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NEW SKILLS, OLD DIVIDES
- Caste as a policy variable

There are two curious features about the agitation against reservations for other backward castes. First, whereas the 1989 agitation engulfed universities, the present agitation has been largely confined to doctors. Second, although the agitation is against further reservations, public discussion has largely proceeded on the premise that reservations are good and that only their extent is debatable.

The first feature is explained by the fact that we are in the examination season. Student agitation at this time may entail the loss of an academic year for students in the middle of or about to go to examinations; the cost is high enough to deter students. V.P. Singh being a good, decent, na've fellow, declared his reservations in summer, just as vacation was ending and students were getting back to college. That was a good time for an agitation. Wily, Machiavellian Arjun Singh chose a time when students would be busy with better things. But if the present conflict continues till July, the government may face a more widespread agitation. At present, the police can easily beat up doctors; three months from now, a hundred times as many students may be on the streets, and the police may have to flee their wrath.

We in this country do not have much experience of student agitations. I once got it in Dacca, where I had gone for a conference in 1990. The dictator ' I think he was called Zia ' wanted to teach university students a lesson. He released two hooligans, Ovi and Neeru, from jail, and asked them to do the necessary. They collected some miscreants and invaded the university. The students proved too much for them, and they had to flee. Next day, they went with a bigger gang. That time, the students not only beat them up, but they also came out and brought the capital to a halt. The conference was wrecked. We foreigners barely managed to run to the airport and escape. Three days later, Zia fell.

I can hardly think of that happening to Manmohan Singh. After all, he has CITU hooligans prepared to defend his regime. But public disturbances can be a hazard for poorly governed countries like ours, and any government should think twice before provoking a general agitation. Even those who are prepared to face high-caste backlash would think twice if they faced the possibility of a caste war; especially in the north, it could become uncontrollable.

The second feature is the disconnect between discussion in the media and the doctors' agitation. The doctors are clear: they want an end to reservations. The public discussion is more qualified; by and large, everyone has proceeded on the assumption that reservations are good, and the opposition has at best proposed cosmetic changes.

This is explained by the fact that public discussion is entirely amongst the arriv's ' those who have made their careers and occupied bastions of privilege, and who therefore do not feel threatened by reservations. It may also be that when they went to college, there was less competition and less stress on merit. There certainly was when I went to college. First-generation students in my class in a Bombay college could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Even Maharashtrian students were a hopeless minority. Most students came from families that made up the establishment; and the establishment was much smaller in those days. Today, there is far more competition to get into colleges, especially the better ones. There are many more selection tests, and the majority of students are selected through these examinations. That is particularly true of professional studies such as medicine, engineering and information technology. But it is also fairly true of other subjects. There too, most of colleges' intake is based on some general examination or the other.

This is why my generation ' and later ones ' could accept reservations as a byproduct of democracy. The present generation (I mean high-caste), on the other hand, feels that it got into the university system by hard work and demonstrated merit; conversely, that SC/STs and OBCs are just free-riders who want to get there without working for it, by sheer accident of birth. The accident is not entirely uncorrectable; many high-caste students no doubt buy bogus certificates of low caste and ride free as well. That is what Chandrababu Naidu found when he got the origins of students in hostels for low-caste students investigated. But the system is not entirely subverted, especially in relatively well-governed states; they are where the feeling of injustice is strongest.

Leftists and other friends of the lower castes, of course, allege injustice of the other kind: that high-caste students do well because they are born in better-off families, often to educated parents, and thus get advantages at home ' literate company, books, computers, parental pressure to perform ' which contribute to their better examination performance. In their view, therefore, it is only fair that the disadvantaged jump the queue and go to the front even if they fail examinations.

This argument implicitly assumes that the low-caste are poor and uneducated, and that jobs do not require merit. Both propositions were approximately correct at the time of first-generation reservations, roughly between 1950 and 1975. The caste divide was an economic frontier at that time, because rural society was organized functionally; lower castes served higher ones, generally menially, and so their incomes were a fraction of those of upper castes.

This divide has become less pronounced, not because villagers have changed, but villages have. There is more migration to towns and to far-away jobs; those who once were scavengers and carcass-cutters have become general labourers. The supply of manual work has shrunk with the multiplication of automotive vehicles; today, there is hardly anyone to be seen in cities and vast areas of the countryside pulling handcarts or ploughing. With the broadening of labour markets, some low-caste people have done well, and a few have broken into the ranks of the middle class. The OBCs, in particular, are no longer economically below average.

The second was not true, but was made true. The government was once a meritocracy ' and an aristocracy. When it gave jobs to SC/STs, it also recruited on an enormous scale. The result was that the vast majority of government servants could just enjoy themselves in the midst of files, while the work was done by a small minority. The work too suffered ' our governments today do very little of what governments are supposed to do ' but it did not stop.

Today, a huge and expanding sector of employment has come up where skill matters. And the future of the country as a global provider of goods and services depends on whether this sector is allowed to survive and expand. The government may get by with expansion of educational institutions to accommodate the incompetent; but the private sector cannot. And because the private sector has become so important now in professional education, education also cannot afford reservation. That is why reservations are unsuited to modern India; and so is affirmative action. One can think of better pro-poor policies; but first one has to get out of the old mindset.

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