Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A highway called India June 18, 2006

Homi Bhabha, the distinguished professor of English at Harvard, recently described India as a multi-lane highway. This is a happy metaphor, I think, because it captures nicely our diverse multilingual, multicultural, open society in which all are moving forward, albeit at different speeds. At the same forum Amartya Sen added that India had experienced huge gains from the economic reforms and everyone seemed to be rising. The only question is if those in the slow lane are gaining enough from the reforms. He went on to remind us about the English philosopher, David Hume’s astonishing thought--market expansion makes us aware of others’ lives and thus expands our ethical horizon.

Thanks to talented persons in the fast lane, India is now on the verge of becoming a world beater, even a champion, and this is happening after a thousand years. We ought to ensure now that those in the slow lane also get an equal start on the highway so that they too accelerate and change lanes at the right moment. Hence, I had proposed here a scholarship scheme on May 7th with a choice of any private or public school for all disadvantaged schoolchildren in India. This would promote equity without compromising merit, and it would do more for OBCs than reservations. It turns out that it will also cost exactly the same as the cabinet’s decision to recklessly expand capacity in higher education.

Arjun Singh’s proposal, however, seeks to artificially push persons from the slower to the faster lanes. This will cause accidents on the road and all the lanes will slow down. When high performers observe persons with lower marks stealing ahead by unfair means, they are bound to lose heart. Some of their competitive spirit will die. The notion of fair competition develops early in human beings. Studies by the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, show that even three year olds get offended when one child gets a bigger piece of the cake. This is why every judgment by the American Supreme Court has opposed quotas even though it was sympathetic to affirmative action.

The cabinet’s compromise to rapidly expand seats will further diminish the already low standards in most colleges. India will not be able to compete in a world that has no place for mediocrity. Since 1991, we have tried to build a world class India by focusing on growth, believing that expansion was the best tonic for lifting the poor. Suddenly, in the past two years, we are no longer interested in growing India but only in dividing it. No wonder Arjun Singh appears in a web poll among the “villains who divided India” along with Jinnah, Godse, V.P. Singh and Narendra Modi. I am not one of Midnight’s children--I was born in the silence before the storm that overtook the lives of my family during the partition. I have a sickening premonition that we are facing another division of India. Arjun Singh might sleep well, but I wake up in the night with this terrible casteist nightmare.

At the same event in Delhi, Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard University, claimed that history will remember our age by the rise of China and India. The importance of this event to world history, he said, is equal to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. If the cabinet proposal on reservations goes through then history will only remember the rise of China. India, it will record, was too busy cutting itself up.

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