Friday, 24 April 2015

Reservation - A Remedy Worse than the Disease (PART FOUR)

A way of helping a historically disadvantaged group in India is to get them well- educated and enhance their efficiency levels so they deserve jobs on their own worth.  Doing it is the dharma of any government in India.  But our governments don’t do it.  Their way is to relax eligibility standards for the Reserved Group – by raising upper age limits for their entry, allowing them to apply with lesser school or university scores and loosening evaluation standards for them like treating their average performance in a proficiency test on par with others’ good performance.  And of course governments give them 50% or more quotas.

Like commenting on these two ways, Justice Viswanatha Sastri of the Madras High Court wrote in 1950 about a process of levelling up and a process of levelling down.   But levelling up works for the lasting good of a disadvantaged group, as seen in USA, while levelling down does not truly and permanently help and it backfires too, as India witnesses. 

So if we also change our setting in India the real latent talents of many among the Reserved Group and the Non-reserved Group will steadily emerge (yes, now both groups do not get fair and best opportunities in India).  The change must begin at the basic education level and spread to higher education later.  Also, improving educational standards must go hand in hand with managing our economy wisely and multiplying employment opportunities.

If you want to see proof of the beneficial effects of a good educational setting on Indians, look at the success stories that followed their studying and working abroad in reputed institutions.  As we noticed, four India-born individuals stand out among them, winning Nobel Prizes – Har Gobind Khorana, Physiology or Medicine (shared), 1968; Subramanyan Chandrasekar, Physics (shared), 1983; Amartya Sen, Economics, 1998; and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Chemistry (shared), 2009.  Several other Indians have done quite well in the US in non-academic fields and distinguished themselves.  If you guess they can’t do it in India you would be right.  If you ask in what large numbers Indians emigrate out of India for quality higher education and better living, the answer has some divinity – in such huge numbers that in the US alone they have built about 180 Hindu temples.

US government service and judiciary too have attracted Indian talent.  Many persons of Indian origin have made themselves outstanding in their jobs with governments in that country, and the US public sector is benefiting and helping itself most.  Indian governments and those who run them have some lessons here.  At the same time let us salute the extraordinary men and women still found among India’s public servants – they do things harder to do and against great odds, unlike their counterparts in the US who work in welcome surroundings.

Since 1993 the Central government in India periodically declares, for each State or Union Territory, groups of people referring to them usually by their caste names, as belonging to ‘backward classes’. These groups of people are broadly called as ‘Other Backward Classes (OBC)’.  They are different from groups the Centre has identified (much of it in 1950), on the basis of their caste or race as ‘scheduled castes’ and on the basis of their tribal identity as ‘scheduled tribes’.  But again, for reservation of jobs scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are also considered under the term ‘backward classes’.

Let me say this without a lengthy reference to government records or sources. As of today at least 66% of India’s population is officially considered ‘backward’ by the Central government (i.e., scheduled castes 16.6%, scheduled tribes 8.6% and OBC’s 41%), with the balance 34% counted as ‘Others’ – for purposes of reservation by the Central government.  As for the States in India,  each State separately identifies groups of people within its borders, mostly naming them on caste basis, whom it considers ‘backward’ and coming under OBC’s – for reservation in jobs and admissions to educational institutions. 

So the all-India minimum percentage of ‘backward classes’ is 66%, chosen and fixed by the Centre.  It should be higher in each State because a State government declares more groups of people within its territories to be coming under OBC’s than what the Centre does for that State.  

Many Indians would feel that the Centre declaring a high 66% of their country’s population – and the States going even higher for their regional population – is simply artificial and self-degrading, though legally passable.  I hope no one will laughably suggest that if for some reason all the ‘Others’ who make up 34% or less of India’s population go out of India, the country will then have no ‘oppressor-people’, it may do away with reservation and that all its remaining citizens – whom India presently calls ‘backward’ – will then reach higher standards of living quicker.   The truth is, the higher the percentage of ‘backward classes’ a government fixes among its citizens or the longer that definition stays as policy, the greater is government’s guilt in not doing anything worthwhile for its citizens to lift them out of ‘backwardness’, whatever its governmental definition.  

