Prominent blogger Amit Varma recently published a brief and succinct post on why he thinks reservations based on caste are unfair, According to Varma, reservations perpetuate caste rather than do away with it.
When I was a student, I used to feel exactly the same as Varma does even now. However, after I started working in the late nineties, I began to have second thoughts and asked myself: Why should people who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds be treated on par with those born with a silver spoon? My antagonism towards reservations totally melted away after I came to the UK. Compared to the UK and other European countries, India is a very unfair society with a rich-poor divide that can’t be justified by any stretch of imagination. Middle class Indians seem to able to tolerate a degree of poverty around them that would be unacceptable to most Europeans. Most Indians living below the poverty line come from the lower castes and it cannot be denied that there is an undeniable link between poverty, social backwardness and caste. In other words, caste is the best or the most efficient yardstick for measuring social and economic backwardness. Granted there are Indians from the lower castes who are no longer poor or even socially backward, and there are some backward castes which are no longer backward, but on an all-India level, such people and castes are very few in number.
Social backwardness is something that is very different from financial poverty. To give an example, a businessman who goes bankrupt may be poor. He may have to live on handouts from relatives or send his kids to a government run school. However, he is not socially backward. He will be able to talk to people on equal terms anywhere in India, especially in his home territory. He will know how to work the system and will, with some luck, bounce back in life. His children will have their education paid for by family members. Even if they struggle through college, they will have necessary soft skills to do well later on in life.
Now take the case of a dalit from a village where untouchability is still practised, who manages to go to college on the strength of reservations. Even after he goes to college, he is still a dalit. He stands out from the college crowd on account of his shabby clothes and lack of confidence. After he gets a good job (once again thanks to reservations), he is still a dalit, though he will have started to acquire some social graces by then. However, when sends his kids to the best school in town, they will not be treated as dalits. Let’s assume the kids are smart, but not smart enough to get admission to a good engineering or medical college on merit. However, they are very likely get admission to the college of their choice, since they have reservations. By the time those kids pass out, they have as much social standing as any of their classmates.
Most jobs require soft skills that are not taught in schools or colleges and are available only to those from the upper crust of society. In fact I know of many sensible organisations that keep away from applicants with a sterling academic performance but without any extracurricular ribbons. In other words, a socially backward individual is very unlikely to bag a job that requires soft skills. We all know that such jobs are the highest paying ones in the market.
To be fair, the main reason why so many upper class Indians hate reservations not because they are nasty people, but because of India’s extremely high population. There are too many Indians who want to join the IITs, IIMs or top medical colleges like AIIMS and too few seats available at such institutions. Gaining admission to such an institution virtually guarantees a comfortable living for the rest of one’s life. Mind you, once admission is secured, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to clear the course, though it must be admitted that in general those admitted on merit pass out with better grades when compared to those who got admission through reservations.
There are some like Mr. Narayana Murthy who say that reservations should be based solely on economic criteria. I do not agree with this stand. For one, it ignores social backwardness which is, in my opinion, a bigger handicap than economic weakness. Secondly if reservations are made available to all those below the poverty line, you can be sure that a brisk trade will develop in fake income certificates. In a country where very few of those liable to pay income tax do so, policing a system of reservations based solely on income will just not work. Even if it can be made to work, I feel that reservations ought to target social as much as economic backwardness.
I will not dispute that caste is not a perfect yardstick and the presence of a creamy lawyer prevents reservations from benefiting those who most deserve it the most. A few months ago, I was having a chat with a friend and the discussion moved to reservations and caste. ‘Oh when do you think will we be able to do away with reservations altogether?’ my friend wondered aloud. ‘Just as how they stopped giving free milk in schools here.’ There was a time when British school children were given free milk in schools. Then one day in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher decided to stop giving it away free to older children and to be honest there were lots of complaints. Milk is available cheaply in the UK, as in the rest of the developed world, and even the poorest of the poor can afford it. Despite all that, many Britons cribbed. One can only imagine the hue and cry that will arise if the Indian government were to announce an end to reservations. More importantly, the government that ends reservations is bound to get trashed in the next general election.
In my opinion, purely caste-based reservations do perpetuate caste divisions in the short term. However, they also uplift untouchable and backward castes, to a large extent, though it is at the expense of the upper castes. If (social and economic) upliftment of the lower castes is the sole objective behind reservations, rather than doing away with caste altogether, then caste based reservations do work. Tamil Nadu is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Since many decades, Tamil Nadu has had up to 69% reservations for admissions to colleges and in state government jobs. There has been a great degree of social and economic mobility as a result of this. Sadly the Tamil Brahmin community has been largely driven away from the state as a result of this reservation policy (coupled with the vehement anti-Brahmin rhetoric of various Dravidian parties).
There are so many questions that need answers. Are reservations a form of compensation to the lower castes for many centuries of discrimination? If yes, is it fair to make the present generation of upper castes pay for what their ancestors did? Should India restrict reservation benefits to two generations so that college admissions and jobs go to the neediest and the most deserving among the lower castes?
Can it be said that if caste based reservations continue for some more time, caste divisions within society will disappear? In my opinion, it will take many, many decades of reservations before the lower castes achieve some degree of prosperity and parity with the upper castes. It is very likely that many upper castes will end up a few notches down on the social and financial ladder as a result. However, caste divisions can disappear only when such social equalisation is matched by a tremendous increase in the overall prosperity within society. Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan managed to create societies with very little class distinctions (as compared to India) only because they achieved a great degree of prosperity. There was so much around for everyone that some of it trickled down to even the poorest individual.
India has got so many more people than all these countries I have just mentioned and so much fewer resources. Also, India has even now, more poverty and social backwardness than any of these countries ever had in the last hundred years. Which takes us back to a very basic question – if reservations are likely to only sharpen caste distinctions in the short run and if they can work in the long run only if there is an overall increase in prosperity, should India persist with reservations? What if India can achieve a critical mass of prosperity (that will make it possible to push every Indian out of poverty) faster than it will through reservations by moving to a purely merit based regime right away?
It is tempting to say (as Amit Varma does) that India should ditch reservations and pursue pure merit at once without waiting for reservations to uplift the downtrodden castes. However, I doubt if our politicians will want to take the risk of trying to persuade India’s long suffering populace of the efficacy of such a measure. I have a feeling that reservations will be a fact of life for Indians for at least a couple of generations to come.