Tuesday, June 06, 2006

reservations, caste and the media

affirmative action in the USA

The practice of affirmative action, preferential treatment, positive discrimination or reservations, is not restricted to India. It might be useful to look at the US, which has a quasi-compulsory affirmative action policy which gives preference to ethnic and racial minorities in institutes of higher education.

(I called the affirmative action policy ‘quasi-compulsory’ because while the affirmative action is entirely optional, government funding is granted only to those institutions which implement the policy.)

While the ‘merit’ of students passing out of these institutions has not been affected by affirmative action, the number of non-white students gaining admission to institutions that did not adopt affirmative action was considerably lower. For instance, when California banned affirmative action in undergraduate admissions in 1998, and the effect at Berkeley was immediate. In its first year without race-based preferences, the school accepted its least diverse undergraduate class in 17 years, admitting 56 percent fewer blacks and 49 percent fewer Latinos than in 1997.

The case is far worse in India. In my previous post on the reservation issue, I quoted Yogendra Yadav on the caste-based break-up of students in higher educational institutions.

The major difference between the American system and the Indian one is that affirmative action is not quota based in the US. In the Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court struck down University of Michigan's point-based undergraduate admission policy, where non-white candidates were given a 20 point lead. In other words, a mechanical discrimination, much like our quota system.

However, this case was heard in conjunction with the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case where Barbara Grutter alleged she was denied a seat when a non-white candidate with fewer marks was given admission. The Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy as saying it would help gain a “critical mass” of non-white students, and therefore essential for a diverse student body.

As counsel Miranda Massie put it, "It will be the first time the racism of the basic admissions criteria will be exposed.”

the Indian context

There is a very real disadvantage that a backward class candidate suffers from in the case of CAT and other such entrance exams. These exams are infinitely more difficult if a candidate comes from a family with no prior experience of it. CAT is today more than an examination, it’s practically a sub-culture with internet communities and chat rooms and other such support structures. Would it be possible to last the grind without such support structures? And do the backward classes have the exposure necessary to use these support structures? Moreover, coaching classes for these exams have forbidding fees which most lower middle class students would baulk at.

While in India, we do have a rigid quota system, it is an essential stepping stone towards more complex affirmative action policy. I do not think an affirmative action policy modeled on the American lines will work in India, for the American system only attempts to help a non-white student gain admission. I am not really aware of the magnitude of social disparity in the USA, but with the irreconcilable differences between classes in India, a more proactive measure may be required. Perhaps, a student’s eligibility for reservation could be plotted against his/ her caste, economic standing, academic history in the family and so on.

But before we graduate to these higher and more complex forms of affirmative action, we need to take the first steps such as the government’s current reservation policy.

the media and government

Few will argue that the attempt at consensus-building and opinion-generation was pathetic, or that Arjun Singh is probably the worst champion you can have of any cause.

The media’s response has been to show him up as a demented misguided power zealot trying to manipulate issues to garner votes. For instance, see this interview of Arjun Singh by Karan Thapar. I don’t see anything inherently wrong in vote garnering by populist measures. If the general public is the paymaster, working for the good of the people is the expected result. I have scant regard for political formalists who claim that the aam junta cannot see what is good for them and can be perpetually hoodwinked into believing what the politicians want them to. To them, I simply quote Chandrababu Naidu and the NDA government as examples. While the elite, including most of our newspaper barons (whose editorials invariably begin with “I had pickled away this story for my memoirs…”) had predicted they would win, both lost pathetically. They clearly paid the price for their policies, which were targeted at a inequitable development. Oomen Chandy made the same mistake, only this time around, everyone knew he would lose. And if the dominant ruling class is successful in the taking the electorate for a ride, I would imagine a large part of the blame would lie with the media. The ruled classes can more than make up their minds on what is good for them, particularly if the media and other systemic checks perform their tasks well.

The media has been almost unanimous in denouncing the new reservations. The few exceptions have been The Hindu, Frontline and Outlook.

Interestingly, a recent study found that Hindu upper caste men, constituting only 8% of India’s population, held nearly 70% of the editorial posts in the Indian media. (Siddharth Varadarajan reflects on the caste media and caste in this excellent editorial.)

the south Indian experience

The South, traditionally amongst the most politically active states in India, has been silent on this issue. The reason is perhaps that there has always been reservation in South Indian educational institutions. Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have about 50% each, while Tamil Nadu has a whopping 69%. While the reputation of universities like Anna, Kamraj and Kerala government engineering colleges have not suffered from this reservation, a large part of the population has gained access to higher education at excellent institutions.

