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The merits of affirmative action

By Meher Gadekar

An important pillar of affirmative action in the US has been the preferential allotment of tenders and contracts in the corporate sector to blacks. What have opinion-makers and industry in India done to build a just society for dalits? Most recently,industry turned down the government's request for reservations in the private sector

Over the past few years the debate and discourse on the issue of empowerment of dalits by providing them equal opportunities for their development, and the government's reservations policy, has come under sustained criticism in the mainstream media by the intelligentsia, educationists, industry and other elite who are the major opinion-makers in society. The main argument against the policy of reservations is that merit is being compromised, implying that in the absence of reservations society is governed only by rational, objective, optimal, merit-based decisions that are devoid of nepotism, corruption and ulterior motives. Also implied (though not so obviously) is the hypothesis that merit rests with the so-called "forward" castes and communities.

Is there any data/logic to support either of these two hypotheses?

What is 'merit'?

According to the Random House Dictionary, merit is "claim to commendation; excellence; worth". It is also "something that entitles a reward or commendation; a commendable quality, act, etc". In addition, "it is the state or fact of deserving". It is also "that which is well deserved; to be worthy of; deserve". The word is generally used in a favourable sense and signifies inherent value or goodness.

Why do dalits (includes scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) lag behind?

Dalits lag behind other "forward" sections of society for the following reasons:

  • They were deprived of opportunities for development as they lacked opportunities and access to education, employment, etc; they faced discrimination, segregation, untouchability and were looked down upon.
  • Many dalit communities were/are artisans and hence never put a premium on getting an education.
  • Tribal people's culture is governed by principles of reciprocity and redistribution. They do not believe in creating surplus but, rather, live from day-to-day. What they collect, hunt or gather from nature is always within limits. Hence it is sustainable (from a resource utilisation point of view) and does not place a burden on nature. They do not have the concept of privately owning land or waterbodies, or generating profits. They believe in co-existence rather than "ownership" or "control".
  • Many dalit castes were engaged in occupations (if you can call it that!) like scavenging, flaying the skins of dead carcasses, making shoes, carrying night soil (on their heads!) and other activities considered demeaning and polluting in Indian society and culture. Obviously, getting an education would not help them further their career prospects! Today, for obvious reasons, many communities have given up these vocations.
  • In contemporary India, while untouchability is not overtly practised it has taken newer and more sophisticated forms. Thus, housing societies, cooperative banks, cooperatives, clubs and other membership-based organisations dissuade dalits from gaining membership. Occasionally, dalits do manage to become members of these organisations, but they are exceptions to the norm. In rural areas, efforts to dominate and discriminate against dalits are carried out more vigorously and systematically. Dalits are denied minimum wages, their lands are encroached upon; if they try to assert their rights they may face boycott and segregation. Often, they are threatened and even beaten up. They are hit where it hurts most: their women are threatened, abused, molested and even raped. So what if there is an Act to prevent atrocities against dalits?! This has never been a major deterrent to the more powerful forces of domination, orthodoxy and communalism in rural and semi-urban areas. The incident at Khairlanji is the latest in a long list of such events that take place all over India. It can be surmised from this that India's record vis-à-vis the human rights of dalits is not one to be proud of.

One way to get ahead of the pack and make progress is to work hard over sustained periods of time, do quality work, and remain motivated to do both over the long run. The dominant (or "forward" communities) have found a smarter way to avoid this difficult path with a much simpler alternative. Baptise large sections of society as "dalit" and thus devoid of merit and talent. Segregate, discriminate, subjugate, exploit and tread over them for a period of time. This breaks their spirit, their self-respect and self-belief. Perpetuate the myth that merit is intrinsic in a few communities (due to the accident of birth) and create a society which, while grossly violating the human rights of dalits, paves the way for a smooth, hassle-free ride on the expressway of growth, development and wealth for India's elite, the so-called "forward" castes.

What policy options does the State have? And what is it doing?

The State has the following policy options for developing and empowering dalits:

  • Provide reservations in education, jobs etc, as is the practice today.
  • Provide opportunities to dalits through scholarships, freeships, etc.
  • Make it mandatory, through legislation, that a certain percentage of all contracts and tenders, whether government or private, is allotted to dalits.
  • Work on changing the mindset of society at large towards dalits, so that dalits are treated as equals, with dignity and fairness and are not subjected to discrimination, segregation and untouchability.

The State has, by and large, only exercised the first two options; the last two have not been addressed at all. Hence the first two options create a tremendous amount of animosity and hatred in the minds of people at large who feel that the State pampers dalits and provides them opportunities that they (dalits) do not deserve. And so dalits face further repression, discrimination etc, and the vicious cycle continues...

Comparison with the situation of blacks in the US (and other places)

Many scholars have compared the situation of dalits in India with the situation of blacks in the US and other places. While there are a number of similarities in the plight of these two communities, one basic fact needs to be mentioned. Unlike the blacks, the dalit community in India is indistinguishable from society at large. There are no outward ways to identify a dalit. Dalits are as tall, short, dark, fair, stout, thin, intelligent or unintelligent as other sections of society. They are not a separate race or people. And anyway, anthropologists now debunk the concept of race as being unscientific and incomplete. Some tribal people have certain prominent physical features, but these are largely location- and geography-specific. With large-scale migration in search of livelihoods, dalit (and, to a lesser extent, tribal) communities are indistinguishable on the basis of physical characteristics.

