The arguments over reservations that erupted again because of a movement in Gujarat had one feature I wanted to write about.

There was, of course, as always, that tiresome insistence from the angry middle class on “merit". Tiresome to me because merit is a meaningless word in a part of the world where the majority has been, and continues to be, deprived of opportunity and resource.

One particularly inane television debate I was on produced the magnificent solution that caste-based reservations should end and deserving children of all communities should be selected and raised to their potential. This selection would be on the basis of their “talent" (whatever that meant), which would be discerned at an early age. I said that was adding another layer of discrimination. Most children from the deprived castes have no access to learning at home as infants. They would suffer in comparison. Further, someone would choose the children subjectively in a culture which believes in such nonsense as those who come from “good families" and so on. But of course the studio audience, upper caste and middle class to a man, was in favour of this as an end to reservations.

What struck me was that Indian Institutes of Technology professors, and I think there were two on that panel, were also opposed to reservations and banging on about merit.

Anyway, so that is the first aspect to the debate, and it is not a new one. The other one, the one I want to write about, is the idea of affirmative action.

This was put forth by several people, most lucidly by economist and writer Surjit Bhalla, as a replacement for reservation, which was seen as not doing the job effectively enough. I happen to think that it does, and magnificently, but that is besides the point.

Let’s look at affirmative action. First, what does it mean and how is it different from reservation? It offers positive discrimination. And so, faced with two candidates who are more or less equally qualified, the one who is underprivileged is preferred. This positive discrimination may be extended, and the candidate who is underprivileged but also not as qualified is still preferred.

However, this is subjective and it could be that there is either no underprivileged candidate applying or that the subjective filter disqualifies those who do. Under reservations, fixed space is set aside for those who are in need of access and the subjectivity is absent.

This is the way it works in brief. Many places, including the US, have deployed affirmative action.

My view is that this should be extended to the private sector. Writing in The Indian Express (“For an equitable society, reservations must be extended to private sector", 23 October), Communist Party of India MP D Raja made the case thus: “The current discourse on reservations does not mention private-sector job selections and private college admissions. The fact is that the well-heeled corner all the jobs in the private sector while there is no reservation for the marginalized classes. Hence, the question to be asked now is this: Can the private sector, which draws several benefits from the government, be allowed to continue in the present manner?"

He illustrated the case by adding that “a recent study indicated that Muslims, who are 14% of the population, make a minuscule 2.67% of the senior management in BSE 500 companies. In absolute numbers, just 62 of the 2,324 directors and top executives in BSE 500 companies are from the community. If a similar study is undertaken on the state of Dalits, the outcome will be worse."

Few of us will be surprised by these numbers and those who follow the issue will know how poorly some parts of our society are represented. Should the government write a law extending reservations to the private sector? A law saying, for instance, that all companies above a certain size should set aside jobs for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and perhaps also Other Backward Classes?

It could try this, and there is a precedent. The Indian government has, and this is perhaps a unique thing anywhere in the world, mandated that the private sector should disburse some of its profit to what is called “corporate social responsibility". The government has been forced to do this because of extreme reluctance on the part of most companies to do what is done the world over—philanthropy.

I think that in this instance, forcing reservations on the corporate sector will not work and will be counterproductive. The clamour to remove reservations from the public sector, something whose drumbeats we are already hearing, will get louder. What is needed is affirmative action, and through legislation. It would even close one loophole in reservations—the denial, for entirely arbitrary reasons, of justice to Muslims of Scheduled Caste origins.

Raja premised his argument on a 2002 Republic Day address made by then president K.R. Narayanan, who said: “Indeed, in the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilised human beings. This is not to ask the private enterprise to accept socialism, but to initiate something like the diversity Bill and the affirmative action that a capitalist country like the US has adopted and is implementing."

I agree with this view entirely. I have already instituted affirmative action in the place I work. I will report in due course on what the results have been. We can no longer ignore, in these years when the economy is finally expanding well, those weaknesses in our society that we have ignored for millennia for lack of resources.

And so: Reservations in government-run and funded institutions and affirmative action in the private sector.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

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