A lot has been said about reservations in the last few weeks. The sound bites have been accompanied by disturbing images, be it the water cannons in Delhi, to the brutal lathicharge in Mumbai, the mad free for all that the pro-quota reservations in Patna turned into and very importantly the angst of patients suffering in hospitals in Gujarat and Delhi. There are many issues here... the government's reservation policy, the use of force by the police to quash peaceful protests and whether it is right for the patients to pay for the protests.
Let me make my stand clear at the outset, I live in Mumbai and have been participating in the anti-quota protests. That said I also believe that there is great social injustice in India and it is in the long-term interest of everybody to correct this.
What I have seen amongst fellow protestors is an extreme stand; I can even understand this from the viewpoint of a disenchanted urban youth. My first awareness of caste came from my civics textbooks, which explained reservations to me. My next encounter with the now ubiquitous word was when I filled in my admission forms to various colleges after school. I had to try doubly hard to get anywhere, while batch mates of mine who could benefit from reservations(who also belong to the same socio economic strata that I do) had a much easier time. So in the urban middle class context what is happening here is not social justice, but only the correction of historical wrongs. This explains the anger that we see on the streets. Nobody wants to pay to correct historical wrongs, it does not even make sense to ask that of people. The question is "Why should I suffer just because his/her ancestors were treated badly?"
In a slum in Mumbai lives Pankaj Mishra, he migrated to the city a decade ago. Pankaj drives a taxi for a living. His wife delivered in a poorly equipped government dispensary, his children were malnourished, went to municipal schools and went to work after school. Can his children compete with middle class kids (be they from any caste)? But the net of social justice of course does not cover him or his kids, as they don't belong to the right caste.
The issue in our cities is not caste...(you can hardly bother with caste taboos when packed like sardines in a Virar local)
Now cut to a small tribal hamlet in rural Maharashtra(or Bihar or Karnataka or wherever) where caste is still a dominating force. The peasants toil for the landlords and so do the children. There are hardly any opportunities available to the children. These are the people in need, but since they rarely get any primary education it is insane to expect them to benefit from reservations at the post-doctoral level.
I don't buy the dilution of merit argument in entirety. True merit is not just an academic construct. I am not necessarily smarter than someone who went to an ill staffed and ill equipped municipal school although my grades may be much better than theirs. It is not a question of merit; I just had better opportunities.
The irony is that our blanket caste based reservation policy does not look at true merit. It does not look at opportunities available. It starts and ends with caste. So funnily enough, even amongst the SCs, STs, and OBCs only academic merit is considered. Common sense tells you that the truly disadvantaged will still not benefit.
So when I think of social justice I can't settle for anything less than a system which benefits the urban poor as well as the rural downtrodden. Only for that lofty a cause can I contemplate losing out on a seat I believe I deserve. But that IS NOT what is happening.
When our politicians amend the constitution there has to be an analysis of motives. Is social justice and equality a motive? Not even close! The latest announcement by the honourable HRD minister was strategically timed to coincide with assembly elections. This was just a ploy to garner more votes in elections that are not fought on issues anymore. The wily old men and women have worked out perfect formulas
promise free power, free colour televisions, free rice, and yes, free seats. The free power and TVs don't last too long as the government invariably does not have enough money to bankroll these schemes. The free seats on the other hand are not a problem as all they have to do there is increase quotas.
Does the government improve funding or infrastructure? No!(at least not as priority, THAT wasn't a poll promise)
Does the government care who gets these seats that are meant for those who are disadvantaged? No! That is fine by our political masters; it keeps people where they are, so that they respond to fresh promises at the time of the next elections.
Do the politicians care if their policies lead to greater polarisation and marginalisation? NO! Polarisation is good politics! This is an important point, as the kind of outrage that has been seen amongst students will only lead to the creation of a divide that didn't need to be there.
The OBC is a concept that has been kept intentionally vague by our politicians. Many castes are regularly added to the OBC list as and when necessary. These are not always disadvantaged communities; they are usually just regional vote banks. A prime example would be Jats in Rajasthan, UP and Delhi.
When you write a scientific paper for a peer reviewed journal you need to notify the editors of any conflict of interests that will keep you from being objective. Similarly, policy decisions which will have a long lasting impact on the nation cannot be left to the whims of our crafty old politicians trying preserve or grow their vote banks. These are not honest decisions taken with an eye on 'the greatest good for the greatest number' as they claim. Our politicians have sadly resorted to vote bank politics whenever they have been too short sighted to see real problems or have had no real solutions to offer. Be it the Congress, the BJP or the 'Third front'; be it Mandal or Ayodhya. We as a nation get regularly conned by those we repose faith(and votes) in. I am so sick of politicians talking about social justice. The last two to speak were Laloo Prasad Yadav and Chagan Bhujbal. Laloo(the fodder king) said that the protests against quotas were a wasteful exercise since the amendment had already been passed. He spoke as if a piece of legislation passed by a bunch of power hungry, corrupt politicians was 'the will of god' that can't be challenged. Bhujbal (ex Shiv Sena lately of Telgi scam fame) on the other hand exclaimed that we can't resist quotas since America has them too. Bhujbal needs to learn to read? Or to look up from counting cash
The American Supreme Court abolished quotas in 1978, only a few years after they had been introduced. The court deemed quotas to be unconstitutional. What actually happened in the US is a policy of "Affirmative Action" that has worked very well. It is a voluntary policy, which does not use grades or race as the only criteria. It is based on a variety of indicators that predict the students' aptitude, taking into consideration disadvantages suffered by them.
I don't claim that the American system is perfect, nor do I say that American society is the epitome of social justice. I only beg to point out that there is no 'magic bullet' answer to social injustice. Ever increasing quotas are no panacea. There has to be a clear audit as to how beneficial the reservations have been so far. We need to look at creative options to banish current disparities. We should work towards clearly defined goals and not confuse the means(quotas, affirmative action etc.) with objectives(social justice). Lastly, I feel that none of this might happen if our present gang of myopic politicians continue to be decision makers when it comes to the scope of the quotas and their duration.
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