The controversy over reservation, of seats in higher educational institutions and employment in the private sector, can be resolved in a manner that balances equity with excellence. The Government could start academic institutions exclusively for the disadvantaged sections.

A. Seshan

It is not very tactful of the Government to have taken on two controversial proposals simultaneously, especially, when both relate to the disadvantaged sections of society. One is in the educational sector and the other refers to employment.

So far as the former is concerned, the proposal is to extend reservation to Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in certain institutions of higher learning. There is already reservation for those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

As regards employment, the official thinking seems to be to introduce legislation for reserving jobs in the private sector for SCs/STs. As one would expect, the OBCs have started demanding the extension of this privilege to them also.

The private sector is, naturally, agitated because it works on the principle of profit maximisation. Eventually, the gains and losses are borne by it. Hence, the emphasis is on merit in the private sector.

There is genuine fear that as the trend is towards privatisation of enterprises, fewer jobs will be available in the public sector under the reserved categories in course of time. Hence, the affected people's demand for extension of the principle of reservation to the private sector also. But in a competitive world that the country is exposed to today, the quality of human resource is as important as any other input.

Solution to resolve the issue

The controversy over the reservation of seats in higher educational institutions and employment in the private sector can be resolved in a manner that balances equity with excellence. The Government could start new academic institutions exclusively for SCs/STs and OBCs.

The admission tests now held for the professional institutions may cover the proposed ones also so that there is no dilution of standards.

The disadvantaged sections may continue to compete for admission to the existing (or old) institutions and get selected on merit in the general category.

A separate list of unsuccessful candidates belonging to the SCs/STs and OBCs and perhaps even those from minority religions may be prepared. Admissions to the new institutions may be made from this list. Thus, the meritorious students among them will have two channels open to them. The Government may meet their entire education and hostel expenses, including pocket money, in both types of institutions.

The private sector may be advised to contribute to a corpus as a

quid pro quo

for not having reservation of jobs in their firms.

Double advantage

There will, of course, be a hue and cry that it is discrimination in education. It is not so because the general stream is open to all without any discrimination on the basis of caste or religion.

On the other hand, the new set of institutions will be closed to socially advanced groups. If there is, indeed, a bias, it is against them!

To ensure that the new institutions do not become second-class ones, all the standards of the existing ones in respect of pass mark, classes, etc., may be applied to them also.

To get top-class faculty the salary structure may be made more attractive than what it is in others. To make them prestigious, visiting professors may be invited from highly rated foreign universities as in the case of the other institutions.

The Government would do well to conduct a survey of the performance of the SC/ST students in the existing institutions of higher learning (IIMs, engineering and medical colleges, etc) during the past decade and compare it with that of the rest.

If the record is not favourable the reasons thereof need to be gone into. It is quite possible that given their background these students need special coaching and training.

This is difficult to accomplish in the existing institutions given the heterogeneity of the student population caused by methods of admission and the workload on professors not only in the classrooms but also in consultancy.

This problem will not arise in the new institutions because of the homogeneity of the student population so that even the regular classes can be in the nature of special coaching.

What is more, there is every possibility that the SC/ ST students develop an inferiority complex in the old institutions. It is also possible that others do not accept them as peers in the class-room. This is something that cannot be legislated away. The point to be noted is that even in the US, there is no compromise on merit.

The US example

If there are two candidates equally qualified but one belongs to the disadvantaged group then only he is preferred over the other. Such affirmative action is taken in the case of women candidates also irrespective of their social standing. There is no quota system and no reverse discrimination against the advantaged sections.

Young men and women of the disadvantaged sections should develop a sense of self-respect and confidence in their capabilities so that, eventually, they are able to tell the political leaders that they do not want any crutches and can stand on their own legs. They should consider reservation and the quota system infra dig.

(The author is a former officer-in-charge of the Department of Economic Analysis and Policy, Reserve Bank of India.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 9, 2006)
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