Monday, June 13, 2005

Affirmative action: Take 1, 2, 3

Anand’s pithy post prompted me to complete this post, which has been incomplete for a while now.

Many people ask “Why can’t we have a caste free meritocracy? Why should we support affirmative action/reservations when we don’t believe in it?” Well, that is a hard question to answer, but in order to create a level playing field, empowerment of ALL is necessary, and affirmative action (when implemented properly) will result in that. It will take time, cannot happen overnight, and a painless transition is difficult. If you want to take a karmic view about it, we need to pay for the sins of our forefathers (or our past lives). There is no way around it.

But here are three specific, separate instances, where reservations have lead to markedly different outcomes. Think about them.

Take 1: This was about 10 years ago. In school, I had tons of friends, and I didn’t know what caste most of them belonged to. Even if I did, it was just a bit of trivia, and the four varanas themselves were something we came across in the history books. We took our 12th standard exams, and suddenly, we had to apply to colleges across the country, and take different entrance exams. The application forms confounded us with lists of a few thousand sub-castes, listed under OC, BC, MBC, SC, ST and whatever else. Our results came out, and we were discussing our likely futures. A very good friend of mine didn’t seem bothered by his not-so-stellar performance. ”I’m MBC, I’ll get into REC Suratkal computer science without any problem,” he declared. Now, his family was extremely affluent, and his garden was bigger than my apartment. His family employed one cook, one housekeeper, one driver, one gardener and one watchman. He came to school in his own Kinetic Honda, at a time when my cycle was my most prized possession. How was he “most backward”?, I wondered. Social empowerment through reservations?

Take 2: I’ve been involved with some projects working with dalit/SC communities in a certain district in a state in India. The region this is based in has primarily two dalit sub-castes (yes, there are dalit sub-castes), let us call them A and B. Sub-caste A actually did not traditionally do the most menial of tasks. They were predominantly landless daily-wage workers. In the 1992 census, the community was largely illiterate, poor, and had little social empowerment. Mandal happened, and much else. The community, though poor, was quite assertive and aggressive. They also became politically very active. Due to this, they made full use of every available opportunity due to reservations, starting from educational institutions, to village governing bodies, local government, legislature and assembly, and posts in government bodies. Their economic status improved slowly, but their social status improved rapidly. They soon moved into the main village (leaving the dalit houses that usually are OUTSIDE the main village). Today, their literacy rate is on par with the state average, and is even more promising when one looks at children in primary schools. Social empowerment through reservations?

Take 3: In this same district, there is also dalit sub-caste B. These dalits are amongst the lowest of the low castes, with their traditional occupations being leather working or manual scavenging. They are extremely poor, and the 1992 census revealed a literacy rate of 11% for men, and 0% for women (things are better now, with the community rate being around 20%). They were socially and economically at the absolute bottom of the heap. In addition, they are a rather timid community, terrified to raise their voices (unlike A). They have (till date) not been able to use ANY of the reservations available in education, local government, or government institutions. They are politically leaderless. All the reservations available to dalits in the district are used up by sub-caste A. Today, B continue to live in dalit hamlets outside the main village. What is far worse is that they are considered untouchables by sub-caste A, who will actually not allow sub-caste B to use their (A’s) water hand pumps. Invariably, through some perverse fate, B’s graveyards are always on the other side of the main village, but they are not allowed to take their dead through the village. Instead, they have to take detours (in some villages, up to 10 km), to reach their burial grounds (they bury their dead). Social empowerment through reservations?

Here you have it. Take 1,2 and 3. Think about it. Also think of political will to enforce change (and the need for new classifications of sub-castes), and present day reinforcing of caste barriers. And how we ourselves contribute to it.


greatbong said...

Excellent post.

Suhail said...

It is at these times, when A~ overpowers B~ we tend to ask "Was it all worth the effort" ?

Sunil said...

Thanks Arnab.

Suhail....."Was it all worth the effort" ?.....that is really such a pertinent question. I was very depressed when I saw what was happening with A & B. I was extremely happy for A, who had gotten out of the quagmire.....but B.

And you can see A & B in every single corner of India.

Yet.....I still believe that affirmative action, when implemented without any form of bias, can be extremely effective. But wishes one were Norwegian :-)

sd said...

