Monday, December 17, 2012

Reservation and Merit: Some Myths

           I am against the caste system.  I have always felt outraged about such discrimination among human beings, and felt ashamed that it is prevalent in the country of my birth. I will be really happy to see a day when there is no discrimination at all on the basis of caste, religion or any such factors that arise from the accident of birth.
          Thankfully, my parents did not add the caste as a tail to my name. I have always felt proud that my name does not convey allegiance to any caste. I also felt proud when as a young student I succeeded in convincing my grandmother, for the first time, to let women of some other castes to draw water from the well, at our home.

          In spite of all such feelings against the concept of caste, I do understand the realities of my country, and how deeply entrenched the caste system is.  Therefore, I do believe the affirmative support granted by our Constitution, to the people of less privileged castes is the only pragmatic strategy to bring some parity among our people. The economic reservation cannot replace the caste based reservation so easily because in India caste is not merely an economic factor. It has much more implication- social, political and economic, in India. Therefore, economic reservation will not allow people from the castes that were oppressed for centuries, to come up to the level of members of more fortunate castes.

          Now, about the policy of caste based reservation for promotion. I am not as convinced about the need for it as I am convinced about the need for reservation in employment and education. Once a person is appointed to a post, irrespective of the source of such appointment, his/her growth should solely depend on the performance at the job. Maybe we should ensure that one’s caste or other status does not cause prejudice against him/her, in matters of promotion. In other words, equal opportunity for promotion should be available to all employees.

         However, after considering various aspects of the matter, the Supreme Court of India had validated such a policy with certain conditions that I believe to be fair and reasonable. However, the Parliament in its wisdom is now trying to nullify those conditions stipulated by the Supreme Court.  I am against such a step by Indian Parliament.  

        This post is not about policy of reservations in promotions, and therefore, I am not going into details of the SC verdict or merits of Parliament’s effort towards Constitutional amendment. This one is about some myths beings spread deliberately or otherwise, by those who oppose the caste based reservations.  Apart from the generic arguments like vote bank politics, divisive politics etc. the only argument of substance I heard against the reservation system is about merit.

        In the narrowest sense of merit, it does get affected by any kind of reservation. Therefore, replacing caste based reservation with economic reservation will change nothing. However, this argument of merit being affected by reservation will stand the test of logic only when comparing apples to apples. When things are not equal, one cannot argue for merit based on relative scores alone.

        The apostles of merit do not oppose the differentiation in schools and colleges. There are schools and schools in our country. Not all schools teach same subjects or syllabus, and not all of them have the same or comparable standards.  To a great extent, so called merit is determined by the kind of school one attends than any innate quality. Admission to these different types of schools is also not based on merit or equality, but other factors.

        We often get to hear comments like, “I will not feel safe to be treated by a doctor who is a product of reservation system” or “I don’t want to stay in a building constructed by an Engineer coming out through reservation”.  Ask them if they do check whether the doctor was admitted to MBBS or Engineer to the BE, through a payment seat before availing the services, they look at you with disbelief written all over their face. So, it is not about the merit, but about the deep caste prejudice what is causing such statements!

        Now, let us consider the issue of merit objectively. When an Engineer or Doctor or any other professional earns the concerned degree, they become eligible to practice the profession. They become eligible by virtue of passing the qualifying examination. If the qualifying examination places a cut off mark at 40, 50 or whatever percentage, no one who had scored marks below that cut off gets a license to practice. So, every person who crosses that cut off and gets the license to practice is qualified to practice. The fact that one had a better memory and scored 5 or 10% of marks in the final examination will not make him/her a better practitioner. Consider the ratio of top rank holders in the respective exams, among the most successful practitioners of any profession and this becomes amply clear.

        Same is the case with admission to professional courses. Most of us do not have any issue when rich parents pay hefty amounts to get seats for their children in the top professional institutions.  We will not ask the percentage of marks scored by these children, in their qualifying exams. However, lot of us are again concerned about the quality of the institutions, if a member of a  backward caste gets admission to a premier institute by virtue of reservation.  The reports about problems being faced by Dalit students even in institutions like AIIMS and IITs are indeed shocking.

        But the truth again is lost in the rhetoric. No person can get admission into any professional course without having passed the qualifying examination. That is the simple truth. Another truth is, because a student scored less or more marks in the qualifying examination, his or her performance in the professional course cannot be predicted on that basis alone. Even after getting admission to the course, the student has to study and pass all the examinations to become eligible to practice.

        To conclude, so long as a professional had passed the qualifying examination and holds a genuine degree, I will not seek his/her mark certificate before availing the services. As far as I know no individual has been given any reservation to practice a profession, without duly qualifying for the same. That being the case, using merit as a fig leaf to hide one’s opposition towards caste based reservation is nothing but pathetic.  

Oppose reservation by all means; we all have freedom to hold our own views and to propagate it. I will also wait for the day when we can genuinely say that we have moved beyond concepts like community matrimony dot coms, and are ready to embrace true merit with equal opportunity. Until then, let us not hide behind merit to oppose the affirmative actions to bring oppressed classes of people to some semblance of parity, being undertaken by the state.