fine balance - 2
The only merit involved in this scheme is that of having enough money to literally buy admission. In some cases (quite large in number), private institutions offer seats to NRIs through virtually an auction process. The highest bidder wins. The complete absence of any consideration of merit in these cases is never questioned. Merit, however, becomes an issue when it comes to providing access to those who have been denied education for centuries. Reservations continue to remain a contentious issue rousing passions when various sections vie for their claim of a shrinking cake. If education for all can be provided, then the issue of reservations simply ceases to be a bone of contention.
While reservations definitely address the issue of equity, the issue of both quality and quantity also need to be addressed. There is an urgency to expand State-run educational facilities in order to address the problems of quantity while simultaneously to increase expenditures in providing high class educational infrastructure to tackle the issue of quality. A holistic approach of such a nature is absolutely imperative.
In recent years however, with the State funding of education declining as evidenced in the annual budget allocations, the opportunity and scope for private educational institutions has grown enormously. This has spelt a spree of commercialisation of higher education reinforcing the attitude to reduce education to the status of a commodity. However, in the absence of increased State funding of higher education, hundreds of thousands of students have no option but to join such institutions. In the larger interests of the nation and the people it is absolutely necessary that these institutions follow certain socially accepted norms which are part of the overall effort of the country to balance the triangle of quantity, quality and equity in Indian education. The 93rd Amendment ensures that henceforth, these institutions also implement reservations.
In today’s context, the effort to achieve such a proper balance between quantity, quality and equity is all the more important considering that 54 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 25. This is India’s future. If this youth can be both healthy and educated, only then can India transform itself truly into a knowledge society. India has to rise above from merely training personnel to man BPOs and call centres. In fact those who try to assert with justifiable pride India’s recent forays into the world’s IT sector advances must recognise that all these are products of the post-independent State-financed higher education system in our country.
However, the issue of equity cannot be kept in abeyance until this balance is brought about in this eternal triangle. The universal support that the 93rd Constitutional Amendment received in Parliament must be translated not only into public policy but also into a public approval by all the parties which have voted for this.
Affirmative action is often counterpoised as the alternative to reservations in order to provide benefits for the deprived sections. This is a not so subtle subterfuge. Reservations are a part of affirmative action. This is attested by international experience. The legal protection against discrimination in the USA comes in the form of ‘equal employment opportunity’ laws. Not only does this prohibit private and public employers from discrimination based on any group identity but it also enunciates the principles and methods for judging ‘fair or just participation’ in employment, educational admission or government contract and other spheres. Amongst various norms, the population share of minority groups forms the basis of fair participation.
However, reservations by themselves are not the final solution for achieving the objective of social equity and justice. The essential element to achieve this would be the economic empowerment of these sections which must begin with radical land reforms. All commissions, including the Mandal Commission on OBC reservation, have recommended that by granting reservations alone, the larger objective of social justice cannot be fulfilled unless land reforms are implemented.
While this remains true, reservations in themselves at least offer some degree of opportunity to those who have hitherto been denied access to higher education. Nevertheless, one needs to underline that unless the larger issue is tackled in right earnest, the benefit of reservations cannot be sustainable. This is evidenced by our experience of reservations for SCs and STs in school education. While these have improved the enrolment of these sections, that this could not be sustained is reflected in the high dropout rates. Between 1980 and 2000, the total enrolment in the primary stage went up for SCs from 15.11 to 17.98 per cent, and for STs from 6.41 to 9.37 per cent. However, 49.35 per cent of the SCs dropped out at the primary stage, 67.77 at the middle stage, and 77.65 at the secondary stage. The similar figures for STs are 62.52, 82.19 and 85.01 per cent. This, naturally, reflects on the entry of these sections into higher education. In all courses of graduation and above, only 8.18 per cent of SCs and 2.9 per cent of STs are enrolled as against the 15 and 7.5 per cent reservations provided for them. Hence, the fear that extension of reservations to the OBCs will deprive the general category of students must be tempered with this reality.
In the Indian realities, as the Mandal Commission pointed out, there is a strong correlation between social, educational and economic backwardness and membership of certain lower castes. Though there are varying assessments of the population of the OBCs, the reasonable estimation made by the Mandal Commission is about 52 per cent of our population.
Given the 22.5 per cent reservations for the SCs and STs and the Supreme Court ruling that prospectively all reservations put together cannot exceed 50 per cent, the recommendation of 27 per cent for the OBCs came about. (in the southern states where reservations already exceed 50 per cent, like in Tamil Nadu where it is 69 per cent, the Supreme Court decided not to disturb the existing arrangements.)
Since only a half of the OBC population would be entitled to reservations, it is natural that the effort should be to ensure that the benefit of reservations should reach those who need it the most. There is no dispute over the fact that economically, even within the OBCs, there is a vast divergence. For instance, in the top 20 per cent of the OBCs, 9.39 per cent are engaged as professionals; 6.24 as executives; and 9.32 as salesmen. For the bottom 20 per cent, however, these figures are 0.71 per cent; 0.99 per cent; and 4.34 per cent.
If we look at the OBC occupation in agriculture, then 25.57 per cent of the top 20 per cent are farmers while a whopping 70.52 per cent of the bottom 20 per cent are dependent on agriculture. These are mainly the landless agricultural labourers or small and marginal farmers. These figures are mere indicators. However, they show the degree of economic divergence within the OBCs. This, definitely, means that the OBC reservation policy must necessarily exclude the better-off sections in order to ensure that the benefit of reservations reaches those who need them the most.
It was keeping this in mind that few, like us, had suggested an economic criteria to be incorporated for the OBCs which later was endorsed by the Supreme Court, through its definition of the ‘Creamy Layer’. The Supreme Court definition of the ‘Creamy Layer’ was substantiated by the National Commission of Backward Classes which provides an elaborate list of persons (or sections) who are to be excluded from such reservations.
It is good that the present UPA government has decided that the implementation of these reservations will be accompanied by an expansion of facilities in higher education which will ensure that the quantum of free category seats will not decline. Such an expansion of higher education augers well for India’s future. Instead of being caught in a needless casteist fratricide, India must move forward to greater heights by combining the objective of overall socio-economic development with social justice and equity. This, in turn, requires that we must work to achieve the equitable balance between equity, quality and quantity in the Indian education system.
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Sitaram Yechury is Member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A strong voice of conscience, he is among the most influential of the younger leaders in all of Indian politics. He lives in Delhi