Friday, May 26, 2006

Reservation, politics and the great opportunity ahead

India is having a raging debate about reservations in education institutions. The government has proposed a 27% quota for OBC (Other Backward Classes) in all educational institutions including the haloed IITs , IIMs and AIIMS and all other engineering and medical colleges. This has caused a great deal of tension, anger and resentment amongst the “urban” upper castes with a lot of engineering and medical students resorting to hunger strikes outside their colleges.

Let us take a dispassionate look at the issue at hand. There are 3 main reason why the quotas have come in.

Reason #1: Arjun Singh, a former Congress heavyweight leader gets shunted to the HR ministry in the new UPA led government. He needs to assert his importance to the country butmore importantly to the Congress top-brass. He really needs to emphasize the fact that he is still relevant in Indian politics.

Reason #2: Reservation creates a vote bank for the minister and his party. Or for those who can shout the loudest about having created the quota. Although differing by a wide margin, various surveys show that OBCs are atleast 30% of the Indian population. If anyone party can corner that kind of votes, it will difficult to beat them in the general elections. And, India is a haven of caste based politics. From the cow-belt to the southern states, caste plays a big part in the electoral process.

Reason #3: It’s the easiest thing to do. Pass a regulation and it’s done. It does not need any tough decision-making or implementation of any difficult things like creating more and better schools and colleges.

The main reason why reservations are important or is being done as justified by the HRD minister and others of his ilk, that its to uplift the downtrodden is something that is just meant for public consumption. I am confident that Arjun Singh does not lose any of his precious sleep over the living conditions of the OBCs.

It is not possible for any political party in India today to take a stand against the quota and alienate the OBCs. So, this bill is getting hardly any resistance and from the opposition parties. The only resistance is coming from the students of the so-called upper castes. And also, its more of an urban phenomenon. There is a lot of media coverage of this, but as we have seen with the last Lok Sabh poll, the media can be grossly wrong in predicting trends for the simple reason that its manned mostly by urban middle and upper middle class people. The media coverage and the protesting students are unlikely to have much success because no party can actually backtrack from the stand that they have taken.

The question remains whether reservations is the correct approach for eliminating the inequality that has taken place over hundreds of years. I, for one believe, that some form of social upliftment is needed for the SC,ST and OBCs. Whether reservation is the correct thing to do, I don’t know. But the fact is that there is active discrimination against this section of society even today. The only way to get these people to join the mainstream is to get them educated. For people who have centuries of neglect to cope with getting good grades in school may not come easy. Getting decent jobs is practically impossible. For a nation of a billion people, it is not good enough to leave 30% of its people in abject poverty, ready for their exploitation.

Maybe an option is to get all underprivileged children to school and then into vocational training. The focus has to be to improve their employability, whether it is in the rural agriculture or urban industry. Only with economic liberalisation will people be able to come up in life. This requires a great deal of focus on building a great deal of educational infrastructure all over the country. I have a problem when the IITs, IIMs and the AIIMSs of this world not willing to increase their capacities. I refuse to believe that there are only 1500 great students every year who are capable enough to be part of an IIT or an IIM. Worldwide their application rejection ratio is the highest. It is just a manifestation of a “closed-circle” mentality, where people don’t want others to intrude.

If you look at the heart of the issue it is because we have a scarcity of good educational institutions that we are seeing such a great deal of hullabaloo. If we had enough good schools and colleges to be able to absorb all students then there would not have been any issue at all. So, the answer is to build huge capacities in the education sector and also to look for innovative ways to expand the reach of education. And herein is the opportunity. Entrepreneurs can start investing in this sector and start building schools, colleges and vocational institutions. There is a huge market for this and people will be willing to pay top dollar for good education. Who would have believed that peple would be paying 15 lakhs for a year’s MBA course in India. That’s what ISB, Hyderabad is charging, and they are attracting students by the dozen. So, I would not be surprised to see a chain of “Reliance Schools” or “Tata Colleges” come up in the country. Cheers to that!!

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