A way of helping a historically disadvantaged group in India is to get them well- educated and enhance their efficiency levels so they deserve jobs on their own worth. Doing it is the dharma of any government in India. But our governments don’t do it. Their way is to relax eligibility standards for the Reserved Group – by raising upper age limits for their entry, allowing them to apply with lesser school or university scores and loosening evaluation standards for them like treating their average performance in a proficiency test on par with others’ good performance. And of course governments give them 50% or more quotas.
Like commenting on these two ways, Justice Viswanatha Sastri of the Madras High Court wrote in 1950 about a process of levelling up and a process of levelling down. But levelling up works for the lasting good of a disadvantaged group, as seen in USA, while levelling down does not truly and permanently help and it backfires too, as India witnesses.
So if we also change our setting in India the real latent talents of many among the Reserved Group and the Non-reserved Group will steadily emerge (yes, now both groups do not get fair and best opportunities in India). The change must begin at the basic education level and spread to higher education later. Also, improving educational standards must go hand in hand with managing our economy wisely and multiplying employment opportunities.
If you want to see proof of the beneficial effects of a good educational setting on Indians, look at the success stories that followed their studying and working abroad in reputed institutions. As we noticed, four India-born individuals stand out among them, winning Nobel Prizes – Har Gobind Khorana, Physiology or Medicine (shared), 1968; Subramanyan Chandrasekar, Physics (shared), 1983; Amartya Sen, Economics, 1998; and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Chemistry (shared), 2009. Several other Indians have done quite well in the US in non-academic fields and distinguished themselves. If you guess they can’t do it in India you would be right. If you ask in what large numbers Indians emigrate out of India for quality higher education and better living, the answer has some divinity – in such huge numbers that in the US alone they have built about 180 Hindu temples.
US government service and judiciary too have attracted Indian talent. Many persons of Indian origin have made themselves outstanding in their jobs with governments in that country, and the US public sector is benefiting and helping itself most. Indian governments and those who run them have some lessons here. At the same time let us salute the extraordinary men and women still found among India’s public servants – they do things harder to do and against great odds, unlike their counterparts in the US who work in welcome surroundings.
Since 1993 the Central government in India periodically declares, for each State or Union Territory, groups of people referring to them usually by their caste names, as belonging to ‘backward classes’. These groups of people are broadly called as ‘Other Backward Classes (OBC)’. They are different from groups the Centre has identified (much of it in 1950), on the basis of their caste or race as ‘scheduled castes’ and on the basis of their tribal identity as ‘scheduled tribes’. But again, for reservation of jobs scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are also considered under the term ‘backward classes’.
Let me say this without a lengthy reference to government records or sources. As of today at least 66% of India’s population is officially considered ‘backward’ by the Central government (i.e., scheduled castes 16.6%, scheduled tribes 8.6% and OBC’s 41%), with the balance 34% counted as ‘Others’ – for purposes of reservation by the Central government. As for the States in India, each State separately identifies groups of people within its borders, mostly naming them on caste basis, whom it considers ‘backward’ and coming under OBC’s – for reservation in jobs and admissions to educational institutions.
So the all-India minimum percentage of ‘backward classes’ is 66%, chosen and fixed by the Centre. It should be higher in each State because a State government declares more groups of people within its territories to be coming under OBC’s than what the Centre does for that State.
Many Indians would feel that the Centre declaring a high 66% of their country’s population – and the States going even higher for their regional population – is simply artificial and self-degrading, though legally passable. I hope no one will laughably suggest that if for some reason all the ‘Others’ who make up 34% or less of India’s population go out of India, the country will then have no ‘oppressor-people’, it may do away with reservation and that all its remaining citizens – whom India presently calls ‘backward’ – will then reach higher standards of living quicker. The truth is, the higher the percentage of ‘backward classes’ a government fixes among its citizens or the longer that definition stays as policy, the greater is government’s guilt in not doing anything worthwhile for its citizens to lift them out of ‘backwardness’, whatever its governmental definition.
Look at it another way. Assume that a nation is in abysmal poverty. Should a government work real measures to remove poverty or just go on declaring more and more sections of the population as officially poor? The government may keep telling its poor people that those declarations are a great welfare measure because some of them will get doles and government jobs based on those declarations. But that means nothing - even without such declarations a government is bound to create jobs for all and improve the financial condition of all its people, not just of a small percentage of those large sections officially designated as poor. Likewise, merely including more and more sections of the Indian population in any list of ‘backward classes’ without doing them real good is hoodwinking.
You have watched the clamour among more and more groups of people wanting to be recognized as ‘backward’ and the willingness of political parties to say yes to it. Political parties are always keen to give out the message “We are for you” to various groups of people, with many overtones. Sensing it many groups of people put out their anticipatory demands, reasonable or not. Here is an instance of such unspoken alliance. The Chairman of the Backward Classes Commission of a State recommended that 29 ‘forward’ communities be included in the State’s list of ‘backward classes’ and 34 communities be deleted from that list. The State government took action, but in this way. It included the recommended 29 communities in its ‘backward classes’ list but did not make any of the recommended deletions.
The scene across India clearly hints there is something wrong with the way we look at ‘backwardness’ and why we do it. In the name of a public policy India is hurting itself grievously – by institutionalizing caste and fanning caste consciousness, marking and deepening divisions among its people on caste lines and turning its back on merit to a bulk of entrants in colleges and in public sector service. These are too huge a price we pay for short-term benefits for a few while making a large talent pool lose heart on India. Looking at my country, I wonder in what context the University of Pennsylvania, one of the famed Ivy League institutions, coined its motto Leges sine moribus vanae. The Latin phrase means “Laws without morals are useless”.
Who are the persons still holding us away from a clean solution to the thorny issue of reservation – a solution that will put India on the way out of stagnation and lift its people? Surely, India’s politicians who have not risen to the occasion should take the moral blame. If they maintain and encourage differences between two or more groups, or just refuse to look at and work on a fair solution, it helps their parochial cause. They can quietly play one group against the other and thrive on the support of the group to which they play the role of saviors – that would be like the policy pursued by the colonial British long ago when they wanted to stay put in India, a policy of divide and rule. If independent India has a new set of rulers who divide and rule the country’s citizens, may we also get another Mahatma Gandhi to lead us to yet another liberation – liberation of the minds of Indians?
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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015