The Suicidal Quota-Raj
Among many controversial features in the government’s version of the Lokpal Bill, the one that I consider to be really serious is the provision to have reservations of the backward castes, women and Muslims. I find it bizarre the manner the Indian politicians talk of and fight for having more and more reservations. Ajit Singh, the newly inducted cabinet minister in Manmohan Singh government, wants reservations for Jats. The other day, JD (U) President Sharad Yadav argued for doing away with the upper limit of 50 per cent reservations in jobs and educational opportunities. He said that the so-called OBC people alone should be provided with as much 52 per cent reservations, commensurate with their number in the country.
In fact, the “three Yadavs” of Indian politics—Lalu, Mulayam and Sharad—have forced the present UPA government to go for a caste-census, the last of which was done way back in early 1930s. But we do not know exactly where the exercise has reached. Be that as it may, the point is that if we go by Sharad Yadav’s theory that every community must have reservations in proportion to its actual number, it will be the beginning of the end of modern India. We should forget about all those projections and theories that India is emerging as a major global power. Yadav’s perverse logic means that those who opt for smaller families should be punished, not rewarded. It will also mean that talent and hard work are useless and those who have it need to be taken to task. Yadav’s thesis is that produce as many children as you can, do not educate them properly but demand that the State gives them jobs even if they are not competent enough.
It is really surprising that the protagonists of the reservations are not simply bothered about enhancing the capabilities of the people who have been disadvantaged over years, which, in reality, is the rationale behind any “affirmative action”. As a theory, the need for quotas and reservations is meant to be, as has been the case with any affirmative action in other parts of the world, a corrective measure for governmental and social injustices against demographic groups that were 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 affirmative 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 US, 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 United 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 because of a colonial legacy under which the country’s more 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. 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 workforce. 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 per cent 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’s state 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: “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 SCs/STs or the OBCs, 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 87 years. It is said that OBCs, thanks to reservations, have outshone the upper castes in various fields in Tamil Nadu. But, that is a 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’s nearly 70 per cent of reservations in education and jobs.
We must be clear that the quota-raj in India has nothing to do with 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 and community at the cost of addressing social justice. Instead of eliminating caste and religion as factors of social consideration, something that the Indian Constitution aims at, reservations in India actually perpetuate them. Secondly, 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.
By Prakash Nanda