New Delhi: A new index to measure diversity has been devised by an expert group formed by the ministry of minority affairs that may eventually be used as a replacement for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. The index may be introduced for even jobs in private firms and new housing created to ensure diversity in social, economic and political spaces. Mint interviewed chairman of the expert group Amitabh Kundu, a professor at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. Edited excerpts:
What is the Diversity Index?
Diversity Index is a rating of an organization at the micro or national level based on its employment profile. It simply looks at the employment distribution across religions, castes and gender categories, and...gives the organization a value. Higher the value, more diverse that organization is.
How you make use of the index depends on the acceptability of the index in the larger socio-political system. In my discussions with political people they thought it to be a useful way ahead.
Gradually, as consensus builds around the index, the need for reservation-based interventions will reduce. The demand for reservations will go down as institutions take advantage of incentives (linked to the index) by coming closer to the diversity norm defined for them.
Right representation: Amitabh Kundu, who headed an expert group to recommend an appropriate index, says an incentive-based system linked to diversity may be an efficient solution to the current reservation policy. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
What is the major drawback the index seeks to address?
The major drawback of the reservation policy is the way it is being operationalized, which is very, very specific. It is not at the institutional level, but often linked to certain jobs, specific personnel intake and seats. If there is a reserved post and there are five applicants, and none of them is qualified enough, you are forced to take one of them or leave the post vacant. Under the Diversity Index, if you find that you are not getting good people in certain areas, you may compensate by taking people in other areas. It gives greater flexibility to institutions to express concern for diversity without sacrificing efficiency.
Do you think the data requirements of the index call for a caste-based census? We have been using the 1931 census for caste figures so far.
I think it is a very important question. You want to operationalize this index, which requires a comparison between the actual intake community-wise, caste-wise, gender-wise against the proportion of the eligible population. So, certainly we do need caste-based data. Whether we need a caste-based census or not, that I have not answered because if you incorporate caste, the apprehension is that the respondent will become so sensitive that his responses to other parameters might get affected.
Is it then simply a question of designing a questionnaire?
Yes. Either we have it as a separate thing, or if you want to delink it and have national-level surveys, like the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) the data is fairly reliable. They (respondents) are in a position to give information on various important characteristics. I feel one can think of some institutional arrangement by which caste information is obtained.
The issue you are raising is that a respondent may not respond properly to the question but economic sciences have got into such problems and sorted them out.
I have just mentioned one of the objections that I have heard. I am not an expert on designing questionnaires and how the problems inherent in a respondent’s biases can be dealt with. It is said that a caste-based census is not just about the collection of data, but also an input for social development. After you have collected the data, the societal relationships might get affected. That is one fear. I am not sure these fears are well founded.
We should examine the possibility of caste information coming out of the census, but if there are problems, and there is a fair degree of consensus that there are serious problems, I think it should still be possible to get the data (from sample surveys).
We could not conduct a census in Jammu and Kashmir (in 1991). Earlier, we could not do it in Assam (in 1981). We had included one question, ‘Did you have a child in the last one year?’ Simple question. But even that question was not answered. People thought it would be used against them. People get very sensitive to some questions and it creates absolute unrest.
It may be tried out. After 1931 we have not done this exercise, but it is going to be extremely difficult. But I still think we should be able to get the (caste) data. There is no point in pushing the problems related to caste and communities under the carpet.
Do you think the Diversity Index is like reservations with retrospective effect? Because if a firm or an education institution has to maintain a certain index, and there is over-representation in some category, there must be a corresponding under-representation in another category. Then should I fire people from the over-represented category to make up for the numbers?
You cannot give over-representation to one community without giving under-representation to another, that is not mathematically possible. The index really captures under-representation.
What is important about the index is the mindset. You have to say that in this country there is space for diversity; all the social, economic and political space, whether in the public or private sector, has to respect diversity.
How do you think a political consensus will come about?
I am not really considering the present or future government. In India, institutions or institutional memory may appear to be short but it remains. It will be dug up, maybe after seven years. If the next election gives a different political configuration, I would say perhaps, yes, the report may not be taken as seriously.
The Diversity Index-based incentive system has certain flexibility, which is not there in reservations.
