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Formed in 2000, the IDSN is a network of international organisations, national solidarity networks and affected country groups, campaigning against caste-based discrimination throughout the world, from the dalits of South Asia to the Osu of Nigeria and the Burakumin of Japan. Visit our website International Dalit Solidarity Network for more information. SUBMIT DALIT NEWS HERE

Thursday, April 07, 2005  
Reservations on reservations
Affirmative action is the worst solution to the very real problem of discrimination, be it in India, or the US

HardNews April 2005

Jeremy Carl Delhi
One of the first aspects of Indian life that makes an impression on foreign residents is the enduring prevalence and power of caste. Nonetheless, much of India's young, urban elite is in denial about caste issues, and many insist that caste plays a declining or even minimal role in modern Indian life.

Interestingly enough, I have found that those who minimise the importance of caste almost invariably turn out to be Brahmins or other upper castes. I have seldom met a scheduled caste (SC) or scheduled tribe (ST) person among Delhi's "smart set", and those few who do make it, I suspect, have a very different view of caste issues. And despite occasional complaints about caste politics and reservations, I suspect there are very few Brahmins out there who would volunteer to switch places with a Dalit as a means of getting ahead in Indian society. One only needs to turn on the television, read the newspaper, or visit a village to discover caste politics alive and kicking, be it in elections in Bihar or the deprivation of relief for certain low-caste groups from their fair share of tsunami relief funds. Yes, caste discrimination is a problem in India. However, reservations are not the answer. Not only is it an imperfect solution, it is in fact a major and continuing cause of the problem. And with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government making noises about extending reservations into the private sector, it has perhaps never been more urgent that Indians look at caste discrimination and the reservations system openly and honestly.

My scepticism is motivated not just by my observations of India's experience, but also on my experience with "affirmative action" in my own country, the United States, which, while generally frowning on strict quotas such as those found in India, otherwise has many similarities to India's reservations system. The fact that reservations and affirmative action have created the same problems everywhere they have been tried has been amply demonstrated, the latest by Stanford professor Thomas Sowell in his book Affirmative Action Around the World.

Why reservations are wrong?
Reservations undermine the very real achievements of those from scheduled castes and tribes who succeed: When a scheduled caste person succeeds in government, medicine, or school admission, others immediately attribute this success to caste background — even though that person's success may rest on merit. Thus impressive accomplishments, often made at great difficulty and against significant discrimination, are unfairly devalued in the eyes of society.
Discrimination will be an increasingly self-correcting problem, especially in India's growing private sector: Discrimination could survive more easily in India's formerly closed economy, because Indian organisations were protected from global competition and thus did not have to be efficient. That is no longer true today. Indian firms that refuse to hire and suitably reward talented lower-caste individuals will eventually be beaten out by those who do. Similarly, if Indian society effectively writes off one-third of its members, it cannot hope to prosper in the global economy, where most countries generally attempt to fully value and utilise all of their citizens. These globalising forces will exert powerful incentives on Indian firms to cease their discriminatory practices.

The current system creates a huge unwieldy bureaucracy of compliance officers and organisations: Moving reservations into the private sector in the US has led to the appointment of corporate roles such as "diversity coordinators" and other members of the affirmative action bureaucracy designed to ensure that a socially appropriate level of diversity (by their definition) is maintained. [...]

Reservations give upper-caste groups a false excuse for their own failures: Even when upper caste members fail on merit, the very fact that some others may have got a job through reservations will create tremendous resentment, leading to defensiveness on the part of backward castes.

Reservations rest on perverse and unsustainable logic: While some might cheer the uplift of a Dalit through reservations in India, if that same Dalit applied to a US university for graduate school (having obtained an excellent educational record here against long odds), he or she is likely to be discriminated against, especially in engineering or science-related fields in which Indians are considered "overrepresented" by the American affirmative action bureaucracy. According to US affirmative action categorisation, Dalit and Brahmin, Bihari and Goan, are all grouped together under one category — "Indian." Thus, the Dalit's place may go to the son of a wealthy Mexican-American entrepreneur who grew up in great privilege in the US. That is because the Dalit would be seen as "Indian" (an over-represented group) and the wealthy scion a "Mexican-American" (an underrepresented group, thus in need of special aid) by the logic of America's affirmative action rules. The creation of a rationale for discrimination, when taken to its logical conclusion, produces absurd and unfair results.

Reservations perpetuate division on caste lines: Proponents of reservations quite correctly claim that it is not as if the introduction of reservations introduced the concept of caste discrimination into Indian society. Yet it is undeniable when looking at the explosive growth of caste-based politics in India that this has been greatly exacerbated by reservations. If there are substantial economic rewards for identifying with particular groups and these rewards are enshrined into law, one can be sure that these group-based dynamics will be reinforced and will continue to be reinforced as long as those reservations are in place. If India is ever going to move beyond caste discrimination, it needs to rid itself of institutionalised caste discrimination in the form of reservations.

The benefits of reservations go primarily to the privileged: Just as in the US it is the overwhelmingly wealthier and higher status members of ethnic minority groups who benefit from affirmative action, research in India has shown that reservations for backward castes are given to those groups at the "top" of the backward caste ladder while the most disadvantaged continue to suffer.

If not reservations, what is to be done?
But if reservations are not the answer to India's very real problems of inequality (and they are most certainly not) what is the answer then?
First of all, one idea so obvious that in most countries it would not need to be stated is that India should engage in real enforcement of its constitutional mandate against caste discrimination. If the government would publicly and uniformly enforce existing anti-discrimination laws and drag violators to court, much of the caste problem would be solved. If Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the allegedly "progressive" UPA aren't willing to go deep into India's most backward villages and prosecute those engaging in caste discrimination, then their professed caring for the poor and disadvantaged is nothing more than a cynical charade.

The author is visiting fellow in resource and development economics at The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi

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