Affirmative action for a shared India

Positive discrimination in government jobs and in education has helped the Dalit progress, despite continuing discrimination elsewhere. But when will leaders of Indian industry understand that the empowered Dalit means an economy that is vibrant?

Regulated by its caste and outcaste quintessence, 'Caste India' continues to be apprehensive of the idea of a shared India. Its soul trapped in the quagmire of the past, India refuses to emancipate itself from that unhealthy state. At 166 million, Untouchables currently make up around 16.2 percent of the population; tribals, at around 84 million, comprise about 8.2 percent. Despite encompassing nearly a quarter of the population, to the mind of Caste India, both these Dalit groups are social aliens, and must remain where they have been for ages. In other words, Dalits are entitled to neither dignity, nor any partnership in whatever happiness India as a society generates.

When the veteran journalist B N Uniyal wrote the groundbreaking 1996 article "In Search of a Dalit Journalist", in which he showed that there was not a single Dalit journalist working in Delhi's mainstream media, the larger society remained unmoved, undisturbed. The media is generally seen as among the more humane, forward-looking, and contemplative of institutions. Yet despite India's 4890 daily newspapers, it is not possible to this day to name even four mainstream Dalit journalists. As far as the electronic media is concerned, there are no Dalits in the newsroom — either as anchors, producers, cameramen or correspondents.

If that mindset continues to govern the 'progressive' media, it is easier to understand the attitude of the larger Hindu society toward Dalits. As a central feature of the caste society, the regime of hierarchy does not even spare beasts. In the Tamil village of Tuticorin, non-Dalits had imposed a ban on Dalit-owned dogs, worried they would stray into non-Dalit areas. The social ideology of hierarchy would simply not allow Dalit dogs to mingle with non-Dalit dogs.

The December 2004 tsunami devastated fisherfolk families in Nagapattinam, but even in such trying times, the non-Dalits in the village refused to share makeshift shelters with Dalit survivors. Similar tales of discrimination were reported when the massive earthquake of January 2001 struck Gujarat, killing thousands. Like Nagapattinam, Dalit survivors in Kutch were thrown out of emergency shelters, in full view of national media.

It is in the face of this systemic discrimination that Dalit groups have sought to assert themselves politically. Under the growing pressure of Dalit aspirations, the United Progressive Alliance government has sought in recent years to debate the question of extending affirmative action to the private sector. Leading captains of industry, however, would have none of it (see box). Despite the fact that many of these men have attended prestigious European or US institutions, they remain oddly similar to temple priests in India, who have long believed that Hindu gods and goddesses must be stringently protected from polluting Dalit shadows.

Such viewpoints raise some important questions: Is there any actual proof, by survey or research, showing that Dalits recruited under reservation systems under-perform? Or any proof of the supposed nonperformance of such industries, which can be traced to the presence of Dalit engineers or professionals?

Ignominy of merit

There is some 'proof', deployed more to insult and deny sharing workplaces with Dalits: mark-sheets in examinations. Prima facie, merit ideologues would appear right in their assertions. Why should a Dalit with 55 percent marks be preferred over a non-Dalit candidate with 65 percent marks? The intrinsically jaundiced Indian academia has made no attempt to decode the fallacy of the mark-sheet-driven ignominy of merit. No one has explained the phenomenon of non-Dalit children receiving 95 percent and greater in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) high-school examinations, but then failing to retain those performance levels at the post-graduation level.

If we were to compare, at random, the mark-sheets of ten Dalit and ten non-Dalit researchers from high school to post-graduation, a graph would indicate the following. Dalits: High School — 50 percent, Intermediate — 55 percent, Under-Graduation — 58 percent, Post-Graduation — 61 percent. While the marks of Dalits would generally increase throughout the schooling, similarly ordered statistics for the non-Dalits would generally decrease: 95, 90, 70, 68. What if there were two more stages included in postgraduate levels: PG-I and PG-1+? The results of a similar comparative graph would stun us all. Dalit mark-sheets generally show a progressive rise as Dalit students climb to higher levels of education, while non-Dalit mark-sheets show a progressive decline.