Hi Sunil,

Nice post. I liked the fact that you gave examples of both positive and negative outcomes. I am probably very pessimistic - but I am not sure if "affirmative action, when implemented without any form of bias" is possible.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
What an interesting post. I think your post illustrates the problem of basing affirmative action on the basis of ethnicity instead of economic background. If affirmative action was based on where you lived (if you lived in a slum, then you get special consideration), instead of ethnicity, then people would feel so bad about it. No one wants to live in a slum.

But politics plays a huge role in all of this. Once you give special consideration to one group, you can't take it away. And it brings a lot of resentment.

Sunil said...

SD....yes....there have been positives from the much reviled reservation system....and I wanted to highlight that. But there has also been gross misuse of a system that is supposed to benifit. are absolutely right. Politics...especially in a caste charged atmosphere in India...plays a huge role in it. There is no way to restructure present day reservations, or to ensure that the most deprived and needy get the benifits of this.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Michael, actually the much-reviled Mandal Commission tried to do exactly what you are suggesting and more: base reservations on a whole lot of factors, of which actual caste was a (relatively) minor one. One such factor, to give you an example, was the distance the community (under consideration for OBC status) had to travel to get drinking water.

In theory, using this criteria, even a backward community of Brahmins could qualify as OBCs. (I think there were some such examples, but I'm not sure).

And the use of these factors is the reason the "C" in Mandal's "OBC" is "Class", not "Caste". A very important distinction, all but lost in the din created by the folks who throw the empty accusation of "casteism" at Mandal.

Sunil said...

Dilip.....part of my post wanted to point out just that. Mandal (in principle) got it right, and the effort was extensive and very rigorous. But the implementation somehow got highjacked by "middle-low castes/classes", who benifited by improving their social standing (which was required) but ended up stamping upon the lowest. There are no clear answers to this. But, I believe, with a constantly (though slowly) decreasing number of most-deprived classes, it will be a matter of time before there is some semblance of social equality. But the system needs to last without the increasing amount of politicization going on.

Anonymous said...

Nice Post Sunil. I saw some of the recommendations from MANDAL here
(Don't know if they are correct)

What I got from the criteria mentioned is , a status of a family is measured by which class/caste he belongs to rather than individual position of the family.

I think these reservations should run their course for 50 years or so, which by then should bring some sort of social equality, and then the criteria for reservation should be revised.( I have a friend(believer in Darwin theory) who argued that reservations should be in place till intelligent genes evolve in Oppressed caste people)

But which politician in his right mind is going to revise this Sacred Bill of Reservation even after genes are evolved.

Anonymous said...

sunil, I have a thought / question - would it make a difference to a community if they had someone educated / city-returned - or generally more aware - would take C for instance be any different - with someone to mobilise the commiunity - ?(another C here, along with class and caste)

Sunil said...

Varnam....50 years may not be enough for India. Remember, America abolished slavery in 1864, the civil rights movement was a 100 years later!

Mandal did get most things right. However, there has been rampant misuse and violations in its implementation.

I won't comment on your friend's "intelligent gene" theory.

Provisions are widely misused...especially by people claiming to belong to backward classes (to make use of reservations), or declaring false family incomes (how easy is that in India). More often than not...the most oppressed community is unable to make use of the reservations that they deserve.They do not have a voice, and do not know where to air it if they do.

Sunil said...

Yes Charu....absolutely....

if there is a C helping B, it makes a huge difference. However, like you will know.....dynamics in such societies are very difficult (especially for the outsider C, who is looked upon with suspicion). So, the change is slow. Especially because there are too many vested interests (held by the more dominant communities of the region) to prevent the upliftment of B. The risks C faces are often huge, and surving it is very very very hard.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, Do you know any source(Online or Book) where I can read actual recommendations made by MANDAL Commission. Tried googling it but could only get parts of it and rest of it was views of authors

Anonymous said...

yes Sunil,except it is not about C being an outsider - mobilisation happens best - or happens at all - when the person is from within the community... I have seen this for myself in the case of rural education...

Sunil said...

yes Charu...absolutely......I think I misunderstood your statement to be a question. An insider is tremendously powerful in bringing about change. Only, sometimes, it's very hard to find one. But an insider is a 100 times more powerful than an outsider.

Varnam.....the report (or books referring to it extensively) can be found in the JNU libraries for sure (a friend of mine had accessed it there), amongst other places. I looked at it years ago, but that was because this professior of social work in Mysore had a copy.

Srikanth said...


Reservations have benefited the downtrodden. What we need to consider is probably how much reservation is appropriate. In Tamilnadu educational institutions, for instance, 69% of the seats are reserved, leaving only 31% for open competition. Is this equitable?

