If promotions are based on objective evaluation of performance during service rather than ‘seniority lists’, there would be no case for quotas.

Affirmative action is not anathema to liberal democracies. At a basic level, it seeks to link merit to equality of opportunity. A person may be intrinsically meritorious, but unfavourable economic circumstances and social background put him or her on an unequal playing field vis-à-vis those suffering no such handicaps. As a result, the individual’s true merit does not get revealed, which is what ‘affirmative action’ targeting underprivileged sections of society seeks to address. In India, this has taken the form of caste-based reservations in government jobs. For all their shortcomings – including denial of equality of opportunity to the poor among the so-called Upper Castes – these quotas have imparted a certain representative character to the country’s administration, hitherto dominated by communities that had a headstart in education. They have also facilitated upward mobility and creation of a middle class elite within historically discriminated communities, which again may not be a bad thing.

While there is justifiable logic for reservations at the entry level, extending these to promotions – as the Government has proposed through a Bill introduced in Parliament – is, however, problematic. A candidate from an underprivileged background taking the civil services entrance examination may find it difficult to compete in the normal course, for reasons other than merit. A strong case, then, exists for allowing him a lower cut-off to qualify for the job or creating a special quota for those with similar community backgrounds. But once the person has got the job, he should be able to overcome these initial disabilities. The exposure and confidence gained during the service period should be enough for his true worth to get reflected in performance. That being so, there can be no real arguments favouring community job quotas in promotion – especially for the higher posts, where the playing field would presumably be more equal than before the entry into service.

But then, it is also true that the representation of Scheduled Castes/Tribes in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy is abysmally low, in marked contrast to their increased proportions down the ladder from Group ‘A’ to ‘D’ and beyond. But that has more to do with the manner in which the ‘seniority list’ is prepared for the purpose of inter se ranking of all employees joining the civil service at any given time. Right now, it is this list that largely matters in empanelment for higher grades. Those in the ‘reserved’ category lose out here, as the seniority list is based on a candidate’s performance in the entrance exam and/or record during the probation period. It stands to reason that those recruited under a scheme of reservation would necessarily rank lower than those coming in through the general category, as they would not have entered the service but for a special dispensation in selection. There is no evidence of discrimination operating through informal networks, as proponents of quota in promotion allege. The answer, therefore, lies in giving ‘merit’, measured through ‘on-job’ performance, a fair chance before any tinkering is attempted. If performance during service is made the sole criteria, there would be no case for reservation in promotions at all.

(This article was published on September 6, 2012)
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