Look at it another way.  Assume that a nation is in abysmal poverty.  Should a government work real measures to remove poverty or just go on declaring more and more sections of the population as officially poor? The government may keep telling its poor people that those declarations are a great welfare measure because some of them will get doles and government jobs based on those declarations.  But that means nothing - even without such declarations a government is bound to create jobs for all and improve the financial condition of all its people, not just of a small percentage of those large sections officially designated as poor.  Likewise, merely including more and more sections of the Indian population in any list of ‘backward classes’ without doing them real good is hoodwinking.

You have watched the clamour among more and more groups of people wanting to be recognized as ‘backward’ and the willingness of political parties to say yes to it.  Political parties are always keen to give out the message “We are for you” to various groups of people, with many overtones.   Sensing it many groups of people put out their anticipatory demands, reasonable or not. Here is an instance of such unspoken alliance.  The Chairman of the Backward Classes Commission of a State recommended that 29 ‘forward’ communities be included in the State’s list of ‘backward classes’ and 34 communities be deleted from that list.   The State government took action, but in this way. It included the recommended 29 communities in its ‘backward classes’ list but did not make any of the recommended deletions. 

The scene across India clearly hints there is something wrong with the way we look at ‘backwardness’ and why we do it.   In the name of a public policy India is hurting itself grievously – by institutionalizing caste and fanning caste consciousness, marking and deepening divisions among its people on caste lines and turning its back on merit to a bulk of entrants in colleges and in public sector service.  These are too huge a price we pay for short-term benefits for a few while making a large talent pool lose heart on India.  Looking at my country, I wonder in what context the University of Pennsylvania, one of the famed Ivy League institutions, coined its motto Leges sine moribus vanae.  The Latin phrase means “Laws without morals are useless”.

Who are the persons still holding us away from a clean solution to the thorny issue of reservation – a solution that will put India on the way out of stagnation and lift its people?  Surely, India’s politicians who have not risen to the occasion should take the moral blame.  If they maintain and encourage differences between two or more groups, or just refuse to look at and work on a fair solution, it helps their parochial cause.  They can quietly play one group against the other and thrive on the support of the group to which they play the role of saviors – that would be like the policy pursued by the colonial British long ago when they wanted to stay put in India, a policy of divide and rule.  If independent India has a new set of rulers who divide and rule the country’s citizens, may we also get another Mahatma Gandhi to lead us to yet another liberation – liberation of the minds of Indians?
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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015

Friday, 17 April 2015

Reservation – A Remedy Worse than the Disease (PART THREE)

In 2008 a unique and incredible history was made in the United States when Barack Obama was elected President.  His mother was a white woman of the US and his father was a Kenyan, but Obama is widely seen as a black.  Credit for his election didn’t belong to his qualities alone, and was equally shared by the whites of that country.   Anyone will see why.

White Americans make up about 72.4% of the US population and African Americans, 12.6%.  Obama’s chief opponent in the 2008 US Presidential election was Republican John McCain, a white American.  If a great majority of US white men and women had a mindless disdain for African Americans as a community because the latter were once slaves in that country, they could have voted in droves for John McCain and defeated Obama.  After all, racial feelings within their country could override party preferences, like caste sympathy could stand in front of party affiliations in India. But Obama’s election proves that whites did not, standing as a class, have such a negative mindset.  Many whites voted for Obama since they felt he was good, like other whites voted for John McCain considering him good. 

Don’t stop with crediting whites for Obama’s victory.  From a long time before the 2008 election, US laws have been responsive in removing one by one irritants in race relations.  New laws they made to ban discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations (Civil Rights Act, 1964), to restore voting rights (Voting Rights Act, 1965) and to ban discrimination in sale or rental of housing (Civil Rights Act, 1968) did their part to check discrimination.  Through time it was ensured that a law or the absence of a law did not set the stage for confrontation between the white Americans and African Americans.  Then the white and the black races of the present day had only to deal with their conscience and spirit and take themselves out from a degrading past, as much as they can.  That too not from their personal past but from an era lived by their forefathers.  And both the races see that the whites of today are not responsible for a slavery imposed by their ancestors.  So now the whites could neutrally look at Barack Obama, the man, and join in entrusting to him enormous powers as President of the United States. 

