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.


Medicine said...

Even in the recent Michigan University judgment, Justice O’Connor, wrote glowingly about the benefits of a diverse student body.

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