Friday, May 30, 2008

War of the creamy layers, April 20, 2008

One of our great triumphs as a nation is that we widely condemn social discrimination. This was demonstrated again on April 11 when the Supreme Court allowed a 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in higher education. I am against all quotas but I support vigorous affirmative action. Our leaders in the future will be next generation OBCs, and if they are not better educated, governance will not improve. Why then do I feel a deep pain in my gut over the court judgement? This case, alas, was not about social justice; nor about legitimate OBC aspirations. It is was about a war between two “creamy layers”--middle class factions of the backwards and forwards-- in which the nation may have lost. I fear this “landmark” judgment will do irreparable damage to our few good institutions.

The ordinary family in the village merely wants a good school to lift its children out of poverty. IITs are as alien to it as the Queen of England. The hidden purpose of the OBC quota was to push the wards of OBC netas, babus and elite into our top institutions via an unfair handicap. But the strategy backfired because the Court has excluded the “creamy layer”. Since the aspirations of OBC voters and politicians are different, the quota controversy was unreal. It was not about compensating for disadvantage. As Mayawati has discovered there are poor Brahmins and rich OBCs.

The India of our dreams is one where everyone will belong to the middle class. High economic growth, of the sort we have today, can deliver this dream. But individuals of talent will play a disproportionate role. Since talent is such a scarce resource, successful nations nurture it through elite institutions like the IITs. They don’t place a person with 20th rank in the IIT-JEE exam in the same classroom as one with 20,000th rank. At the same time they meet the demands of the others through an adequate supply of reasonably good institutions. This is how they achieve excellence and equity.

The clamour for quotas in higher education arises from scarcity. We have very few good colleges because education, unlike industry, has not been liberalized. It is firmly under the control of netas and babus, whose energy is spent in doling out favours. Because the government refuses to give autonomy to universities, less than 50 out of 300 can produce an employable graduate. If they had the freedom to set their own fees, curriculum, salaries, and standards, many of our colleges would take a leap upwards.

By contrast Indian industry is more autonomous. In competing for customers it has been expanding supply at breakneck speed. In March, India achieved a miraculous 300 million mobile phone customers in a country of 200 million households. Before liberalization, we had five million phones in 1990. No one talks about quotas for telephones any more because the market has raised both supply and quality. The same thing could happen to education. Prosperity doesn’t trickle down; it goes down like a flood.

The political class is dead set against liberalizing education because scarcity would disappear. So would the need for quotas and so would vote banks. The roots of individual failure are laid in school. World Bank data shows that Arjun Singh presides over one of the worst primary school systems in the world, worse than many African countries. His job was to reform it. Instead he let loose a caste war. But voters are no fools and they can see through his game. If he thinks the Congress Party win will votes from his game, he is mistaken.


Priyank said...

I really don't understand the need and basis for the reservation in higher education while India as a nation has moved to 21st century. It is going to dilute the value of the premier institutes like IITs and going to have negative effects on the economic growth of India. This is nothing but the dirty vote politics which keeps the reservation going. The basis for reservation should only be financial, nothing else, if we really want to see some positive effects of the reservation on our society.

Harjinder said...

I am halfway through your book "India Unbound". It is such an honest change from anything else I have read about India.

The reason for my reply to this article is this, many years ago I worked for an Indian company. They hired the offspring of their well connected friends in India (the company failed).They were all wealthy and well connected, what I call "Delhi Aristocracy".
One of these people was overheard by me saying the following (I remember the words exactly, because they were so disgusting)
"Education in India, needs to be made so expensive that only the rich can afford it, that is the only way that we can safeguard our postion".
I do not pretend to know the answers to the education problems of India, however I do realise that the wealthy elite have too much to lose by providing good quality education to the people of India, they think it is a threat.

Anonymous said...


I am more than halfway through reading your book 'india unbound'. it is a great analysis of what went wrong decades ago and how some of it has been corrected. i wish that the indian govt takes serious note of what all you have said and takes steps to improve the lot of this great nation and take it further towards the path of progress which is the right of each and every citizen of india irrespective of caste, creed and relegion. I sincerely wish you all the best in every sphere of your life including the art of penning your forthright comments.

AC said...

I am very happy that you said this. I have the exact same problem with quotas. One can't go to IIT/IIMs if one doesn't have good secondary education. Public secondary education in India is pathetic, so no matter how much quotas you have in IITs only creamy layer of the so-called backward castes can go for such schools--this simple breeds mediocrity and doesn't do any good for the poor, whether backward or upper caste. I myself come from a poor Brahmin family. It is sheer luck that I was smart enough and quotas never stopped me (yes, I went to public secondary schools and not even English-medium)--but many in my family suffered because of the quotas. I have never seen any looking down on other castes from my parents while growing up (not very uncommon given that I grew up in Calcutta). But it is the frustration with the quotas that has made some people in my family in the current generation to look down on those rich students who walk with crutches. If anything, quotas are deepening caste divisions and are promoting mediocrity. We really need good public secondary schools that can nurture future Indian leaders from poor families, irrespective of caste, creed and religion.

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