I was 16. Sitting in my New Jersey high school’s canteen with friends around, we went listing our plans for the upcoming summer holiday: camp, tennis, trips overseas.
Then it was my turn: “I’m attending a Minorities Journalism Workshop.”
A redhead turned to me and her tone turned as fiery as her hair: “A minority workshop? Why do you need your own workshop?”
I didn’t know what to tell her—except that I had applied and received a scholarship to spend two weeks putting out a newspaper with other minority students across the state. Most were black or Latino, but some, like me, Asian. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been a reporter, nor did my parents, thus we were elated for the exposure. The programme was sponsored by Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, a content provider to this newspaper.
So began my entry into journalism, a career path that, most recently, led me to this New Delhi newsroom.
This week, the Union Budget was unveiled with pledges to increase funding in social sectors such as education and health, paid for in part by tax increases on individuals and companies. Presented by a ruling party wooing the voting poor, the Budget outlined hope for farmers and the disabled, women and minorities. Under one programme, incentives would even be given for companies that hire the physically challenged.
Now, I hope the government goes further and begins a campaign, in earnest this time, to force the private sector to recruit others who lurk in the shadows of India’s shining. Indeed, the idea of reservations in the private sector has been tossed about for some time, but now—as the country moves to being a consumer economy and fights an acute labor crunch—is the right time to act.
Recent suggestions that the private sector implement quotas have angered much of Corporate India, who say such measures should be relegated to educational institutions. Yet, these same firms spent much of the last year labelling India’s government schools a big mess, incapable of providing the talent they desperately need. So, these will be the training grounds for the future Dalit employees that the private sector assures us they really intend to hire?
Companies have said they want the government to stay out of their hiring, to leave them to run their businesses. Why, then, did they rally nervously around televisions and trade associations this week in fear of losing tax breaks and subsidized land?
Just hours after the finance minister delivered the Budget, General Motors (GM) India issued a press release calling the tax that will be levied to fund admission of lower castes into public universities “a step backward”.
Meanwhile, in the US, I recall a GM that bravely led more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Microsoft, to file court briefs in support of affirmative action. The court acknowledged these efforts, saying: “Major American businesses have made it clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.”
Indeed, from newspapers to automobiles, workplaces that reflect our nation’s demographics are a necessary tool to create better products. Won’t India’s upcoming retail ventures, for example, better tap the vital rural and small-town market if their staff reflected that same population?
Here’s what I expect would happen if the private sector was forced to include India’s minority groups or, at the very least, offered incentives to hire them: Companies would begin taking more interest in the adequate funding and delivery of public education—the main pipeline for such recruits. There likely would be the birth of more company-sponsored workshops as the one I attended, to identify, groom and train talent early and ensure a qualified pool for later.
Sadly, I received an email last month saying the journalism camp I once attended was being disbanded after a lawsuit was filed by an anti-affirmative action group. The rapidly diversifying American pie, it seems, does not have enough slices to share.
By adopting reservations reforms, diverse, democratic India has the chance to make a real global statement—to demonstrate a commitment to diverse and truly inclusive economic prosperity.
My position is not a popular one among Indians in the US who say affirmative action hurts affluent Indians, especially in the areas of science and technology. Nor is this stance a popular one among my friends here, who claim reservations will mean fewer opportunities, fewer seats.
But that’s the very point—to help “them” become more like “us”. For if someone hadn’t been forced to open the door for this once-naive teenager, I doubt you’d be reading these words today.
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