Not merit, not social justice

Not merit, not social justice
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First Published: Thu, Apr 17 2008. 11 24 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Updated: Thu, Apr 17 2008. 11 24 PM IST
After almost two years of hearings, the Supreme Court has cleared the decks for reservation of 27% of all seats in government institutions for other backward classes (OBCs). While the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) sees this as a victory, most political commentators are furiously debating the pros and cons of this directive. While most of the arguments are inconclusive, they serve to distract attention from the next goal in the agenda of the current government— which is far more formidable.
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Those who oppose reservations do so in good faith, but with misguided arguments. They claim that selecting candidates based on caste undermines the merit-based system in college admissions and promotes mediocrity. OBCs, whom the Supreme Court deemed backward enough to have quotas in colleges, are largely as competent as the forward castes—sometimes even more so. Giving a certain proportion of seats to students who do not need it does not destroy merit any more than it does if, say, 15% of all seats are reserved for left-handed people. It is possible that a few deserving candidates are displaced, but since the new demographic is almost as competent, it makes little difference to the quality of the institution as a whole. The key issue here is not the “death of merit” as most Indian news channels claim, but the calculated appeasement of a specific target group by employing questionable logic.
The pro-reservation lobby support the legislation since they see it as a means to achieve social justice by reversing the historical caste discrimination perpetuated upon them. They equate fixed quotas guaranteeing admission in educational institutions with affirmative action as practised in the US—another fallacious argument. Affirmative action, effectiveness apart, is meant to target minority groups which are backward. OBCs are neither in a minority nor backward—economically or educationally. In such a scenario, social justice does not reach the intended demographics which it claims to target, but instead ends up as another bullet point for the ruling party before the elections.
The tension between the two sides of the reservations debate can be resolved by free market forces. In a world where talent is held in high esteem, only the best would be rewarded. It is exactly this aspect on which the UPA has set in its sights—which is far more alarming than the lament that our best educational institutions may be compromised.
While the very notion that a democratically elected government can interfere in the hiring process of a private business corporation may sound incredible, it is an endeavour which the UPA has pursued with a surprising amount of energy. The National Common Minimum Programme clearly states that “the UPA is very sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservations, in the private sector.” The ministry for social justice and empowerment—an entity which would be more appropriate in a George Orwell novel—has been talking about bringing in legislation if the private sector failed to introduce?reservations?voluntarily.
Appeasing a demographic group by offering it undue advantage serves a politician quite well, but works to the detriment of a company. The reason behind enforcing reservations in the private sector beyond the educational level is said to be because most corporations allegedly practise a systematic caste-based discrimination. However, like the others, this is another dubious argument.
Businesses work towards a single goal—profit, which involuntarily blinds them to discrimination of any kind. Corporations battle to hire the best talent since they need to compete; there can be no room for petty prejudices in the long run. It’s quite possible that individual and isolated cases of discrimination may exist, but that’s exactly why anti-discrimination laws exist in the first place.
In any event, considering the presence of a sensation-seeking media in India, a diverse customer base and no dearth of opportunities, how long can any private institution cripple itself by officially practising caste-based discrimination?
Besides, most corporations voluntarily try to maintain diversity in their workforce so long as their productivity remains unaffected. By attempting to coerce caste-based reservations in the private sector, the UPA government would not just damage the basic tenet of private ownership in India, but would also handicap an institution which practises meritocracy—not because of political motivation, but as a means to survival.
Enforcing social responsibility in government-owned institutions to win votes is one thing, but insisting that private corporations follow suit is a different and reprehensible game altogether. Indian politicians and the Supreme Court would do well to remember Milton Friedman’s words from his book Capitalism and Freedom: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
Praveen Gopal Krishnan is a research engineer at a high-tech start-up in Bangalore. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 17 2008. 11 24 PM IST