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A DELICATE BALANCE
- Ensuring that quotas do not dilute educational standards

The debate over the principle of reservations is now over. Indeed, it was effectively over even before it began. In a rare display of camaraderie, politicians of all hues, from lunatic left to rabid right, from Prakash Karat to Prakash Javdekar, not to speak of our de jure and de facto prime ministers, have fallen over themselves in their obeisances to the idea. With the 27 per cent quota for other backward classes a fait accompli, discussion on whether it should be implemented or not is an exercise in futility. Perhaps it always was.

What remains, however, is to design a structure of reservations that, while embodying the idea of empowerment of target groups, minimizes the damages that its reckless application might cause. Consider first the possibility that the benefits of reservation might be hijacked by the microscopic elite of the favoured castes. Certainly, if our purpose is the empowerment of the powerless, we must ensure that we do not end up consolidating the extremely powerful merely because the latter are born into a particular caste.

Exclusions are indispensable — exclusions based on objective, verifiable criteria. Income, unfortunately is not one of these: income is a nebulous concept and, as the economist knows, can accommodate many alternative definitions; what is more, in a country where hundreds of millions earn, certainly many times more than the total number that the income tax department grapples with, incomes must be classed as empirically unverifiable.

There are, however, other objective and verifiable indices of power and influence. We propose that the following readily identifiable groups at least should be excluded from the benefits of reservation: the families of all members of parliament or of state assemblies, of high court and Supreme Court judges, of class I officers of the Central and state governments, high officers of the armed forces, chairmen and executives of all corporations, public and private, owners of land in excess of a specified limit, university faculty and any others educated in private, English-medium schools. Other additions to this limit are possible, but this constitutes a bare minimum. Every member of these groups is identifiable and belongs indisputably to a privileged elite; to give him preferential admission or employment in addition is to stand the concept of social justice on its head.

A second equity issue arises from the ‘top-down’ approach to the problem that the human resource ministry has found convenient. The fraction of OBC applicants for admission in universities is far less than their supposed 27 per cent share in the population, even if one includes the entire ‘creamy layer’ in the OBC count. If we exclude it, as we must in the interest of equity, the share of the OBCs in the applicant pool will be substantially less, probably well below 10 per cent. If we reserve 27 per cent of the seats for this small number of OBC applicants while allocating 50 per cent to the general category (who typically account for about 70 per cent of applications), the average OBC candidate would have a four to five times higher probability of success than the average applicant without quota benefits, regardless of merit and entirely because of caste. Reservations are meant to compensate the designated caste for inherited disadvantages and limited opportunities. They would accomplish this end if the average quota applicant has the same chance of success as the average non-quota candidate, indicating that their caste does not constitute a handicap. But the standard model of reservations stacks the odds against the average non-quota applicant far higher than those against the average quota beneficiary, while the odds against the poor and the underprivileged in the general category become so astronomical that, in essence, they need no longer waste their time applying. To reduce — without, of course, eliminating — this bias, we propose that the mandatory ratio of OBC admissions be linked to the fraction of OBCs in the applicant pool. This would still guarantee OBC candidates a better chance of success than non-quota applicants, but the disparity will no longer be ridiculously disproportionate.

What is more, the focus on the ratio of OBCs in the applicant pool will ensure that the real reasons for their backwardness have a chance of redressal. At present, reservations furnish the government and, in particular, the HRD ministry with a fig leaf of token low-cost egalitarianism behind which they conceal 50 years of neglect of the real problems of the poor and the backward. India’s record in public health and primary education is among the worst in the world. Together with the persistence of mass poverty, it ensures that the poor and the backward, especially of the scheduled castes and the backward classes, hardly ever reach the doors of the university. The shares of the SCs, scheduled tribes and OBCs in the applicant pools of the universities — now one of the best-kept secrets of our government — are the signals of its performance in these crucial fields; and the constant searchlight of public attention on these figures would exert the strongest possible pressure on it to deliver.

A third problem with quotas, as implemented at present, is the erosion of the incentives of the beneficiaries to perform. Quota benefits accrue to individuals not at a single point in their careers, but at every step — in school, in college admission for every degree, in employment, in promotion. At no stage are they required to measure up to the criteria for general candidates. Indeed, in major universities, evaluation standards have been selectively diluted in their favour, so that even passing requirements for degrees are lower for quota beneficiaries. In such a regime, quota candidates are offered no reason to improve — a situation that gives rise to caste stereotyping: others — employers, teachers — expect little of them and they, in response to the incentives that the system provides, do not perform, thus reinforcing these low expectations. In particular, the most capable members of the SCs and OBCs are induced by the quota system itself to reduce their efforts to improve, conforming thereby to the caste stereotype of “non-performing quota beneficiaries”.

All this is compounded by several other consequences of quotas in their present form. In a class where 50 per cent of the students lack adequate preparation and motivation, the level of instruction has necessarily to be lowered, thus arresting the progress of the better students. If the faculty is recruited according to the existing reservation system, its ability to teach will also be lower. The consequent fall in academic standards will undermine the value of degrees. In a global labour market, this would decimate the employment prospects of graduates of the Indian educational system. Even if we constrain Indian employers to hire only Indians (with quotas for SCs and OBCs), this would reduce their international competitiveness. Foreign investment in Indian industry (particularly knowledge-intensive industries that have spearheaded our recent growth) would cease. Indian capital would in fact flow abroad to locations where education and hiring are not similarly constrained. This would be a calamity, not only for the unprotected castes, but for the SCs and OBCs as well.

None of these repercussions can be averted by the government’s populist scheme of a massive increase in admissions to ensure that the number of non-quota seats is not reduced due to the expansion of quotas. Given the scarcity of good teachers willing to teach at Indian salaries, such a project will only accelerate the cumulative decline of standards, of the value of Indian degrees and of the employment prospects of Indian graduates.

Further, it will imply an astronomical increase in the higher education budget at the expense of primary education and of many other more useful objectives.

To arrest this vicious cycle, we need to sustain the incentives of quota beneficiaries and the standards of education. We propose that individuals should be permitted quota benefits only once in their academic careers at a point of their choice. There should be no dilution of standards or requirements for them. However, in the programme to which they have been admitted through a quota, they should be permitted an additional year (or two) for completion: this additional period is to be spent in intensive preparation designed to enable them to compete in future without crutches.

We propose that the HRD ministry should focus on massive support for these preparatory courses to ensure the best design and the best teachers and, wherever possible, individualized instruction. Only such a reservation scheme can protect our educational standards, the reputation of our educational institutions and the marketability of Indian graduates and Indian industries and services in a competitive globalized world. Moreover, only it can enable true empowerment with high incomes for our SCs, STs and OBCs and, by destroying the stereotype of the “non-performing quota beneficiary”, assure them of the dignity and respect they deserve.

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