Would whites in large numbers have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 if US laws had mandated reservation of jobs for African Americans in all government and semi-government establishments in that country and had also reserved seats for them in its professional collegiate courses – even at 12.6% – pushing aside merit?  Most probably, and naturally, they would not have.  With the law strictly standing neutral between both races, the whites have shown that reconciliation was working on the ground, not just once but again in 2012 when Obama was reelected. 

So reconciliation to this extent between white Americans and African Americans in the US has been possible. Yes, there would be mutual suspicions and occasional skirmishes between them, and stray police excesses on African Americans.  But these incidents pass off by themselves or are easier to handle and are unlikely to fester into anything alarmingly serious.  That is because the law stands neutral on every major front and the guilty ones are booked and tried, sending reassuring signals to the affected community.  India is yet to look honestly inward and learn these principles and benefits of lawmaking, or of law enforcement.

Times past and present show us something more.  Men and women among the same African race did and are doing exceedingly well on the soil of United States after abolition of slavery, but very little on their original African land around the same time.  Some of them who made great strides in the US are : Booker T. Washington – he was born into slavery and rose to become a prominent educator and racial leader of the late 19th and 20th centuries; Heart surgery pioneer Daniel Hale Williams, Inventor of the blood bank, Dr. Charles Drew; Harvard Law Review Editor Charles Hamilton Houston, US Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall, US Representative to the UN, Andrew Young; Oscar winners Sidney Poitier and Halle Berry; Male and female Grammy Award winners Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald; Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powel who later became Secretary of State; first female Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Nobel awarded Toni Morrison, for literature;  Ivy League President Ruth Simmons of Brown University (Time named her as America’s best college president, in 2001); television host Oprah Winfrey; and many outstanding sportspersons including Jesse Owens (stunning 4 golds in Berlin Olympics, 1936), Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Arthur Ashe, Carl Lewis (4 golds in Los Angeles Olympics, 1984 - like Jesse Owens),  Michael Jordan and Williams sisters.

Do you believe that if these high achievers had been born and living in their ancestral African countries they could have scaled the heights they did in the US?  Here the persons are the same, only their social environment and geographic settings have been changed by history.  What the US gave them, and what most of the African continent cannot give to their people, are a good education, secure living conditions and equal opportunities to grow as part of a well-organized society. Also a law not discriminating between different races or groups of the population and enforced among them fairly impartially.  Even if they fail to benefit themselves fully by a good education in their early life, African Americans could, if they are gifted, still pull themselves up and flower in their later adult life, aided by a neutral and protective US environment.   

It was President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 of March 1961 that used the term ‘affirmative action’ for the first time.  It directed that US government contractors “will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin".  As Terry H Anderson put it later, the administration was "not demanding any special preference or treatment or quotas for minorities" but was rather "advocating racially neutral hiring to end job discrimination". But exactly its opposite sense is the meaning of that term when used in India – here the government permits and imposes discrimination among its citizens which mostly fuels estrangement and calls it ‘affirmative action’.

So all the revised US laws and regulations mean an opportunity as well as a challenge to African Africans who now have to work in competition with the talented performers among the whites of the US, and that brings out the best in them as individuals - the law neither propping up nor favouring the African Americans so as to hold down the whites.  That is the difference a country can make in its efforts to help out a disadvantaged group without hurting any other group.

Have a closer look at what is going on in India.

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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Reservation – A Remedy Worse than the Disease (PART TWO)

       Some might ask: “The Reserved Group have been poorer than the Non-reserved Group for centuries - does it not by itself show that the Non-reserved Group have been oppressing the Reserved Group and that such oppression is the chief and direct cause of the latter’s lower finances?” Governments in India would say yes as a ready and easy justification for reservation.  But that is not the truth.