In public discourse, however, it is proponents of merit who use mark-sheet data to argue their case. If so, should we not suggest that, with growing age, the non-Dalit becomes dumber, and the Dalit sharper? What actually happens is that upper-level education systems have a standard pattern — more equalising, treating each more similarly, irrespective of school education. Higher education also acts to remove Dalit students from their family environment, which often lack rich legacies of learning or teaching. In a more equal university or college context, Dalits tend to do better. The same equalising environment, however, becomes disadvantageous for non-Dalits.

Lower-level school systems are entirely different, with a huge gap between government-run language schools and the private-run, English-medium public schools. The journey of a non-Dalit child often begins from play- or pre-school. Taught by already-educated parents, a non-Dalit student grows with a tutor and a significant helping of extra reading materials. Hardly any student can score 90 percent-plus in high school without tuitions. That system of extra tuitions, extra coaching and extra literature, however, disappears in upper-level academia.

School examination results therefore present a highly exaggerated mirror of non-Dalit talents, which works negatively for Dalit students, whose mark-sheets would often understate their talents. The non-Dalits' merits can be likened to a certain variety of watermelons grown in Rajasthan. This variety grows faster and bigger — and hence cheaper — but remains pink inside. Retailers have to compensate by injecting the pale melons with a chemical that turns their insides red. The customers are thus fooled by the merit of the red watermelon. This is how 'merit' is manufactured and used against Dalits as well. In that sense, the ideology of merit is not remotely related to an urge for excellence or competence. Rather, it is a social ideology of segregation and hierarchies, and one that is central to Caste India.

For its part, urban India wants to share neither classrooms nor workplaces with Dalits. As such, whenever the question of affirmative action comes up for debate, merit is deployed to assert segregation. The response is a willing, but completely inaccurate, assumption that Dalits are incompetent, and non-Dalits, predestined for excellence.

Reservation hypocrisy

The more India argues for its inherent hierarchical order, including the exclusion of Dalits, the funnier it becomes. Some would suggest offhandedly that 'reservations haven't helped Dalits', while in fact reservations have been the only social policy that has given Dalits any breathing space. There are some 3.5 million Dalits in government jobs, about 125 Members of Parliament, and hundreds of MLAs. There are about 68,000 Dalits in Group A services, living in bungalows and riding in white Ambassadors. There has been a Dalit head of state, a Dalit deputy prime minister, two Dalit Lok Sabha Speakers, at least half-a-dozen chief ministers, and hundreds of ministers. There have been Dalit judges in the higher judiciary, and currently a number of Dalits are serving as vice chancellors of universities.

Outside the regime of reservations, say in the private sector, there are hardly any known Dalits in corporate boardrooms, acting in Bollywood, or speculating markets at stock exchanges — to say nothing of a publicly traded Dalit-owned company.

With reservations, a Dalit could, for instance, become CEO of ONGC, one of the world's most successful oil companies. Without reservations, a Dalit could rarely become even a typist at a private oil company. With reservations, a Dalit could head the police force in a state like Uttar Pradesh. Without reservations, a Dalit would have difficulty becoming a guard at a private-sector company. Caste India understands all of that. Thanks to the intellectual situation created by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, as well as due to an evolving sense of modernity, Caste India would generally refrain from saying that it 'hates' Dalits. What it would suggest, however, is that reservations have not helped Dalits.

Once cornered on such rhetoric, Caste India would change its tack: "Well, the benefits of reservations are cornered by a creamy layer of Dalits." That would be amusing. Where is the cream among Dalits? From a population of over 250 million people, less than 100,000 Dalits have managed to get into Group A services. Do they become a layer at all, creamy or otherwise? Or do their children seek positions under Group III or IV services?

Whether Dalit or non-Dalit, those who join government service generally belong to the relatively advanced sections of their respective classes. There are far fewer cases, however — in fact, the rarest of the rare — where parents of a Dalit bureaucrat, administrator or diplomat have been IAS/IPS/IRS/IFS officers themselves. In the case of non-Dalits, such examples are easily found. So why does Caste India not talk about the creamy layers within itself? There is actually the unstated hope that children of such Dalit professionals will not follow in their parents' footsteps. In other words, this India does not want to see a creamy layer — a middle class — emerge from within Dalit ranks. In battles for emancipation around the world, after all, the middle class has nearly always played a crucial role.

Particularly telling was the 12 August 2005 Supreme Court judgement (later annulled by Parliament), which ended reservations in the private universities. For decades, the argument has been thus: "Give them the best of education and end the quota system." At times, these statements would even sound pleasant to the ears. But when the Supreme Court decision came, Caste India did not condemn the judgement, and was instead on the bleachers cheering wildly.

