Wipro chairman Azim Premji has firmly articulated corporate India'sdislike of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh'spolitely veiled threat to introduce caste-based reservations in the private sector. Though other voices have been more moderate, there can be no mistaking the dismay caused by the UPA government'sinsistence on imposing a non-professional, non-meritorious weightage on jobs in the private sector.
This is an unworthy exercise for several reasons. To begin with, reservations as a means of balancing real or perceived inequalities are a tool of the post-colonial mid-twentieth century, a historical legacy of the British attempt to divide Hindu society by providing separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes. If the colonial state had not made that move, independent India might have attempted to redress the issue of the backwardness of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in some other manner. Nevertheless, these reservations were accepted by the nation because there was a general agreement that these sections of society required special affirmative action to remove their acute educational and economic backwardness.
It bears stating, however, that the routine extension of these reservations every ten years caused them to lose their moral justification. By refusing to modify the terms of reservation for the less disadvantaged among the SC/ST categories, by refusing to permit exclusion of creamy layers, political parties made the reservations near perpetual. Worse, by pandering to the emotive appeal of reservations to a specific section of the electorate, they sent a message that reservations would be given only to politically mobilised sections of society, regardless of the actual level of disempowerment suffered by those sections.
The message was not lost on other groups, and that is why the economically and politically powerful OBCs were able to institute the Mandal Commission. Though the implementation of its report was stalled for a decade, Mandal made its presence felt in the Indian polity in a most dramatic and traumatic way. All political parties fell in line on account of the powerful mobilisation of the intermediate castes, but Mandal also de- legitimised reservations as a means to achieve greater upward mobility, because this was perceived as having being attained through muscle power, not moral imperative.
The lack of political mobilisation of women on gender basis was the reason for the failure of the women'sreservation bill. Hence, before reservations are extended into the private sector, or expanded in educational institutions or government jobs, it may be worthwhile to increase the quotient of gender justice in all existing reservation categories, especially educational. Mahatma Gandhi had said that if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family. This is as true today as it was then, and as Dalit women are the most disempowered of all social categories, it may be a good idea if 50 per cent of the SC/ST quota in educational institutions is reserved for women/girls. This will give these families a vested interest in the education of the girl child, and go a long way in meeting the national goal of education for all. India is already nearly two decades behind achieving this target, which is nowhere in sight.
The Prime Minister'spush for reservations in the private sector, which has seen algebraic growth in the past 15 years of liberalisation, is a sad case of meeting this century'schallenge with last century'svaccine. Coming close on the heels of HRD Minister Arjun Singh'sattempt to extend a 27 per cent OBC quota in the IITs and IIMs, which have made India the flavour of Silicon Valley and other corporate hubs all over the world, it sends the message that political India has run out of ideas for empowering and uplifting its people.
Worse, the moves ignore the vibrant reality of India, where caste has long ceased to be the basis for choosing an occupation. Since caste has no relationship between one'schoice of profession, caste-based reservations in professional institutions or jobs is a true oxymoron. It is neither necessary nor legitimate, and it only creates new social divisions where none need exist. Since the professions are open to all castes, competition must be on the basis of merit. Caste-based reservations have a logic where certain occupations are reserved for certain castes, a situation that does not prevail in modern India even though there are castes that follow their traditional occupations.
What India really needs is to disband social welfare schemes that merely empower a network of well-connected persons, and provide cent per cent investment in school infrastructure. This means every village must have access to a school, where teachers must teach, and there must be zero absenteeism. There must be extra coaching for dropouts of class ten and twelve, so that the students can achieve minimal educational qualifications before branching out into vocations. Special coaching facilities and financial assistance should be provided to village children aspiring to enter technical and professional institutions. Politicians would do well to realise that just as flyovers in Delhi did not solve the problem of traffic jams, but merely shifted the point of congestion, so reservations merely transfer the problem of poor and insincere planning to another point in the system. What the people want is genuine empowerment.