For centuries after the British arrival into and annexation of India, and after Independence too, our economy has been ill-managed or mismanaged and hence the whole of India severely underperforms in GDP and has a lower per capita income for all groups.   If we have a well-managed economy the income levels of all, including the Reserved Group, would rise significantly.  The better-managed US economy proves it.  Take a look at its official figures for a recent year put out on a website and reproduced below.   You will note that the once-enslaved African Americans now have an average income close to the national average. And among them their women have done better than their men on a comparison between man-to-man and woman-to-woman.  That is, Africa American women come closer to the income level of the average income of all women in USA as compared to what their men do among all men.



Per capita income (dollars)




$ 27, 319
Mean earnings (dollars) for full time, year round workers


$ 46,357

$ 64,650


$ 40,473

$ 47,001
Median earnings (dollars) for full time, year-round workers


$ 37,526

$ 47,473


$ 33, 251

$ 37,412
SOURCE : US Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey

Well, if reservation does not work, what is a good and fruitful way for a government in India to give help to those among the Reserved Group where it is needed – the kind of help which works best to lift them and which does not hurt others or the nation?  This certainly needs to be answered.

As we saw, the feeling of superiority still remaining with a good number of people is an attitude of their mind.  The surest ways to change that attitude to the maximum are by action on two fronts.  One is through laws prohibiting aggressive or insulting display of that attitude.  We do have some such laws in place, but they should be applied honestly and carefully – some review on them is welcome too so relief goes where it is truly needed. Violent or other criminal acts by one group on another, if they occur, must be dealt with sternly and dispassionately through the police and courts.  The other front is education.  Central and State governments must act jointly in spreading good basic education among all as their greatest mission. 

Have you not seen that most cases of public or aggressive display of a feeling of superiority are reported from areas where the general level of education is quite less or nil? That tells us something, and shows us the way forward.   Education is a good external tool to help open up our minds and rethink on ourselves.  A good basic education is the best surrounding for young students outside their homes to question and think for themselves and feel emancipation from the hold of misguiding leaders of their group – Reserved Group or Non-reserved Group – who keep showing a mirage to their people. It must of course be compulsory as well as free.  Vast numbers of children of the Reserved Group should benefit most in this noble deed of a government because they could get a stimulus and a push to get educated and to value learning – something they may not derive from their homes.  It would then be a real leap for those children and a true course correction of any historical misfortune in their families.   

Unlike reservation which can prop up only a few individuals and create resentment in many, benefits of good basic education can reach everyone with a potential to uplift everyone.   But here we should take a warning – if, again through reservation, we employ teachers without good credentials we will merely generate statistics on educational infrastructure but not provide good education. So by this method, with no spoilers coming in, we should all will in the future. We have to believe in good things for us, strive intelligently and march ahead.  There is simply no other way to cure our social disease.  Least of all, permanent reservation does not work better in any manner and it pulls us down.

Let us look at the number of years since 1950 till now, a distinct post-reservation era in the country, and the same number of years before 1950, and ask ourselves when has been the acrimony between the two groups more intense – before or after?  Our straight answer should be, After.  So every year that we retain reservation will leave us with more ground to cover on a journey of reconciliation, needing a longer time to remove bitterness piled up through the reservation regime.  A least painful way to do away with reservation would be to scale down the percentage of reservation gradually, say by 1% or 2% annually over the next fifty or twenty-five years – and meanwhile spread good basic education far and wide. 

Now, some incidents from recent history and what we see around us.  Consider UK and India. Once the British dominated and subjugated all Indians, whether they belonged to the Reserved Group or the Non-reserved Group, which went on in a large part of India for over 150 years in various stages till 1947.  Englishmen thought of themselves as a super superior group to all of Indians for so long. Today Indians and Indian origin persons comprise about 1.4 million people in the UK and they form the single largest minority population in that country.  UK does not grant to British Indians permanently residing in that country any special privileges which are not available to their natives, not do those Indians expect to be given such privileges in that country.  Certainly the standard of life for those 1.4 million people in the UK is far better than that of any group of people in India.

