Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Tunnel effect and caste reservations

Democracy has ensured that the socioeconomically backward communities emerge as large voting blocs

In a remarkable article, The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic Development, Albert O. Hirschman coined a now famed expression: the Tunnel Effect, the idea that large sections of society will happily tolerate inequality in the hope of eventually becoming part of the economic surge. Suppose you are driving through a tunnel, waiting for traffic to move. The lane next to you, headed the same way, starts moving—you celebrate, for it invigorates in you a hope, an expectation of mobility. Now suppose that the adjacent lane keeps moving for a significant period of time while you stay put. The hope will soon dissipate into acrimony and perhaps a feeling of injustice.

Abstracting from lane driving, for it might create a problem mapping the thesis into current reality, this article will nudge you to view the recent mass mobilization of the Patels and Patidars in their demand for reservations through the tunnel parable. Add to the Hirschman hypothesis two crucial components. First, classify envy from differential mobility into desperation and aspiration: the Maoist uprising is an act of recognizable desperation, the Patel mobilization one of pure aspiration.

Second, introduce instruments of dissent—social media, adult franchise, bandhs and maybe revolution. A legitimate question then is, when does the tunnel effect wear off, and thence what form does it take? A second related question, prequel to the first, is under what circumstances does the tunnel effect last for a substantial period of time? And can governments design for the tunnel effect as a tool for development?

That the Patidars are a rather affluent caste is well documented. However, as some have pointed out, the wealth distribution amongst them is skewed towards the very rich, giving an illusion of riches across the board. Even controlling for this fact, it is hard to see how the Patidars will qualify as a backward caste based on the formula prescribed by the Mandal Commission.

The puzzle therefore is, why the demand? A majority of the hundreds of thousands Patidars that turned up in the Ahmedabad rally find themselves in a tunnel where their neighbouring lanes are composed of the very rich of India, including fellow wealthy Patidars. This explains rising aspirations, easily accentuated through social and electronic media, and hence a weathering of the tunnel effect. The specific demand for reservations though is a tried and tested instrument of dissent and, more importantly, mobilization. It is not just about reservations per se, but also a mechanism that is deemed feasible and constitutionally acceptable as a mark of protest against perceived injustice. And the Patidars are doing it, howsoever ridiculous it may seem to others, because their frustration is genuine and political clout means they can.

One can argue at the outset that the introduction of reservations for Dalits and Adivasis in educational institutions and jobs was a masterstroke by the Constitution makers that allowed the tunnel effect to first kick in and then stay prolonged. To see some in your community break through keeps hopes alive. However, Mandal reintroduced reservations as a political rather than social instrument of change. The method adopted by Patidars is a legacy of Mandal.

It is important to note that the tunnel effect, and designing for it, is not necessarily bad. Many eminent economists have argued that is impossible to avoid inequality in the quest for growth; the extent of it though is what separates success from failure. Hirschman argues that if growth and equity are the two principal tasks facing a country, these can be solved sequentially if endowed with a strong tunnel effect. Solving these simultaneously “is a difficult enterprise that requires institutions wholly different than those appropriate to the sequential case". Not to say simultaneity is impossible; modern non-homogenous capitalist nation states haven’t shown so far that it can be done.

The tunnel effect has been found to be empirically hard to implement in countries with significant ethnic, religious or linguistic diversities. It requires empathy from the immobile towards the ones that are advancing, and a mechanism to repeatedly address the emerging inequalities. India, as Ramachandra Guha points out in India After Gandhi, likes being an outlier to modern theories of political economy. Democracy has ensured that the socioeconomically backward communities emerge as large voting blocs. This has brought them political power, a key sustainer of the tunnel effect. In new research, historian Rohit De of Yale University potently shows how the subaltern tried to employ the freshly minted Constitution as an instrument to acquire their share of the economic pie in the nation state of India. The 21st century has brought problems of identity and aspirations, and hopefully, concomitantly evolving mechanisms for addressing them.

The current situation presents a challenge of balance to the central government. Understanding and packaging aspirations was a cornerstone of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party campaign in the 2014 general elections. The talk of skill development rather than doles resonated with the youth. In some ways, it ensured reinforcement of the tunnel effect, albeit through a new lexicon for a new demographic. It is to the government’s advantage that the Patidars have been a robust electoral base for the last few decades. Given that reservations seem unjustifiable, they need to come up with a new mechanism of channelling these and similar aspirations.

Rohit Lamba is an assistant professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University.

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