Risha, a young woman from Kerala, is a systems analyst with a large company in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh. Her mother was a teacher and her father a ‘headload worker’ – one of the thousands of labourers who load and unload goods on their bare backs for the wholesale and retail trade. Risha was the first in her family to graduate from college.
Sharad Babu grew up in the slums of Chennai (formerly Madras), sometimes eating only one meal a day while his mother sold idlis (rice cakes) to pay for his education. Today he is at the threshold of a career working for a large catering business.
Ordinarily, Sharad Babu and Risha would not have made it this far, or indeed anywhere at all. They are dalits or ‘untouchables’ – those at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy. Excluded, discriminated against and economically disadvantaged, they and hundreds of others like them are where they are today only because of India’s ‘reservation’ policy. The government sets quotas to ‘reserve’ a certain number of seats in educational institutions and jobs in government offices for dalits.
Quotas are now as old as the Indian State. Indeed, they’re written into the Indian Constitution. But they’re still hotly contested – as all affirmative action usually is. There are those who believe that this is the only way to level the playing field for those who are by an accident of birth marked as ‘lesser beings’. Then there are others who argue that quotas in India have become counter-productive and should be stopped. They work against ‘merit’, they argue. And they allow ‘mediocre’ people to get into positions for which they are not qualified.
More recently there have been other twists to this argument. The debate has become more fraught as the Government tries to bring in measures to increase reservations, to bring in quotas for castes who have been excluded, to open up spaces in educational institutions and, significantly, to put pressure on private employers to enforce quotas.
No-one really questioned how those with ‘merit’ had actually acquired it – how privilege, class and education all help to build capability
These moves have met with furious protest all over the country. In Delhi, doctors from one of the leading institutes went on a prolonged strike and were soon joined by their colleagues in other parts of the country. Their grievance? That those without ‘merit’ would enter the medical profession and those – like themselves – who only had ‘merit’ and not quotas, to recommend them, would gradually be sidelined.
No-one really questioned how those with ‘merit’ had actually acquired it – how privilege, class and education all help to build capability. And that is the crux of the problem. India is one of a few countries that have tried to legislate affirmative action. A deeply hierarchical society divided by class and caste – and now on the fast track to modernity – the Indian State has worked hard to make the country more socially egalitarian. Affirmative action has worked well in some parts of the country: for example, in the South, where quotas have been in place for some time, the results are clearly positive. Other regions of the country have been more resistant, helped by the fact that often the ways in which quotas have been implemented have been both flawed and corrupt.
That doesn’t mean that they should be axed. Evidence of rampant discrimination is everywhere. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that in the Indian media, more than 70 per cent of the top positions were dominated by high castes. Not a single dalit occupied such a position. The English-language media were kinder to women (who accounted for roughly 32 per cent of all journalists) than to dalits of whom there were virtually none. And people with physical disabilities have no presence at all.
Caste-based quotas are only part of the story. In 1992, the Government introduced a Constitutional Amendment setting up quotas – 33 per cent – for women in village and municipal elections. Amazingly, the move passed without major resistance. As a result, today there are over a million women in elected village and municipal posts. (A similar move at the national level has met with stout resistance.)
Prejudices against the ‘other’ are deeply embedded and difficult to dislodge. Arguments about ‘merit’ may be specious, but they have a powerful appeal. After 56 years of attempting to implement affirmative action, the road to an egalitarian society is becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate in India. Providing opportunities for the disadvantaged may seem the right thing to do. But it won’t happen until those with power and privilege are convinced that affirmative action is just. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
India is said to be the ‘new kid on the block’, the country everyone is watching. But if we continue to deny privilege to those our society discriminates against on the basis of caste or class or gender, we’ll have little to show to the world.