Take Germany. Jews over there numbered approximately 2,14,000 on the eve of World War II.  When the War ended, about 90% of the Jews in Nazi Germany had been put to death in the Holocaust.  You can guess the intense feeling of superiority many Germans of Aryan descent would have had over Jews.  That was the past. Presently about 2,50,000 Jews live in Germany, and they do not have privileges like reservation in German colleges or jobs with the German government.  They live honourably in Germany and are equal with other Germans.

Think of America.  African Americans form about 12.6% of the US population.  Their earliest forefathers were brought in as slaves.  They grew families and all of them slaved and lived a dishonourable life in that country.  For that reason, however, now their descendants in the US are not given privileges like reserved seats in its universities or reserved jobs in its government services.  Still we see many African American persons competing today with the rest of America and excelling in many fields.

Compared to the terrible trauma of those times for Jews and African Americans, it was generally a peaceful existence for the Reserved Group in India.  We can certainly move towards reconciliation between the two groups in India more easily than it was possible for Germany or the US.  We should indeed relate with the US experience more closely.

Martin Luther King, Jr, drew inspiration from India, i.e., from Mahatma Gandhi, during his campaign for civil rights in the US.  I think the whole of India can now have a return gift from the US this way – one, by learning from their history about the cruel oppression of man by man in the form of state-sanctioned slavery for nearly two and a half centuries which would tell us that the ancestors of the Reserved Group in India were spared from similar horrible indignities; and two, by knowing about their ways to get over a troubling emotional connection with their ancestral past so they can relish their present lives and move ahead.  Here I will say something about the second part.  Just take one national event of that country in the recent past, which made the world look at the US with awe. 

(To be continued)

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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Reservation - A Remedy Worse than the Disease (PART ONE)

Want to know about a classic case of a remedy worse than the disease? Then look at India’s policy of reservation for certain sections of its people in admissions to higher educational institutions and in jobs with government and semi-government establishments. The spread and depth of reservation in various spheres of education and employment are different between the Centre and States. Here let me look at its general thrust and effects.

            Why was reservation brought in?  It was designed and introduced widely – more so after 1950 - as a tool to counter a malady in our society, as a remedy for the supposed effects of a social disease.  The disease is real but what is imagined today as its effects are not the effects of the disease.  Those effects have a different cause and let me talk about the actual cause a little later.

What then is the disease?  It is the feeling in some groups of people (I’ll refer to these people simply as ‘Non-reserved Group’) that they are superior to some other groups of people merely on the basis of the birth of a person in some caste or community.  Also, their feeling of superiority is accepted in varying degrees by those other groups of people (I’ll refer to all these other people simply as ‘Reserved Group’) against whom such feeling is held.  Yes, over time and as of now acts of superiority are increasingly being resisted by the Reserved Group.  But the problem has not gone away.

Let us also remember: there have been good many men and women born in the caste or community of the Non-reserved Group, who do not entertain any feeling of superiority.  Anyone who has moved with them, including persons of the Reserved Group, sense it.  Such good souls are going up in number in today’s India, especially in bigger towns.

World over there are diverse grounds which instill in one group of people a feeling of superiority over another -  It could be birth in a religion, race, caste or clan or region or country or just the colour of their skin. So the problem is one of attitude – a problem with the mind of some who fancy themselves superior.  India has been trying to solve the problem by balancing advantages and opportunities between the Reserved Group and the Non-reserved Group in some way through reservation.