Dilip D'Souza said...

I have a copy of the Mandal report, and am willing to xerox the relevant page(s) (with the criteria for selection) and send it to anyone who asks me nicely.

Anonymous said...

What is the use even if the Mandal report addressed a better noble criteria ? What happened in reality ?

I agree that the whole caste system is such an absurd thing; the marriege system in India is reinforcing the whole. Does anybody know what happens to the legal caste of the kids born into inter-caste marriege ?

We need to analyse the caste from two angles: 1) caste as it happens in culture & marrieges and why it survives 2) caste as being abetted by the government through reservations.

BTW, why do we call it "affirmative action" instead of reservations ? The word "affirmative action" is so disconnected from Indian identity. (It is like some bloggers using the term "federal government" instead of "central government") Are we writing for the western audience ?

Sunil said... far as the caste of a kid goes (from an intercaste marriage), the kid has the same caste as the father. That is according to Indian law, which follows caste laws.

As far as "affirmative action" goes.....I just liked the title better, thats all. I used reservations in the rest of the post. And as far as my blog goes....I just write. It's not for a Western or an Indian audience.....but just for any interested reader. That's all

Anonymous said...

I think reservations is like treating the symptom instead of the disease. This in itself is a good thing for a short term. But this is not a long term solution. Especially when the side effects of treating the symptom start outweighing the benefits of doing so.

I have a personal story of where reservations have helped. Based on that, these are the questions I raise. The fact that we still need reservations means there is something not quite right with what we are doing. With 50% reservations, shouldn't we see many more socially backward people come out of their desperate situation?

Aside (since this has been raised):
The gene/evolution claim has been refuted many times. There is nothing innate in "upper caste" folks as a group that would make them "special" [Eugenics is considered as pseudo-science].

Sunil said...

Niket....just remember that america abolished slavery in 1864, the civil rights movement was in the 1960's, and only now is there some semblance of equality.

And it is ABSOLUTELY WRONG to confuse gene evolution with Eugenics. They are NOT related. Eugenics pertains to selecting races with innate abilities. This in itself is against gene evolution, because ABILITIES are ACQUIRED by individuals, and ARE NOT passed on over generations. Genetic traits are.
Readthis earlier post of mine that explains genetic evolution.

Anonymous said...

My mistake. But its as wrong as saying that the intelligence genes of oppressed gaste (as a general group) need to evolve. That isn't belief in evolution, but a misunderstanding of it.

More to the point, I don't expect the problems to disappear suddenly. But shouldn't there be a visible upward shift in the lives of the backward castes that can be primarily attributed to reservations? Is there any study being done on how reservations are affecting the people? IF a fix to a problem (playing field not level) creates a greater problem (exploitation by subcaste-A people who do not need it), then I think the system is already broken, and it needs to be fixed ASAP.

- niket

Sunil said... some ways you are right.....the effects of reservation have been skewed. There is some fixing to be done...

The reservations have in reality most benifited the "middle" lower castes......and not the most downtrodden. However, at almost all levels, there has been a visible improvement of the lowest castes. Many castes were 0% literate. At independence, literacy levels in India were about 22%. That is the approximate percentage of "high" castes in India....Kshatriyas, Brahmins and Vaishyas. Today, slowly, lower castes are becoming visible in white collar areas.

However, I completely agree that it isn't working out smoothly.....and (especially due to politicization of specific caste "vote banks") there is a further re-enforcing of caste. However, that is not really due to the reservation policy.

Anonymous said...

Hmm..the famous argument is reservations will lead to empowerment. The question is do our politicians really want to empower downtrodden and marginalised. Can anyone ever imagine Laloo Prasad yadav or Ram vilas paswan taking an objective look at what really needs to be done to educate and empower Dalits except resorting to cheap populist gimmicks ?

I also do not agree to the use of the word affirmative action for reservations. Reservations are forced and not based on consensus whereas affirmative action does have some incentive linked to implementing the suggestions..

Empowerment is a complex thing, deals with psyche comes from taking pride in what one is.. Blacks achieved a degree of empowerment through taking pride in black culture, religion, literature even black capitalism and cultivation of popular black idols and public figures.

Hence just reservations will never help in empowering or overcoming prejudice. The Dalits should also for change look inward, their leaders should first learn lessons in empowering themselves instead of running with a begging bowl to central government for more reservations..