Thursday, May 11, 2006

Scholarships, not quotas May 7, 2006

When the cabinet meets to consider the proposal for raising caste reservations in institutions of higher learning from 22.5% to 49.5% it should imagine itself to be the admissions committee of one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. It has to choose whether to admit the son of a backward caste businessman from a posh South Delhi address who received low marks or the son of a poor brahmin schoolteacher in Muzaffarpur who got much higher marks. Under Arjun Singh’s proposal, the IITs will be forced to admit the privileged son of an OBC businessman and reject the high scoring schoolteacher’s son.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this thought game. First, our innate sense of fairness accepts more easily reservations for the poor rather than for the low caste. Second, lowering admission standards for one group is unfair because it treats equals unequally and offends our idea of a just, merit based society. Third, it is unjust when beneficiaries of reservations are prosperous low caste persons, whom the Supreme Court called the ‘creamy layer’.

Why then should the government play this cruel, morally offensive joke? The reason is that there is a strong case for affirmative action, which has been made far more eloquently by the U.S. Supreme Court. While U.S. Courts has have always opposed quotas on grounds of reverse discrimination (meaning unequal treatment of equals), they have enthusiastically supported vigorous efforts to raise blacks and women on grounds of diversity and integration. Even in the recent Michigan University judgment, Justice O’Connor, wrote glowingly about the benefits of a diverse student body. The best reason for preferences (which she didn’t emphasize enough) is that a university’s role in society is to develop leaders from diverse communities. If India’s future leaders in commerce, arts and the professions come only from the 15 percent upper caste, the losers would not be the low caste alone, but the Indian people, who would have failed to create a healthy, integrated society.

The way to create leaders from the low castes is not through reservations but through scholarships, beginning in the first grade. Alas, most of our government schools, which were our greatest hope, are so rotten that there is no hope there for lifting anyone. Therefore, I would propose scholarships for 25 per cent of the seats in all private schools and colleges subject to these four conditions: one, scholarships should not be caste based, but economic. This preserves the idea that we are not for a casteist future; and it prevents the “creamy layer” from grabbing the rewards. Second, government must fully pay for these scholarships from the 2 percent education cess; it would be wrong to ask schools to bear it. Third, government must not interfere with a school’s autonomy. Finally, standards must not be allowed to fall. I would extend this scheme gradually, starting from below, thus giving institutions time to expand their facilities and the low caste to get acculturated. Enrollments for the disadvantaged would be additional; thus, merit candidates would not be deprived, as they would be with reservations.

When the cabinet meets, it might also remember how badly history treats the self-serving proponents of caste reservations. If there were glory or votes in reservations, VP Singh would have been a respected leader today, even a prime minister. And Janata Dal would have been a strong, vibrant party. Instead, both lie in the dust bin of history.

High modernism, captured April 23l 2006

We are so jaded with the India versus Bharat story that nothing surprises us anymore. Yet even a surfeited soul like me blinks with amazement at this incongruity. When people from abroad are beginning to come to India for high quality, low-cost medical care, there’s a 70 percent chance of being prescribed a harmful therapy in a government primary health centre in Delhi for a common ailment like diarrhoea. This is the finding of an extensive study by J. Das and J. Hammer. We had long known that two out of five doctors were absent in our primary health centres, but we didn’t know that doctors in these centres were less competent than in an African country like Tanzania. Hence, even the poor now depend on private solutions and India’s share of private spending in health is double that of so called “free-market USA”.

It is the same in education. While our famed Indian Institutes of Technology have become a global brand and are feted on CBS’ 60 Minutes, the poor in India are removing their kids from government primary schools and enrolling them in indifferent private schools, which are spreading in our slums and villages. It is the same dismal story with water. Private tube wells account for nearly all new irrigation capacity in India. In Delhi, with greater endowment of water than most cities in the world, citizens cope with irregular supplies by digging tube wells or buying water.

Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” He might have been describing India’s dualism. How does one explain the gap between the government’s boast about universal education, health and drinking water and the reality that even the poor are embracing private solutions? The answer lies in what James Scott, the political scientist, calls “bureaucratic high modernism”. When Nehru came to power we lived in an age when we had a touching faith in the state’s ability to solve peoples’ problems. So, we asked the state to do more and more. But we did not anticipate that politicians in India’s democracy would “capture” our bureaucracy and use the system to create jobs and rents for their friends and supporters. Hence, the state became riddled with perverse incentives with no accountability. When political supporters are rewarded with jobs of teachers and doctors then the state stops providing public services but private benefits for those who control it.

The old centralized bureaucratic state has declined in many countries. Alas, not here. Despite our failing schools we enact an education cess and throw away good money after bad. Governance could improve if we focused on outcomes—what children learn or if patients are cured. More autonomy to schools and health centres would also help. But real change will only come if we discard our faith in “bureaucratic high modernism” and admit that government’s job is to govern and not run schools and clinics. It is to ensure that high quality schools exist; it doesn’t have to teach in the classroom. Government may have to finance these schools, but the provider could be an NGO or a teacher who would compete with others. Government today spends Rs 4000 per child per year and it should give this as a scholarship to every Indian child, who could exchange it for an education at a school of his or her choice. Thus, Bharat and India would begin to converge.

A metaphor of India April 9, 2006

Raghav FM Mansoorpur l is a radio station which used to beam Bhojpuri and filmi songs, give community news and advice on all sorts of things, including AIDs and polio. Raghav Mahto, a 22 year old radio mechanic, started it three years ago. Bored with running an electronics repair shop in Gudri Bazar near Mansoorpur village in the Vaishali district of Bihar, Raghav stumbled one day on an innovative way to broadcast radio from his thatched roof shop by slinging a transmitter on a bamboo pole with a total investment of Rs 50.The do-it-yourself community station became an instant success.

Raghav was happy and popular, besieged by requests from his fans to play their favorite songs. He earned Rs 2000 a month—a nice return on his Rs 50 investment--fed his family of five and won the respect of villagers in the surrounding districts of Muzaffarpur, Vaishali and Saran within a 35 km radius of his station. "I air devotional songs at dawn and dusk”, he told BBC, and this made him more popular with women than men. Two weeks ago, on March 27, the station was closed for not possessing a license and violating the Indian Telegraphs Act. “A formal police complaint has also been lodged against Raghav”, said Sanjeev Hans, the Vaishali district magistrate. A three-member team of the union communications and IT ministry seized his equipment.

Disappointed villagers are learning to live with silence. They could tune in to AIR’s self-righteous programs, but they want to hear the chat of their community--who stole whose cow, their MLA’s broken promises, about the approaching Vaishali festival--and they want to hear it in their local dialect. And pray, what is wrong with thousands of Ragavs offering community broadcasting radio across the country? What if Raghav had started a newspaper? No problem. What if he wanted a TV news channel? No problem, again. But giving news on the radio is illegal, except by AIR.

Nothing quite dramatizes the gap between the aspirations of the Indian people and the stifling bureaucratic Indian state than the long struggle waged by our people for freedom to broadcast over radio. Kicked and dragged to break AIR’s monopoly, the government has reluctantly offered a few crumbs. A few years ago some FM stations were allowed to broadcast after paying outrageous fees. Soon they were bankrupt; the government was forced to abolish fees and agreed to share revenues with the private stations. With entry eased, 340 stations are about to begin, but they are not allowed to give news.

Raghav FM Mansoorpur l is the quintessential metaphor of a diverse and plural India. Mohandas Gandhi would have celebrated the idea of a radio listening community to unite our caste ridden, factionalised village. Community radio can initiate development, empower women and dalits, and advocate legislation from below. The government has permitted colleges to run campus radio stations, but the license process is so cumbersome that few have got going. The lesson from Raghav’s story is the need to de-licence community radio based on an “open spectrum” policy rather than licensing individual radio stations on a case-by-case basis. The only thing to ensure is transparent enforceable rules to prevent hogging of airwaves. Alas, since we do not have an enabling state, it is time for a PIL in the courts to test the twisted mind that allows one to deliver news in print and on TV but not on the radio.