Another common response has been that seats will not be filled up, because these guys just cannot qualify, even with reservations. Frontline quoted Anandakrishnan, Vice-Chancellor of Anna University as saying, “Assuming that 5,000 students were to be admitted to the IITs every year and 27 per cent reservation was made for students belonging to OBCs, it would work out to 1,350 seats for the OBCs. The number of IIT aspirants from the OBC communities is about one lakh. You cannot say that out of this 1,00,000, there will not be 1,350 candidates competent enough to get into the IITs.” Read the entire story here.


I quoted the example of the Grutter v. Bollinger case, to underline one principal point: Is it important at all to attain a critical mass of backward caste students in our institutions? Should institutions of higher education reflect national realities at all? Or should a privileged minority run away with opportunities to higher education? These are the real questions we need to ask ourselves.


A response to Karan Thapar’s question of how the figure of 27% was agreed upon.

Yogendra Yadav categorically states here that the figure of 27% has nothing to do with the percentage of OBCs in India. The number was the highest legally possible quota for OBCs, as the legal limit is of 50% and 22.5% is reserved for SC/ST. AS long as the figure is greater than 27%, it should acceptable. In fact, noted sociologists are agreed that the correct figure of OBCs would be between 40% and 44%. Arjun Singh needs to do some reading up. Perhaps he could employ Yogendra Yadav as his brain.


roswitha said...

Short post, for a big issue. *g* Good stuff.

Two observations:

Somewhere along your paragraphs remaring on the CAT subculture, you've used the words 'caste' and 'class' interchangeably, when they cannot so be.

And I'm dubious about the idea of educational institutes reflecting national reality. They are national reality and were never meant to be microcosms of society. Of course I know what you really mean, but the staement seems ambiguous.

V. said...

thanks roswitha.

educational institutions
I see what you mean by my statement of educational institutions reflecting national reality.

I should ve written
Should institutions of higher education be more equitable in terms of opportunities and more representative of national caste/ class compositions?

instead of:
"Should institutions of higher education reflect national realities at all?"

class and caste
i have supported the use of caste as the principal criterion in reservations as it is widely considered the single most reliable indicator of economic and social standin. of class in other words.
in the case of my point about entrance exams, it was a conscious decision not to use 'caste' as i feel there are other issues involved there, like the exposure of the candidate's community (in the broadest sense of the term) to the whole system of exams, the acceptance of the impostance of higher education etc.
therefore, the nuances of my point would ve been less reliably represented by the term 'caste'. and i thought 'class' was better suited, being a broader and more inclusive term. however, in the absence of reliable material, caste is still an acceptable social indicator, and definitely the single most reliable and representative social variable.

Memoryking said...


My Reservations blog.-It's a bit controversial :)

menon said...

one thing i have to say..you have the whole advertising thing down pat. very adept at publicizing your blog, what with a mail announcing updates and an excerpt included in it.
you have become times of india

camelpost said...

One solution which should appeal to both the quota favoring and opposing parties: Let the government sponsor all SC ST OBC students to Kota famous Bansal Coaching to ensure that they get admissions and Bansal makes whoofs of money. The rest will be history.

V. said...

thanks for the link to your blog.

well, what can i say, really?
* viv does his best imitation of modesty.

nice sense of irony, there.

Voice Within said...

While I am pro-reservation (proviso that it really benefits the people that it is supposed to) what I am not so clear about, is how the figure of a total of 27% (that is the figure right?) is equally fair to the rest . Especially keeping in mind that they are not making sure that the OBCs get good schooling which I would think is very important. I believe the percentage of reservations should in some way be influenced by what fraction of people who pass class X or XII are sc/st/obcs . Unless that goes up...the real change is not gonna happen.

rc said...

>> Or should a privileged minority run away with opportunities to higher education? >>

Be careful with words like "privilege" "oppressed" "downtrodden", "dominant ruling class".

None of what you said reflects the ground realities of OBCs. Unless you want to rub off some of the SC/ST deprivations on OBCs and derive some benefits.

Yes, there are OBCs who deserve help, but the ones who are going to benefit the most have access to the best schools, many of then *own* the best schools and colleges, *own* the countryside, and are politically dominant.

So, please take it easy on the sob-stories and support the cause for a brand new statistical study, and a total revision of the OBC caste lists.

There must be "backwardness" associated with a community before it gets classified as one. The scheme must be monitored and basic data made available to the public.

Until then, what we have is a "rich average students quota".

V. said...

voice within,
While I am pro-reservation (proviso that it really benefits the people that it is supposed to) what I am not so clear about, is how the figure of a total of 27% (that is the figure right?) is equally fair to the rest .

