Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A question of merit 4 June 2006

In the recent debate on reservations we have heard much talk about merit. Ever since the decision by the cabinet to extend reservations to the OBC, I have been deluged by anguished email whose common refrain goes like this: Just when things were going well for India, just when we were building a competitive nation based on merit, why did this tragedy have to fall on us?
These unhappy letters, I find, have been using “merit” as though it were a fixed and absolute thing. Amartya Sen, in a book, Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, edited by Kenneth Arrow and others, points out that merit is a dependent idea and its meaning depends on how a society defines a desirable act. An act of merit in one society may not be the same in another. When Arjuna pierced the target, he performed an act of merit and was suitably rewarded at Draupadi’s svayamvara in the Mahabharata. In our contemporary society Draupadi is more likely to choose a high performer on the CAT exam who gets into IIT. Any well-functioning society rewards talented persons whose actions further their idea of a good society.
In the private sector it is relatively easier to spot merit and reward it. If an individual’s actions consistently improve the company’s profit, she gets promoted and her fellow employees think it fair. Similarly, citizens of a nation prefer to reward those who promote the common good. The reservations debate has this silver lining--it is forcing us to think about our idea of the common good. For the philosopher John Rawls, a good action is related in some way to lifting the worst off in society. For Amartya Sen, it would lessen inequality, and hence he has consistently supported reservations for Dalits. The key point is that there is no natural order of “merit” that is independent of our value system.
Before getting agitated about reservations let us reexamine our notion of a good society. On the face of it, rewarding those who combine intelligence with effort and score in CAT exams doesn’t seem unfair. For these individuals are the ones that will go on to build competitive companies, which will create thousands of jobs and help our nation compete in the world. But Lani Guinier, the famous law professor at Harvard, questions if exams like CAT are the best selectors of talent. If she is correct, then we ought to re-look at our selection exams (including civil service exams) and ensure that they not only remove a bias against the low caste but are good predictors of future performance. Since we are becoming a service economy, our exams should also select those with a bias for serving others.
One of the great achievements of independent India is that we widely condemn discrimination of any kind. We even accept compensatory measures to lift Dalits. But we also believe that great nations are built by talent; hence, we don’t envy our software millionaires--they have risen through ability and hard work. This social contract of equity and excellence does not stretch, however, to extending reservations to the OBCs. Most of them are not the oppressed. Hence, we oppose and condemn this cabinet proposal. It discriminates against the talented and will lead to a decline in standards. Although Amartya Sen and John Rawls’ ideas may be seductive, we cannot forget the nightmare we have lived from 1950 to 1990 when we tried to socially engineer our society through such Utopian ideals.


camelpost said...

Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Dayanidhi Maran expressed the hope that Tamilnadu would get one more IIT. MHRD can make it into RIIT considering the passion for reservation in tamilnadu. Next you can expect Health minister Dr Anbumani (AIIMS would like to call him Hatemani) announcing that Tamilnadu will get a AIIMS with the aim of 100% reservation.

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