Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
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  Sukhadeo Thorat
  Thomas Weisskopf
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  Omprakash Valmiki
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Thomas Weisskopf

Sensitivity of the selection process

PD policies can vary greatly with respect to the sensitivity — as opposed to the rigidity — of the process whereby applicants are preferentially selected. The most rigid, mechanical type of PD admissions process involves a quantitative procedure in which all applicants take some kind of standardised test and are ranked simply by scores on that test. A somewhat less rigid selection process would take account of several different qualification criteria, not just a test score; this kind of process might assign scores on each criterion to every applicant and then aggregate every applicant’s scores into a composite quantitative index for purposes of ranking.

As an admissions process becomes progressively more sensitive the greater is the variety as well as the number of criteria involved in ranking applicants. Even more important, as an admissions process becomes more sensitive the more the process of evaluating an applicant’s standing with respect to relevant criteria is qualitative rather than quantitative, involving considered judgment by admissions personnel rather than mechanically determined scores fed into a composite index. A highly sensitive and nuanced PD admissions process would not only include qualitative evaluation of the extent to which a beneficiary group applicant satisfies various relevant criteria, but also treat disadvantaged group status as a signal to look especially hard for evidence of additional applicant characteristics suggesting a strong potential for good performance. Sensitive selection processes are, to be sure, harder and more costly to administer than rigid ones, since they require that more information of various kinds be gathered from applicants and that more people be employed to implement the selection process. The extent to which a PD admissions process can be made sensitive therefore depends on the availability of resources to finance the process; and the costs of raising such resources must be weighed against the benefits expected.

Support for under-prepared beneficiaries

Whether a PD beneficiary is able to meet the challenges of the position to which PD has provided access is likely to depend significantly and positively on the extent to which support is made available after the person is selected. There are several kinds of support that can be helpful for PD beneficiaries in an educational institution. These include both human resources, such as constructive attitudes and mentoring on the part of faculty, and financial resources made available for programs and activities that help PD beneficiaries adjust to their new settings and function effectively in them.

Over the past several decades India has witnessed a marked increase — from an extremely low base — in the extent to which Dalits (especially) and Adivasis (to a lesser degree) have been integrated into the educated elite of Indian society. This increase cannot be attributed solely to PD policies in higher educational admissions; but positive discrimination in this sphere has played an indispensable role in the process

Just as it takes resources to improve the sensitivity of admissions processes, so it takes resources to provide developmental support for under-prepared beneficiaries. Decisions about how much to invest in support of PD beneficiaries will therefore have a significant impact on the overall net benefits of the PD policies. Resources are always limited and the payoffs to this kind of investment are not always obvious – nor are they all captured by the investors. Hence there will probably be need for subsidies to encourage institutions practicing PD to make sufficient investments of this kind.3

Indian realities

I have elsewhere reviewed systematically the available empirical evidence on the consequences of India’s reservation policies in admissions to higher educational institutions.4 The evidence is regrettably limited in scope, particularly regarding long-term consequences; and it is confined largely to Dalits and Adivasis. Yet over the last three decades there has been a slow accretion of relevant studies, which have shed a good deal of light on the benefits and costs of India’s positive discrimination over the past half-century in the sphere of higher education. Here I will summarise the most important findings of my review of the evidence.

Benefits of reservation

I have found that the main benefits resulting from India’s PD policies for higher educational admissions are the following — in order of likely significance.

1. Greater integration of Dalits and Adivasis into India’s elite professions

Over the past several decades India has witnessed a marked increase — from an extremely low base — in the extent to which Dalits (especially) and Adivasis (to a lesser degree) have been integrated into the educated elite of Indian society. This increase cannot be attributed solely to PD policies in higher educational admissions; but positive discrimination in this sphere has played an indispensable role in the process. PD policies in India’s most prestigious educational institutions — the national-level institutes and the most highly-regarded professional schools — have substantially increased admissions of Dalit and Adivasi applicants, who would otherwise hardly be represented at all; and most of these PD beneficiaries have done well enough to graduate. Studies from the relatively elite institutions suggest that most Dalit and Adivasi students who do graduate end up in responsible and well-paying positions, although they do not fare quite as well as do their non-beneficiary peers.

The fact that Dalits and Adivasis are now somewhat less under-represented in India’s elite positions than in the past has surely strengthened the legitimacy, and thereby arguably also the effectiveness, of India’s democratic political system. PD policies have also contributed in a number of other ways to the strengthening of Indian society. Scattered evidence suggests that Dalit and Adivasi graduates are less likely than other graduates to pursue purely materialistic goals, more likely to make service contributions to the wider society, and more likely to pursue careers in a way in which they can be helpful to members of communities in need.

2. More even spread of social capital

The history of India has left Dalits and Adivasis significantly lagging not only in financial capital, physical capital and human capital (individual education and skills), but also significantly in social capital (useful contacts and networks that improve one’s career opportunities). Educational institutions enable individuals to accumulate human capital; but higher educational institutions are particularly important in enabling individuals to acquire social capital. Greater numbers of Dalit and Adivasi members succeeding in higher educational institutions — especially elite ones — means a more equal distribution of social capital across groups in India, which promotes societal efficiency in that it provides greater opportunity for people to advance on the basis of their abilities and skills as opposed to their power and connections.

The evidence shows that beneficiaries of Indian PD policies graduate from higher educational institutions at somewhat lower rates than their peers; but the more selective the school, the smaller is this differential. Little systematic research has been done on the extent of the career boost resulting from attending a relatively selective higher educational institution. The intense competition for entry into prestigious higher educational institutions, however, leaves no doubt that the boost is significant —and it is likely to be especially so for students, like Dalits and Adivasis, who are otherwise limited in their social capital endowment.

3. Improved motivation of Dalit and Adivasi students

There is no systematic evidence bearing directly on how India’s PD policies in higher educational admissions affect the motivation of Dalit and Adivasi youths to develop their human capital. But there is some anecdotal evidence that PD policies have a positive motivational effect; and there is also a strong a priori case for such an effect — in spite of claims by PD critics that it encourages potential beneficiaries to slack off.5

4. Redistribution: mixed outcomes

It is often claimed in favour of PD policies that they serve a progressive redistributional function, steering resources and opportunities away from the well-to-do and toward poorer individuals and families. In one important respect this claim is refuted by data from India. There is much evidence that the vast majority of the direct beneficiaries of India’s PD policies in higher educational admissions come from ‘creamy layers’ (ie, the best-off segments) of the Dalit and Adivasi communities. Moreover, direct beneficiaries come disproportionately from the better-off Dalit castes and Adivasi tribes. Thus India’s educational reservations serve to increase inequalities within the Dalit and Adivasi communities — at least insofar as the direct benefits are concerned.

In another respect, however, India’s PD admission policies have probably been favourable to progressive redistribution. The available evidence suggests that the average socioeconomic status of the families of Dalit and Adivasi students is far below that of the families of other students. Most of the beneficiaries of reserved seats in Indian higher educational institutions are therefore likely to be worse off than the marginal general-entry applicants who are displaced by reservations. It follows that IndiaPD policies in higher educational admissions most probably reduce inequalities between Dalits and Adivasis and members of other communities.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 notes

Thomas E. Weisskopf is Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan. A dissenting economist and a founder of the Union for Radical Political Economics, he has lived in India in the 1960s, teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute. He has worked extensively on affirmative action in the US and India