Reservations have become a ploy to divert attention from the inability of governments to improve the quality of education universally and at all levels. Now the number of seats is to be expanded to enable both forward and deprived classes to get more seats. But the fundamental issue is the poor quality of most school education. The better-off send their children to good and expensive schools. The poor suffer, and the talented among them rise despite poor schooling. Ministers like Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh use education to score political points, not to improve education quality despite having vast funds. In earlier decades, education ministers like Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and V.K.R.V. Rao tried their best to improve quality, despite poor funding. Ministers have never cared to do their job, which is to improve and expand education.
The catch-all human resource development ministry was a place to park 'difficult' political opponents in the same party. Rajiv Gandhi appointed Narasimha Rao, a perceived contender for the prime-ministership. Narasimha Rao as prime minister relegated to HRD the devious and ambitious Arjun Singh. Arjun Singh used HRD to pack the key bodies in the ministry with his leftist friends who managed to rewrite Indian history and textbooks to demonize the Hindutva parties and organizations, while whitewashing the role of the communists in the independence movement.
Vajpayee as prime minister banished to it Murli Manohar Joshi, his rival for the job. Joshi got the textbooks rewritten in saffron and packed the ministry and its autonomous bodies with fellow-thinkers. Towards the end, he also tried unsuccessfully to give himself a pro-poor image by demanding that the Indian Institutes of Management reduce their fees. Most poor and socially backward students do not enter the IIMs because of poor English, inability to pass the culturally-oriented testing and ineptness in social interactions.
Arjun Singh began by reverting to the leftist colours in historical research and textbooks. But Singh is a more astute and experienced politician (former chief minister of a major state and negotiator of the abortive Khalistan agreement with the then soon-to-be-assassinated Langowal). He demanded and got agreement from the IIMs and Indian Institutes of Technology to raise student intakes. He bided his time to demonstrate his loyalties to the party and prime minister. But Joshi's misguided attempt with IIM fees taught him that the HRD ministry had great potential for bolstering his leftist and pro-poor image.
Arjun Singh realized that the poor and the socially backward were mostly unable to pass the tests for admissions to higher and professional education. After the constitutional amendment on reservations for other backward classes, he unilaterally announced actions to implement it. His timing on the reservations bomb, when disgruntlement had surfaced among other senior Congress politicians, was exquisite. Natwar Singh was publicly showing his commitment to Muslim minorities by railing against the Bush administration's policy on Iraq and Iran. He criticized the imminent nuclear agreement with the United States of America at the perceived cost of going against a 'faithful ally' of India, namely Iran. This fitted with the image Arjun Singh wanted to create for himself as pro-minority, pro-poor and backward castes, anti-capitalist and anti-globalization.
None of this politicking has any relationship to the genuine problems of getting a good education by the poor, the socially backward and the minorities. Educational standards must not be devalued to give them the pretence of an education. College, higher and professional education demands the underpinning of a good high-school education. Governments must perforce improve the quality of school education for all, with more attractive remuneration to teachers, regular training and retraining, incentives for quality, better teaching materials, good school facilities, and so on.
The proportion of graduating students from high schools between scheduled castes and tribes and OBC candidates is not particularly low. Surjit Bhalla wrote in the Business Standard that 'the proportion of SC/STs and OBCs graduating from high school is close to 43 per cent. The SC/STs share of high school graduates (16.7 per cent) is 68 per cent of their share in the population (24.4 per cent), the OBCs are only 1.5 percentage points below their proposed representation (26 per cent of high school graduates vs 27.5 per cent quota in colleges)... Only 7.4 per cent of children graduating from high school are Muslims, whereas their share in the population (Census 2001) is 13.4 per cent, i.e. their shortfall is 45 per cent (ratio of 7.4 and 13.4 is 55 per cent). In contrast, the shortfall for SC/STs is 32 per cent. For the OBCs, the shortfall is a minuscule 4 per cent'.
A lower relative proportion of Muslims than lower castes passes high school. If reservations were the answer, we must reserve school seats and passing for Muslims. The real need for all is good English articulation and writing, mathematics, science and general knowledge. These make it easier to pass the tests for admission to good colleges and other institutions of higher learning.
Most institution-specific admission tests are culture-sensitive. Interviews in English by interviewers from higher socio-economic strata almost invariably fail the scheduled, backward caste and Muslim candidates. They have to be trained to adjust to different cultural norms. IIM Lucknow has a pilot project to achieve this. Further, the testing has to become more culturally neutral.
There are those who think that it is essential to have reservations in a democracy. Perhaps so if they did not fail, as they do, in identifying and targeting the deserving, and admit only those who can be helped to maintain the minimum standards of the class. Successful politicians, bureaucrats and others from the 'reserved' sections must not be able to bequeath this right to their children. Economic backwardness does largely coincide with lower castes. The better off among them must not be eligible.
Educational institutions become superior because of good teachers and talented students. Teachers are generally grossly under-remunerated, even in elite IIMs where a new graduate earns a multiple of what his teachers do. These have to be raised. Teachers must be objectively evaluated, counselled and retrained, and superior performance rewarded differentially.
P. Chidambaram is politically correct in claiming that reservations have benefited Tamil Nadu. The general quality of education had declined for years as faculty and students were appointed on caste considerations. Malcolm Adiseshiah as vice-chancellor introduced autonomous colleges. They improved quality. Tamil Nadu's progress on population control and literacy is not due to reservation but to a thrust on family planning, mid-day meals to schoolchildren and nutritional supplements to the poor pregnant women.
Education must not become as politicized as it has. Mere legislative gestures are totally useless. The fundamentals of education must improve and quality standards must rise. Those going into colleges or other higher education must have sufficient basics to learn from them.
School education needs maximum attention. Quality standards will not rise if we admit large numbers of unqualified and unsuitable students. Reservations by themselves carry the caste odium into higher education. In the interim, outreach programmes for the brighter among the poor and backward-class students, rather like the expensive tutorial classes to which urban middleclass parents send their children, need to be initiated. The object must be to improve the capability of the weakest in society, not just give empty opportunity.