To the best of my knowledge there is no research that proves that there are any genetic differences between the "forward" castes and dalits. Nor are there any studies showing that "forward" castes have higher IQs than dalits.

Towards a just society

What steps have the government, industry, the intelligentsia, educationists, elites and other opinion-makers in society taken for the development of dalits, and to create a just and inclusive society?

We know what steps the government is taking (they are constantly being criticised by opinion-makers at all platforms!). But besides the government none of the other stakeholders -- industry, the intelligentsia, educationists, elites and other opinion-makers -- have done anything that's worth mentioning. Rather, there is the constant buzz in the mainstream media about how merit is compromised by reservations, how reservations hinder the achievement of world-class quality, how India is falling behind because of such regressive State policy.

Although much of this comment is muted, implied and often not implicitly stated, of late it has become more strident. One example is industry's categorical and unequivocal "No" to the government's request/polite suggestion to initiate reservations in the private sector. The fact that affirmative action has been practised vigorously in the US for many years is conveniently ignored by industry mandarins who otherwise idolise all things Western (including the US). An important pillar of affirmative action in the US is industry's role and efforts in providing opportunities to blacks for self-development and empowerment, through preferential allotment of tenders and contracts.

There's the mistaken belief that reservation was for an initial period of 10 years only. But this applies to political reservations, ie reservations in governance, which is ratified and extended by Parliament every 10 years. There is no time limit set for reservations with regard to education, employment, promotions etc for dalits. Systematic efforts are made to confuse these two types of reservations; this needs to be addressed once and for all.

Achievements of dalits

The achievements of dalits in all spheres of public and private endeavour are remarkable, especially considering the limited opportunities available to them and also the hostile environment in which they have been made. Listed below are a few of them:

  • Dalits have performed excellently in sports like hockey, archery, etc. Anybody who has the slightest doubt should race with the numerous "Tirkeys" who are a regular and permanent feature in Indian hockey! If dalits and tribals are systematically selected and groomed for endurance events and for the middle distance events in athletics, archery (communities like the Bhils are traditionally excellent archers), javelin-throwing, hockey, wrestling, marathons, swimming etc, they would make world champions.
  • Many dalit communities have an innate sense and understanding of music and rhythm. If they are selected at a young age, groomed and trained for a career in these vocations at world-class institutions, they would become exceptional performers and artistes.
  • Most of the roads, bridges, railway networks and tunnels in post-Independence India (even in earlier times) have been built by the sweat, blood and tears of the dalit people. The "forward" communities have been too soft and well-to-do to participate in such exhausting and non-remunerative, but nevertheless vital, nation-building activities. This does not stop them from driving/travelling or using them, while constantly criticising the drop in "quality" and "merit" due to the government's efforts to empower dalits by providing them opportunities through a sub-optimal policy option like reservations.
  • The achievements of giants like Dr Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram and Dr K R Narayanan and others are testimony to the inherent talent of dalits. It is important to note that Ambedkar received invaluable support in the form of patronage from two kings -- Sayajirao Gaekwad and Shahu Maharaj. It is only because of this that the otherwise poor Ambedkar was able to pursue higher education, develop his inherent talents, interact with world leaders, study at world-class institutions and attain self-empowerment. Shahu Maharaj even supported his newspapers and journals. Most dalits could never hope for access to such opportunities. Hence their latent talent withers away without achieving fruition. Society at large is ignorant of the lives, work and achievements of dalits because the mainstream media has never bothered to cover them, being obsessed with Page 3 events and personalities.
  • There is an active section of dalits who occupy the highest positions in industry, education, government, and research institutions in India. There is also a vibrant dalit diaspora that is active all over the world. The diaspora thrives abroad without reservations, unhampered by prejudice and able to develop and bloom to the full extent that their talent, merit, hard work and education allows them to. Many members of the dalit intelligentsia, elite and leaders have reached positions where they do not need the support of reservations. Many can compete with the best, globally. The reason they do not advocate the abolition of reservations, though they themselves do not need it or use it, is in order not to deprive their brethren who still require support for their growth and development.
  • Artisan dalits like potters, weavers, shoemakers etc are known all over India (even abroad) for their talent and fine skills in manufacturing artefacts of the highest quality and beauty.

Poverty of logic, reasoning and substance in the discourse on dalit empowerment

From the above it is obvious that the discourse and dialogue on the issue of development and empowerment of dalits and the popular criticism of reservations as undermining merit and quality in the meritocracy that is India (sarcasm intended!) is devoid of logic, reasoning and substance. The sooner opinion-makers realise this (and it stops being reported in the mainstream media, which in any case supports the status quo and acts as a handmaiden of dominant castes, communities and mindsets), the sooner India will develop. And be accepted by the comity of nations as a nation where human rights are not routinely violated for the section of society categorised as "dalits".

(Meher Gadekar is a specialist in rural development and management)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2008