I’ve been having reservations about reservations.
And so I found myself on the Delhi University campus this week with a half-dozen teenagers who believe they have the answer to my dilemma.
They call themselves the United Students, a movement spreading across the country through blogs and media, graduation and migration. Their alternative: retool the current system of reservations based on quotas and caste to become more inclusive of the truly economically and socially disadvantaged. The students oppose quotas, but they don’t oppose giving a leg-up to those who need it most—based on caste, family income, gender, regional background, quality of education, parents’ education and other factors. Using a formula once employed by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the method awards points on top of test scores to strengthen applications.
“We agree there is a need for affirmative action,” organizer Ritwik Agrawal, 18, said. “But affirmative action should target lots of individuals.”
I have written before on this issue— my 2 March column described how affirmative action in the US made my entry into journalism possible—but another 7 May story in Mint left me wondering if India posed an incongruous comparison for my advocacy. Reporter Priyanka P. Narain detailed the corruption around securing caste certificates, how even the poor needed to pay bribes for theirs and the rich simply “bought” their lower caste. “It is only the rich communities that benefit,” Neera Shastri, a member of the National Commission of the Backward Classes, was quoted as saying. “They come covered in thick gold chains and demand reservations. It’s all about politics.”
But if not caste, then how best to judge the neediest Indians? Income alone, or a lack thereof, seems even easier to forge than caste. I pondered the fate of rural cousins who learn off slates in Assamese-medium schools; they are Kshatriyas, or warriors, now fighting to make a cameo in the India growth story.
Frustrated, I joked that perhaps reservations should be based on skin colour: get Indians to embrace their dark sides and decimate the annoying fairness cream industry. That, too, didn’t seem very fair (or lovely).
The folks at United Students assure me that a lot of Indians share my woe, realizing the system isn’t working even as the divide between the haves and have-nots remains stark and demands attention and correction.
So while activists burn effigies, launch hunger strikes or sweep the streets (an insulting hyperbole of middle-class displacement under quotas), these students drafted memos and fliers, concocted scenarios of life and admissions under their panacea to an issue that has vexed India for decades.
In the proposal—known as the Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action, devised by former JNU professor Purushottam Agrawal—scheduled castes and scheduled tribes can earn the most points, but an undereducated, upper-class candidate from a conflicted state also stands to improve his or her chances. This forces universities to look more fully at applicants, using merit as the cut-off, alongside other emotional factors, to create diversity.
“We’re not saying this is perfect,” said Nikhita Arora, 19. “This can be worked upon. We can look at alternatives and redistributing the points.”
Policymakers double her age are not looking at alternatives enough. Consider this week’s flurry of activity related to affirmative action—none of it very affirming. First, the presidents of three major business groups said they prefer a voluntary system of recruiting the downtrodden instead of a mandatory policy as used in the public sector and government colleges. Voluntary, sadly, means that they’re not forced to hire anybody who doesn’t belong to the same golf club or attend the same elite schools as their children.
Then came the Supreme Court’s decision that ordered Delhi University and Symbiosis International University to cease programmes voluntarily implemented for members of other backward classes (OBCs). The OBC issue is to be decided for all government-funded universities by the Supreme Court later this month. Yet again, I expect campus protests, one way or the other.
The Delhi University chapter of United Students won’t take to the streets, saying that confuses their message. Their idealism and analysis is refreshing on an issue often oversimplistically painted as pro-quota or anti-quota. When I asked if they place too much faith in and emphasis on the government to implement their ideas, a few members grew silent. Would the private sector take more interest in the sorry state of Indian education and disparity if it had to hire among the less privileged? “That’s interesting,” said Ritwik Agrawal. “Maybe we can consider going to the private sector.”
Or maybe, Arora said, they should just enter politics. “There’s such a dismal view of government,” she said. “We should have a better view of government—or change it.”
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