Reservation gives key advantages and privileges to the Reserved Group which will otherwise ordinarily reach the Non-reserved Group for their individual merit.  In India admissions in colleges for preferred courses, especially professional courses like medicine and some branches of engineering, are tough – i.e., applicants outnumber available seats many times - and jobs in government are a huge bonanza which lakhs aspire for but only a little few get.  So when admission and employment chances are plucked out from one group and given to another year after year, that will surely sustain and grow the divide between the two groups. By doing this our governments only give heartburn to the Non-reserved Group and put a villainous face on the Reserved Group, and hence the former come to dislike the latter more.  It works something like this: Imagine you have queued up before a store to buy rations, with ten other buyers ahead of you in the line. The store’s stock of rations for the month is dwindling and you are not sure if they will last till you move up to the counter.  At that time if a store assistant lets some twenty late comers break the queue and join ahead of your place, you would be angrier with those twenty who took your place and pushed you back than with the store assistant who is in the position of a government in India.  So reservation just sharpens the mind of the Non-reserved Group against the Reserved Group, and blocks any possible natural cure to an old attitude.  This is one reason why the remedy is worse than the disease.

Reservation has guaranteed to the Reserved Group upto 50% of prized college admissions and government and semi-government jobs.   Some states made it even more than 50%, and some of them are reviewing the excess over 50% upon court interventions now and then.  What does reservation do to the Reserved Group?  It restrains competitive instincts in many of them to do well in their studies or to make themselves fully deserving for coveted jobs.  In a way the State brings them up like spoilt children affecting their growth potential.  Next, when they wrest college admissions and jobs from the Reserved Group and are catapulted over the heads of the Reserved Group, they would also experience a sense of superiority which strikes the Reserved Group psychologically.  When the law further says that the Reserved Group can not only have upto 50% exclusive reservation, with relaxed eligibility standards, but can also compete with the Non-reserved Group on merit in the open competition quota and edge out persons in that remaining space too, any human being on the other side will feel hurt by its unfairness.  So this creates further rifts between the two groups.  All should know that this has happened as a natural consequence of reservation. These are other facets of the remedy being worse than the disease.

There are also some side effects of reservation which are as serious as the primary disease.  One, reservation has tripped merit in about 50% of admissions to colleges and in government and public sector manpower recruitments.  This means we are not letting many of India’s best brains freely into our colleges to shape themselves and work for the country, and the result is a self-induced loss for the nation.   Two, It has put mediocrity on a pedestal and has left a large pool of highly talented individuals frustrated and scarred inside, some of them leaving the country to study further, research and later work. Many US universities, foreign governmental agencies and business corporations abroad should secretly thank India for such a plentiful supply of untapped Indian talent.  When a bright mind goes out of India because it is not allowed to flower inside the country, the loss is not just of that one individual.  He, along with his or her children and their progenies - great Indian assets - could be lost to India for good.  It is like gifting away a golden goose.

Do such admissions and jobs for some individuals of the Reserved Group advance or delight other members of that group who are still in the waiting for similar entries? Not really.  You know that, irrespective of the group, in every Indian family circle someone lands on a good college admission or a good job and someone else does not.  The person not getting it cannot be joyous for more than a moment about the other person’s luck.  Mostly he would feel bad on being left out and could understandably be jealous too.  So it is a wrong notion and a false propaganda that reservation will benefit a group as a whole.

Look at advanced nations to which Indians flock to work, earn and from where they remit foreign exchange to India, which the country gratefully welcomes.  Merit is not deliberately discounted or walked over in those countries as a state policy under self-defeating theories.  Their ways help them excel while our ways make us survive – proof for all this, centering on Indian achievers, has reached the Nobel Committee more than once.

Consider this, which did not happen just by accident: after Independence and till now, four Noble Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics have been won by persons born in India to Indian parents, but the pioneering work for their achievements came from their studies and research work in reputed universities or laboratories abroad for long periods.  And consider this too: Nobel Peace Prizes to Mother Teresa (who was a foreigner born abroad but acquired Indian citizenship later) in 1979 and to Indian Kailash Satyarthi in 2014 were awarded for their stellar work within India in caring for neglected and destitute people or in freeing exploited children – social conditions which point to a failure of the welfare responsibilities of a nation and provided a platform for their great work and well-merited award.  So we see that the Nobel recognition to the last two speak also of inglorious settings that India’s political administrators provided to them and showcased to the world – something which does not help good academic work and the advancements that go along with it.
                                                                                                (To be continued)

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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015