Caste away

Caste away

In any fast-growing economy, people with the right skills are in short demand. India is no exception. At the moment, such shortages are pushing the economy in an upward wage spiral. For companies competing in a globalized marketplace, these costs, then, impose a certain constraint on profit margins.

There is, however, an additional cost these companies have to bear—a “legacy" cost. The Union government requires the corporate sector to deliver “tangible results" on its affirmative action plans for the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), and the unsaid implications for not doing so seem quite clearly to be mandatory job quotas. It has told industry that its initiative so far has been too limited. In response, and to avoid quotas being enforced, industry bodies are working on scaling up “targets". Their talks on Saturday with the principal secretary to the Prime Minister are part of the ongoing pressure game.

It is understandable that India Inc. wants to focus on education and skill development as much, if not more, as on positive discrimination in favour of SC/STs. Here is where the argument muddies. Political parties in favour of a quick fix tend to believe (wrongly) that arguments about skills are dilatory tactics on the part of the upper castes. That industry believes in the skills argument only fuels suspicion.

Besides, the issue seems to defy any rational resolution. If, after spending much time, money and effort in acquiring a valuable skill set, someone is denied a job in the name of justice for another, the step seems to be unjust. As Robert Nozick once argued, no moral balancing act can take place among us; there is no moral outweighing of one life by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good.

The fact remains that overall development of skills matters the most today for industry and also answers the needs of the marginalized segments of our society. Among other efforts such as encouraging entrepreneurship, industry plans to adopt more than 300 ITIs (industrial training institutes) and turn them into centres of excellence. But is it enough? And has the government done its bit? The ITIs are a reflection of how the government’s vocational and technical education programmes are defunct. They have outdated syllabi and little understanding of industry’s needs. Their graduates are left to set up their own shops or find jobs at the low end of the skill spectrum. These institutions have long been sites of incompetent management, “capture" by vested interests and a culture of carelessness. So, what about the remaining ITIs (there are more than 5,000!)? Does not leaving those out suggest overt discrimination?

What is particularly worrying is that the present “dialogue" between government and industry is only an exercise in “mild persuasion". And even in the latter’s consequent efforts to speed up affirmative action, the heavy hand of the government is visible. There are reported plans for collecting caste-based data on recruitment, incentives for industries recruiting SC/STs in areas dominated by the latter, and so on. This is different from voluntary action. The latter entails preferring SC/ST candidates where one of them is available with the same skills as another candidate.

The problems will begin when the government insists on cementing this process. How will it be any different from a legislative measure, one that industry wants to avoid? The issue of efficiency versus political expediency will always haunt this debate. In addition, when any attempt is made to resolve the issue quantitatively (say, affirmative action targets), one may end up with quotas through the back door. Other, non-quantitative efforts will only result in politicians asking for more.

No doubt, what complicates matters most is the entanglement of reasons of past injustice and political aggrandizement on the part of political parties.

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