On a visit to Orissa, my home state, three years ago, I felt proud of the fact that the highways in the state were among the best in the country. It was a real pleasure driving on them. However, the situation has changed now. On my visit last month, I found major portions of the highways being badly damaged; in fact, at many a place these are damaged for miles at a stretch. One understands that the highways, maintenance of which is the responsibility of the Central Government, are not being repaired for lack of funds. Unbelievable it may sound, but many in Orissa are convinced that the state'sroads, a matter of pride when the NDA was ruling at the Centre, are being deliberately neglected by the present regime in Delhi since ?developments of the roads? was the pet theme of the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
The fact that the people of Orissa continue to repose faith in the NDA?it has been in power since 1999?is considered to be another irritating factor by the rulers in Delhi ?to further neglect? the state'sroads. I have cited this instance just to underscore how ?small? the country'spolitics has become these days! In order to belittle the achievements of their adversaries, political parties are not hesitating to ?under-develop? things already developed. This is a reflection of a proverbial mindset of one wife of a man wishing his other wife widow-hood!
In fact, so dominant is this sick mindset in the country'spolity that elements of socio-political harmony and national unity are in acute short supply. Instead, what we have in abundance are the forces who thrive by glorifying the differences and animosities if these already exist and creating them if these do not exist. For these forces, issues like national unity, development and international reputation are immaterial as long as their sick ideas and policies fetch them votes for acquiring political power. Ever increasing demands for quotas and reservations are the fallouts of this mindset. In fact, I will go the extent of saying that of late, ?fixing quotas? has been the only achievement of our parliamentarians, both in the treasury benches and in the opposition, given their otherwise lackadaisical attitude on issues such as the continuous rise in the prices of the essential commodities, increasing incidents of terrorist activities in the country and heightened international pressures to limit autonomy of India'sforeign policy.
As a theory, the need for quotas and reservations is meant to be, as has been the case with any ?affirmative action? anywhere in the world, a corrective measure for governmental and social injustices against demographic groups that were said to have been said to subjected to discrimination in areas such as employment and education. The stated goal of affirmative action is to counteract past and present discrimination sufficiently so that eventually the power elite will reflect the demographics of society at large. And once this goal is attained, there will be no need for such affairmative actions. But then, what is good in theory is not necessarily so in practice. As Thomas Sowell, a scholar at the Hoover Institute of the U.S. has proved brilliantly in his book Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, affirmative actions, which begin as means to help the less fortunate, end up, in practice, helping the more fortunate. Sowell, an American Black, whose community has been the main target of the affirmative actions in the US, says that his conclusion is based on hard facts that he collected in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Unites States, among others. ?The time is long overdue to start looking at what actually happens under this programme (affirmative actions), as distinguished from what people hope or fear will happen,? he advises.
Let us go by some ?facts?. In Malaysia, the quota-raj started under the notion that ?ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power? and because of a ?colonial legacy under which the country'smore urbanised Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper.? In reality, however, under the British colonial rule, there was free education to the majority Malays but the Chinese minority had to provide their own. But the Chinese still completely outperformed the Malays, both in educational institutions and in the economy. But that is a different story.
The point is that three-decades of the quota system produced more Malay university graduates and professionals than the Chinese; but it did not produce ?performers? or quality work force. As a result, the Malaysian government announced in 2003 that admissions to the universities would now be by academic records, with computers determining who gets in and who does not, without regard to ethnicity. The American example provides similar lessons. In an article in the November 2004 issue of the Stanford Law Review, Professor Richard H. Sander questioned the effectiveness of affirmative action in US law schools. The article presents a study that, among other things, shows that half of all black law students rank near the bottom of their class after the first year of law school, and that black law students are more likely to drop out of law school and to fail the Bar exam. The article offers a tentative estimate that the production of new black lawyers in the United States would grow by eight percent if affirmative action programmes at all law schools were ended, as black students would instead attend less prestigious schools where they would be more closely matched with their classmates, and thus perform better.
Prof. Sowell also shares the same conclusion. He has proved that Black poverty rate in the US was cut in half before various affirmative actions were undertaken. He also questions the notion that Blacks would not be able to get into colleges and universities without affirmative action. According to him, after group preferences and quotas were banned in California'sstate universities, the number of Black students in the University of California system has actually risen. ?Minority students are systematically mismatched with institutions? due to racial preferences, where they underperform relatively to the student body. Had they gone to an institution without the help of affirmative action, to a less selective school, they would have received better grades and graduated at higher rates. Sowell, thus, argues that ?when the top-level schools recruit Black students who would normally be qualified to succeed at the level next to the top, then the second tier of institutions faces the prospect of either being conspicuously lacking in minority students or (2) dipping down to the next level below to bring in enough minority students for a statistically respectable ?representation?. Usually they end up mismatching students. Once begun at the top, this process continues on down the line?.
Unfortunately, in India, we really do not have quality data to judge the effectiveness (mostly, the lack of it) of the reservation policy. But the fact that reservations have been there for the SC and ST categories since 1950, and yet there has been no perceptible change in their overall conditions speak poorly of the efficacy of the idea. Whether it is the SC/ST or the OBC, most fruits of the reservation have been eaten by what is called the creamy layers within these groups. Blind votaries of reservations often point out the success story of the policy in Tamil Nadu where it has been existing in some form or the other for the last 85 years. It is said that OBCs, thanks to reservations, have outshone the upper castes in various fields in Tamil Nadu. But, that is spurious argument. In Tamil Nadu such is the absurdity of the criteria in categorising upper castes and OBCs that most of the OBCs there will pass out as upper castes in rest of the country?the upper caste in Tamil Nadu is mainly synonymous with Brahmins (meritorious of whom, incidentally, have migrated to other parts of the country and abroad and are doing well). Secondly, let it be noted that the overall progress of Tamil Nadu in a comparative scale has taken place in the last 20-25 years, even though reservations started there in 1920s. In fact, during the same period, other states like Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra and Punjab have also developed well, better than Tamil Nadu, without having the latter'snearly 70 percent of reservations in education and jobs.
It may also be pointed out here that the quota-raj in India is not exactly the same thing as what the rest of the world considers to be affirmative actions. Elsewhere, affirmative actions are self-regulatory, not controlled by the state as such. And these actions recognise that there are multiple factors of exclusion and discrimination working in society (such as race, gender, economic factors, etc.) and that there are multiple approaches to tackle the problem. In contrast, in India reservations focus, rather perversely, only on caste at the cost of addressing social justice. Instead of eliminating caste as a factor of social consideration, something that the Indian Constitution aims at, reservations in India actually perpetuate it.
In fact, contrary to their stated objectives, reservations in India do not aim at social justice, something that affirmative actions elsewhere aim at. By their very nature, affirmative actions are meant to be ?temporary? or ?transitional?, but in India quotas are not only persisting but spreading endlessly. Here, the quotas are essentially instruments of political power. In the rest of the world, affirmative actions aim at creating equality; but in India reservations are encouraged to create and legitimise?rather glorify?inequalities, as long as they fetch our political parties votes.
In the ultimate analysis, the expanding quota-raj in India is reducing the incentives of both the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of reservations to perform or excel in their chosen fields?the former because doing so is unnecessary (see the way we are allowing reservations even in promotions) and the latter because it can prove futile. Thus, it is resulting in net losses for the society as a whole. If this dangerous raj is not brought under control, we should forget about India being a developed country by 2020, as envisioned by our President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)