I've written about my take on this point.
Again, remember that the consensus among academics is that OBCs are in the region of 40% to 44%.
So any number below is within logical limits.
The figure of 27% was arrived upon keeping in mind the supremem court ceiling of 49.5% and NOT the OBC composition.

Also the argument about primary and secondary schooling being denied to the backward classes is very true and very real.
However, I do not think that should be a binding factor on higher educational institutions, simply because it will become a vicious circle, with one factor being subverted by the other. Moreover, primary and secondary education all over needs revamping, so waiting for that to happen may just take forever.

The point you made about the creamy layer is an excellent one.
I previously discussed it here
I have No Idea where you get your facts for this statement:
Yes, there are OBCs who deserve help, but the ones who are going to benefit the most have access to the best schools, many of then *own* the best schools and colleges, *own* the countryside, and are politically dominant.
And I hope you re not going to talk about Velappalli Natesan and SNDP in Kerala.

And as for being careful, you're right.
No matter what, when i see that 1/4th of the population has cornered 3/4th of the seats in higher educational institutions AND that these are the traditionally better off castes (or 'upper' castes), I do tend to use words like "privilege" "oppressed" "downtrodden", "dominant ruling class".
Do you think the affliction is curable?

rc said...

I am talking about TN, and KA. Most private colleges (actually an overwhelming proportion) are owned by OBCs. I am not too familiar with KE, but I suspect most educational institutes are controlled by Christians, Muslims, or OBCs. Correct me if I am wrong ?

The main thing to keep in focus is that the quota system is *not* (repeat not) for proportional representation. It is linked with social and economic backwardness. Therefore there is a built in requirement that each caste that is classified as OBC meet objective markers for social and economic backwardness. If some communities are so well off that they do not meet the "backwardness" markers, they must be reclassified to make way for others. That would be a fair system. Yet, we have seen it has never and will never happen. That is why this system is broken from the get go !

About 1/4th of the population cornering 3/4th of the seats. You are making a naive mistake comparing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Let me explain, just forget about forward castes for a minute. Look within OBCs, is there equality of outcome ? In your state, dont the ezhavas trump almost all other backward classes and muslims (see the furore created by the KK Narendran commission) ? In TN, the vellalas (Mudaliars, Pillais) overwhelm other OBCs. This is one of the reasons no government is keen on studying the quota system. There will be irrefutable demands from subgroups for their piece of the cake.

If you go down this path, it will lead to infinite breakdown of the OBC quota leading to more and more divisions in society. Look at KA, they have 6 subdivisions of the OBC quota. Strangely enough, this subdivision actually makes the OBC quota work better, even though society get chopped up.

Proportionate representation in one sphere will spark demands in all walks. Why should OBCs own a vast majority of the wetlands in south india ? Will the rich landlords of the Gounder, Naicker, Vokkaliga, Reddies agree to splitting all arable land in proportion of the population ? What about state government employment ? What about MLAs, councillors ?

These are the reasons why the constitution specifically prohibits proportionate distribution of seats. The SC has warned many times that adequate representation must not be equated to proportionate representation.

V. said...

I am talking about TN, and KA. Most private colleges (actually an overwhelming proportion) are owned by OBCs. I am not too familiar with KE, but I suspect most educational institutes are controlled by Christians, Muslims, or OBCs. Correct me if I am wrong?

I correct you: they are NOT.
You are confusing minority institutions with OBC-dominated institutions.
which again is because Karnataka and TN have reservation of 50% or more.

And your creamy layer point is valid. The mechanism for excluding them has to be tightened.

Therefore there is a built in requirement that each caste that is classified as OBC meet objective markers for social and economic backwardness.
This is an excellent point. One that I clarified earlier about.
Caste is probably the single most reliable indicator of social standing in India.
Which, of course, is why it is the criterion.
That does not mean I don't support multi-variable equations.
I do. I am not sure if we can graduate to that just yet.

In all, my argument is not that this is the best way to do things, but it's better than what we have.
It's a step in the right direction.
At least the need for reservatino has been acknowledged.
I have issues with the government's highhanded diktat, and definitely think they should've built public opinion and consensus before hand.

And as for splitting up society, i have NO comments whatsoever.
Because the axiom behind that point is that things are ticktock now, with society being united.
Frankly, I'd rather have a divisive society where everyone gets a fair share of opportunities, than an inequitous one where one section runs away with all privileges and opportunities. I mean, ancient India had that structure. So did the ancient Greeks.
And so did Nazi Germany.

And have no fear of confusing reservations with proportionate representation. The second may be the broad basis for the first, but we wouldn't need reservations if the two were sufficiently close to each other.