For example, if the post of professor of sociology is reserved and the applicants aren’t good enough, then you either recruit one of them or leave the post vacant. But under the Diversity Index-based incentive system, the university can say that we have a deficiency, but we would like to make up for that (maybe by recruiting a qualified professor in some other department). But, you cannot say that you will make up for a shortfall at the highest level by recruiting more peons. The index will operate at different levels. This is really a much more effective way to give the message that it is not post A, B or C, which needs to be filled, but as a matter of policy, the institution will work with the idea of diversity.
But how open do you think politicians will be to the idea of replacing reservations with the Diversity Index?
I feel that they would welcome it. That is my first impression. The fact is that certain communities, castes and women in the country are deprived and something needs to be done.
Can you explain the micro-level flexibility this index will allow? For example, if a firm operates in an area with no scheduled castes (SCs) or scheduled tribes (STs), how is the index going to work for them?
The first issue that we addressed was that you can’t compare the functioning of different institutions at different levels, and then compare them with the national percentages. There are institutions with a catchment area limited to a district, or taluk, or even a village. You can’t expect them to bring it to the same proportion as the national level. The profile of the company has to be compared to the eligible population profile. We have to find out the proportion of Buddhists, Muslims, women, in the district and compare the proportion of eligible population to the proportion of the actual number employed. There is no standard macro-level parameter which becomes the benchmark. We have to work out the benchmark for each institution depending on the catchment area.
So is it (setting the benchmark) going to happen from the institutional side or the government’s side? Is the government going to calculate the Index for each taluk, or village?
We are suggesting a very decentralized framework, perhaps at the national level there can be a diversity commission, which will have a wing and take requests from different ministries and give them diversity indices. At the state level also there can be a state diversity commission which will do the rating.
Institutions like the University Grants Commission can have a separate index for all the universities. For larger ministries with many public sector undertakings (under their fold), there can be a small unit that can be created with the approval of the national-level diversity commission.
If I want to take a road contract and apply for a tender and the tender requires my Diversity Index number, then who is going to define my index?
We have not suggested that there should be licensed persons to do this. But once the data and process become transparent and available, then it should be possible to leave it to the organization to do it internally, like people do self-assessment of income tax returns. It will become a mechanical thing. But I feel at the moment we have to start with the Central and state government initiating the whole process.
When will the index come into effect? What is the timeline given by the ministry?
The mandate that was given to us was to define the index and how it can be operationalized. It is for the people of the country and the civil society organizations to put the required pressure, after examining the report and seeing the strengths in it. I would think that the country needs to be told about the index, its implications and how it can be operationalized. There has to be pressure built not only on the ministry but in Parliament and there should be a national-level political consensus.
Will replacing reservations with the Diversity Index do away with reservation demands such as the recent Gujjar agitation?
We have never argued that reservation policy should be discontinued. We are saying that incentive-based system linked to diversity seems to be a long-term and more efficient solution. But reservation has become a political issue now, and when it should be stopped is a political decision. I really don’t think any committee can say let’s do away with reservation and start with this. Once you find that such a system comes into operation, then you will automatically see the demand for reservation becoming less and less. The communities which are marginalized will get a larger share automatically. After a few years, once this comes into operation, there will not be as many demands for reservations as there will be other avenues for deprivations to be removed or grievances to be addressed.
But can reservations and the Diversity Index coexist?
It would coexist for a short time. It is impossible to do away with reservation given the current political situation in the country. There will be chaos. But nonetheless, let’s promote the idea that diversity is an important way of intervening in the social milieu and this will become a major movement in the country.
The index does not seem to talk about deprivation or anything like that.
Yes. It is simply saying as far as companies or institutions are concerned, they should respect diversity and the percentage of their employees (or students) should be close to that of the eligible population which can be defined.
Eligibility criteria can be played around with to deprive certain communities then.
It is an important issue. It is an issue I discussed with (A.R.) Antulay, the minister (of minority affairs). If some institution raises the cut-off to such a high level that the eligible population excludes the marginalized or deprived automatically...the diversity commission should consider whether the eligibility criteria has been kept fairly. Arguments for hig-her eligibility standards have to be examined. Eligibility criteria have to be brought under the purview of the state and Central diversity commissions.
So it remains an unresolved issue?
For 5-10 years, issues may remain but the movement will start and it is a long-drawn process towards the ideal situation. If the movement starts, I would be happy and the index would have done its job.