its opposition to what it terms caste-based vote-bank politics. "Let's not make this a caste thing," says Dr. Divyajot Singh Vinayak of General Medical College, Chandigarh. "Reservation should be on the basis of economic criteria. After all, there are economically under-privileged Brahmins too." A number of upper-caste doctors and students told Frontline that reservation actually increased caste stigmatisation by drawing distinctions between general and reserved category students, leading to low self-esteem among the latter.

Students also spew impressive, yet sadly unverifiable, statistics on dropout rates among reserved category seats, on hundreds of reserved seats across the country that are allegedly lying vacant for wont of eligible candidates and on how, as per National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) statistics, OBCs already hold 23 per cent of all university seats. While Frontline was unable to verify the authenticity of the data, what is clear is that a complete paucity of information and data on reservation has contributed to a debate where every possibility and scenario (both for and against) is almost as plausible as every other.

Every afternoon, not far from the anti-reservation protests, a small group staged a rally in favour of reservation. Calling themselves "Youth for Equal Opportunity", this motley crew of faculty members, doctors and students chose patient care over protests and staged a demonstration only during their lunch hours. Dr. Sukhbir Singh Badhal is one of them.

Badhal is a Scheduled Caste member from Gugahedi village in Rohtak district, Haryana. His father was a daily wage labourer who earned between Rs.60 and Rs.100 a day and could barely afford to send his children to school. Badhal got his first break when he got into a local Navodaya Vidyalaya, run under a scheme started by the Rajiv Gandhi government to help under-privileged children, and graduated with a specialisation in life sciences. He then completed his MBBS from a government college in Rohtak, and is at present in his final year in post-graduate specialisation in Lab Medicine on a reserved seat.

Badhal says that his career improved the lives of most members of his family. His younger brothers can now afford to attend private school, and his father no longer has to work as a labourer. His companion at the rally, Dr. Sandeep Sabarwal, is another example of how reservation works. An OBC member from Sonipat district in Haryana, Sabarwal also made it to an undergraduate medical college in Rohtak through a reservation. He topped the general category All India Post Graduate Entrance Examination for a Masters in Dental Surgery last year. "As AIIMS had no reservation for OBCs, I gave the General Exam and topped it," he says. "But without reservation in my undergraduate course, I would never have made it."

Students in favour of reservation point out that a faulty school system only makes the need for reserved seats in higher education essential. Sabarwal would like to ask the anti-reservationists just one question: "What will you tell students who have spent their whole lives battling prejudice, poverty, and non-existent schools only to lose out to private-school educated, tuition-coached city kids?" Sabarwal's case also flies in the face of the "merit dilution" argument. He points out that most doctors who graduate from medical colleges are equally qualified and that most entrance examinations now have syllabi that go far beyond the school syllabi. Expensive tuitions are thus the only way to get into these elite-dominated institutes.

Students also point out that harassment, humiliation and discrimination are a reality in all institutions across the country, a situation that is supported by some members of the faculty. "Harassment by upper-caste students and faculty is the major cause for high dropout rates among reserved category students, not lack of merit," says a faculty member speaking on condition of anonymity. "In my assessment, reserved category students are as meritorious as any other student."

Unfortunately, the narrow parameters of the reservation d
ebate have ensured that reserved category students shall continue to fight accusations of inability and incompetence. "If you get into college through reservation and do badly, it's because you don't deserve to be here," remarks an OBC student. "And if you do well, then you are not `truly backward'. It seems we are incompetent by definition."

(Courtesy : FrontLine Magazine, Volume 23 – Issue 11 :: Jun. 03-16, 2006)