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July 4, 2009

The politics of reservations

THE ISSUE of reservations in India is like Yossarian’s liver condition in Catch-22. Reservations were supposed to be for 10 years, but they have been extended again and again, for over 60 years, with their scope greatly broadened. The case for extending reservations for the next ten years is invariably that the previous sets of ten years were not sufficient. But after six such extensions in time and significant extensions in scope, it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim with a straight face that reservations are in fact the right remedy that will uplift the condition of the depressed classes.

The fact is that the policy of reservations is too blunt an instrument to achieve any sort of social justice. Originally, the policy was targeted at the so-called “scheduled” castes and tribes, the ones that were determined to have historically suffered from the worst excesses of untouchability. The reasoning in favour of reserving seats for them is similar to the reasoning that argues for dropping food packets on stranded areas during emergencies. Yes, many of the packets will be wasted, much of the food may not be in the best possible condition when retrieved and the stronger among the distressed may make a grab for the food; but if the alternative is starvation, the food drop is still worth it.

But what makes sense in an emergency does not make sense over longer periods, and reservations do not even make sense as a food drop. Reservations are provided in colleges and in public sector jobs. To go to college, one must first go to school, and the poorest castes found it difficult to do that, either for economic reasons or because they faced discrimination and suffered exclusion.

The pro-reservation answer to this is that even if it is the better off among the scheduled castes are the ones who benefit, they will work to uplift others of their caste who are poorer and more disadvantaged, either through private or governmental initiatives. The problem with this argument is that it underestimates just how fragmented the caste structure in India is.  While “SC” is a convenient bureaucratic label, a typical member of the scheduled caste does not think of himself as an “SC”, but as a member of a specific sub-caste, and quite frequently, there are tensions between different sub-castes. There is no reason to expect that providing reservations that will benefit the better off sub-castes among the SCs will do anything to improve the condition of the worst-off ones. In reality, it is likely to do the opposite, as the better off castes hog the political space and try to keep competition down.

A large scale version of this phenomenon took place with the Mandal Commission report. A group of castes, not previously classified as “Scheduled Castes” rose to demand reservations for themselves. Formally, they were classified as “Socially and Educationally Backward Classes”, while less formally, they were called “Other Backward Castes” or OBCs. Unlike the SCs, the OBCs were not victims of untouchability. They happened to be castes that tended to follow socially backward practices like child marriage, or were below average in terms of educational attainment, or were economically weak.

In fact, economic criteria were given the lowest weight by the Mandal Commission, which meant that there was an even chance that a land-owning caste that practised child marriage and traditionally did not need to send children to college could be classified as an OBC. The rhetoric of “historical injustice” that was used by the oppressed castes, was now appropriated by castes that frequently tended to be on the side of the oppressor.

A part of the reason why this appropriation was successful is that many of the urban and educated class tend not to understand the nuances of the caste system. While the system has multiple dimensions, what concerns us here is the distinction between two of its most important dimensions.

First, there is the dimension that relates to the shame of untouchability, where people from the lowest strata are deemed impure and contact with them is abjured.

The second dimension relates to caste as a clan, a unit of social cohesion.  In traditional Indian society, people tend to socialise and marry within their caste. They get notions of what is acceptable and what is not, and which role models to follow, from within their caste. When they get into trouble, they rely on their caste networks to sort it out, and when they want to get something done through the government, they go through an influential intermediary from within their clan.

Urban Indians tend to claim that caste does not matter much in cities any more, but this is true only about the first dimension—people do not practise untouchability, or openly express notions of superiority or inferiority of castes. But it remains true that caste networks remain important to get access. There are many examples of this—Carnatic music is dominated by Tamil Brahmins because they got their breaks in temple functions and sabhas, whose administrators tended to be Brahmins. Government offices and even traditional private companies in India tend to be hotbeds of casteist intrigue, with charges of nepotism towards members of one’s own caste common. The “new” private sector tends to be relatively meritocratic—but it must be pointed out that  one of the revelations from the Satyam scam was that B Ramalinga Raju was more comfortable working with, and took care to staff the senior management and board with members of his caste.

Clearly, we have a problem, and we need a sharper instrument that caste-based reservations to solve it. Most proposals that try to refine the policy of reservations by targeting castes even more finely, or by adding economic criteria suffer, from the technocratic fallacy. They assume that their preferred policy of reservations will be made by detached technocrats based on objective conditions on the ground, while in reality, in  a democracy, it will be made and implemented based on electoral arithmetic, in pretty much the same way that the Mandal commission report was presented and implemented. Politics over reservations is often written of as a “social revolution”, but in reality, it is business as usual—historically, castes have always moved up and down the social ladder depending on which way political winds blew.

The current system assumes that the opportunity for economic  growth will remain within locked gates, with the dispute being over which political leader is to be the gatekeeper.  If we really need change, we need to break down the gates. Reservations in colleges and universities will become irrelevant if we allow unrestricted entry for private universities, where they have to fight to get students. Likewise, a job market where companies are chasing people rather than the other way round is a much better antidote to discrimination than reservations.

Caste networks are, ultimately, networks of trust. While selecting people, there is always a choice between choosing trusted people and choosing talented people. In large empires that do not face external threats, trusted people are more important, as this reduces chances of rebellions and coups. When one faces a threat from outside, talent is important. Competition is a great way to force people to ensure that they hire talented people.

Another reason why people rely on networks of trust is that the rule of law is weak. Diamond trading in India, for example, is dominated by one community, the Palanpur Jains, and much of the business takes place without paperwork and on trust. With strong contract enforcement and an efficient judiciary, people will  be more willing to trade with those they do not know. A well-developed financial system is a great equaliser for an entrepreneur who wishes to start his business, as he does not need to rely on his rich uncle and family wealth.

A system of governance where one does not have to rely on “connections” within one’s caste networks to get things done is a much better ideal to aspire to than one we have now, where every caste is making a mad scramble towards getting its own men in power. If India really aspires to achieve a social revolution, economic freedom, competition, and rule of law are far, far better roads to that revolution.


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