That means that whatever has been said for decades about the 'best of education' was false. Not that many did not already doubt the honesty of such statements, but a Supreme Court judgment was needed to nail the lies. In the wake of economic reforms, the government has withdrawn from opening new colleges and universities, and instead has encouraged the private sector to undertake the task. The private sector, however, has different ideas about embracing Dalits in the student workforce.

Captains of Indian industry often send their children to US universities for degrees in management and business, often buying seats for thousands of dollars. There, they study alongside African-American and other minority students, many of whom attend school under affirmative-action programmes. Similarly, most top-level Indian companies trade or collaborate with US corporations, conveniently forgetting that most US corporations practice workforce diversity programmes by law, and file annual returns to the national Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the demographic makeup of their workforce. Back home, however, they continue to complain: "Nowhere else in the world do companies practice reservation." Well, as a matter of fact, nowhere else in the world is there a caste system. Where there is racism, there are ways to correct race relations.

A market languishing

With the caste order as its life and blood, the evolution of civilisation in India has been highly problematic. So profound are these problems that even at the dawn of the 21st century, the country has not been able to produce a socially secular elite. Worse still, the country has not been able to produce an authentic bourgeoisie. No wonder that the villagers of Tuticorin„ the fisherfolk of Nagapattinam, Harvard-educated industrialists, Oxford-trained newspaper editors, and temple priests — each so professionally dissimilar — would react so similarly should a Dalit reference occur.

Thus, even if it were to be definitively proven that a shared India is better than a segregated India, Caste India would remain unmoved, refusing to emancipate itself from its antiquated social institutions. To an industrialist, there can be nothing more tempting than making profits. The Indian industrialist, however, would still seem to prefer prejudice to profit.

This India is therefore unwilling to even consider the argument that reservations in government jobs have in fact helped Indian industry more than they have helped the Dalit beneficiaries. Dalits working in state institutions spend an estimated INR 300 billion annually — whatever Dalits earn as first-or, at best, second-generation consumers is said to be spent completely by the third week of the month. One can speculate, then, that if the private sector opens up to Dalits, their earnings would quickly be returned to the market. Dalits tend to spend more on movable assets than on immovable assets — in other words, they do not usually block currency circulation. In any successful market economy, money needs to remain in circulation as much as possible. More Dalits empowered could then mean greater economic growth, but even this potential dynamism goes unappreciated by Caste India.

Indian industrialists could do well to look at a similar situation in the US, where African-Americans are now considered to be among the strongest of consumers. Like Dalits, African-Americans historically lacked inherited assets and goods, so whatever they earned they have returned to the market.

Unlike in the past, the American economy has seen shorter periods of recession, at longer intervals, since the mid-1980s. In fact, there was a lull in the business cycle for less than one-tenth of the time between 1991 and 2005, ensuring that the economy continued to grow rapidly. This was a period of aggressive affirmative action in the US, which created a new class of consumers. African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics amassed a disposable income of about USD 1.9 trillion annually, more than the combined GDP of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. As a result, American retail sales ballooned, thereby boosting production. The impact of these new entrants into the middle class on the American economy is beyond debate. It is no wonder, then, that the American bourgeoisie is not averse to affirmative action.

Perhaps Caste India, which increasingly admires the American model, remains unaware of this link between Dalit empowerment and economic upswing.

Caste India remains a highly problematic society, nearly as problematic as South Africa once was. Without global support, Nelson Mandela's journey may never have seen the light of day. Likewise, without global support, the Dalit battle for a shared India may remain in the shadows.

Reservation reservations

  • The concept of reservation without reference to merit could have a distorting effect on the operations of the private sector. – Anand Mahindra, President of Confederation of Indian Industries
  • It will have far-reaching impact on the industry, as it may completely destroy the meritocracy in such units and bring inefficiency. – Mahendra K Sanghi, President of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India
  • We oppose it as the move is against industrialization and will lead to job reduction. – Y K Modi, President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry
  • It will completely destroy meritocracy in the private sector. – Kiran Karnik, President of the National Association of Software and Services Companies

If I employ a thousand staff, five percent reservation would mean I have to recruit 50 people I may not need. – Satis Tondon, Managing Director of Alfa Laval Ind

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