Saturday, October 28, 2006



Saturday, April 15, 2006


All of a sudden, desi blogosphere is oozing with compassion for the downtrodden and the underprivileged. All kinds of advises are being offered to the powers that be to: (a) improve the facilities for their basic education (b) increase the budgetary allocations for the same (c) improve their living conditions (d) provide special coaching facilities to scale up their competitiveness (e) the works........ The trend has become close to worrisome. It was never like this before. Bloggers were usually upto showing off how smart they were with words, writing mostly about some silly exploits of theirs (which is perfectly ok, and harmless). Now why this sudden show of concern and sympathy for the usually ignored sections of the society?

Maybe it has to do with the recent indications that the Mandal Commission recommendations are at last going to be implemented, providing some real hope and succour to these ignored classes. This would mean that the upper crust of the society would have to relinquish certain benefits it has enjoyed for a long time. Desi Bloggers, predominantly from this upper crust, seem to have taken it upon themselves to guard their fort and fight back any attempts to ensure social justice. Hence the show of concern and sympathy.

Unanimously it is agreed that reservations are bad and have no place in civil society and all of that blah. Why is it so bad? There are two schools of thought:
  • one which believes that any kind of reservation for anyone is bad and should be done away with. This group probably believes that every disadvantaged person should be a Helen Keller and come out of his / her predicament through sheer hard work and determination. While people like Ms.Keller are commendable, they are hailed precisely because they are extraordinary, as in, super human. It is not rational to expect millions to raise their motivation levels and attitude, unaffected by the misery they go through every day, and scale great heights in their lives. Frustration could easily set in for a normal human being, with only cynicism remaining in the end. Clearly, this group is one which doesn't have to practise what it preaches, and hence can be overlooked.
  • The other group which is more in numbers acknowledges that reservations can't be done away with at least in some special cases, and is even open to continue status quo. Its logic is more on the lines of "this backward class is not as backward as we would like to believe" or "reservation is ok, but not for the modern day temples of knowledge like IITs, IIMs, AIIMS......." or "it is ok for SCs and STs, but not for BCs / Lalu Yadav's sons / Dayanidhi Maran's family / _____________(fill up the blank with your pick)", "it wouldn't help them anyway, as seen from Tamil Nadu's experience", "it is only a vote-catching tactic", "increase the supply, instead of rationing it" etc etc. Clearly, this group is pragmatic and practical, and has its eyes firmly on what it wants - no untoward rocking of its boat. In fact, though the earlier group may appear to have idealogical pretensions, it is really vested interest that drives both these groups to this debate (away from the usual silliness that masquerades as blog content)
While it is a pointless exercise, I feel that the logic of the second group needs to be countered, for the simple reason that its numbers are large, and its propaganda-like messages could leave an indelible mark on its impressionable audience. So here goes:
  • Reservation only for the really deserving - This is one of the easy arguments to construct. On the face of it, it looks perfectly innocent, and backed by sound logic. Why should benefits be extended to somebody who is already well off without them? Very convincing argument and one that can't be easily countered. Once this is laid, the usual strategy is to point out how some members of XYZ clan are smarter / better off than their ABC clan, whereas the system considers XYZ inferior to ABC, and bestows reservation benefits on them, while the latter is considered a 'forward class'. Even if true in large number of cases (and not just exceptions), this only serves to highlight the holes in the classification process, which is hardly an adequate justification for not implementing the recommendations. The wiser option would be to plug such holes, and i'm sure they would be done over time. Already, aspects like the creamy layer criteria address such issues to some extent. Often exceptions are cited as a rule, and the same goes with this argument too. E.g. the case of one rich businessman / landlord / bright student / politician from a backward clan should not obfuscate the disadvantages faced by thousands from the same clan. But unfortunately, that is how arguments are built up.
  • Centers of Excellence should be excluded from the tyranny of reservations - This one is my favorite. We have, over the years, been kidding ourselves into believing in this idea of 'world-class' institutions, where merit and merit alone rules the roost. These are places where top-notch research programmes would be conducted and papers published at regular intervals, putting our country on the global map for scientific and technological advancements. Yawn......... The reality that emerges is so different. You have the IITians, heavily subsidized with tax-payers' money, passing out and showing us all a middle finger by leaving the country in pursuit of better academic or career opportunities, leaving the really remarkable scientific and technological initiatives (like our space or nuclear programmes) to be staffed by the lesser mortals (i.e.engineers from lesser institutes). Regarding papers and other scientific breakthroughs that these world-class institutions manage to produce, the less said the better. The situation is more or less similar in our other Centers of Excellence, too. Top notch management expertise goes into selling soaps and colas for multi-national companies. What about the much needed leadership to propel Indian business on to the global arena? Well, home-grown wisdom (of the likes of Ambanis, Tatas, Bajajs, and other family-owned businesses) can take care of that need. So, trained world-class talent is anyway not available where it is required, and we as a nation have learned to make do with inferior substitutes. Merit, anybody?
  • Economic status, not caste as basis - Why not caste? It was used as an effective instrument to deprive. It makes perfect sense to use the same instrument to reverse the effects of that deprivation. Caste provides an accurate indicator as to who really needs enablement. It isn't volatile like, say, one's finances. Its ugly tentacles are to be seen even to this day, even in our urban lives, when some members of the society are subtly discriminated against, on the basis of caste. It could be in the form of workplace harassments, refusal to provide a decent accommodation on rent, stigmatization in the neighborhood, or several other ways which have been perfected over the centuries. I'm not even mentioning the gruesome violences in our countrysides, and the question of how favorably those communities are placed to lead a normal life, let alone pursue higher education.
  • All these years of reservations have not helped - Cases like drop-outs are cited, as well as the creamy layer examples, to establish that people continue to be in the same strata where they were, prior to the introduction of reservations. While there's no doubt that this is true, shouldn't this be the concern of the underprivileged sections themselves? I'm sure it is, and probably they would work on addressing it, with a little help from their friends (like NGOs). What puzzles me is, why is the high society suddenly worried about the benefits not reaching the intended beneficiaries? I can't believe there is an overriding sense of concern for their welfare. If it was so, it would have shown itself much earlier, without waiting for Mr.Arjun Singh's announcement. Also, if the reservations are not helping, why is it fetching votes by the truckloads, according to another accusation?
  • Focus on primary education, competitiveness - Another compassion-driven suggestion from the blogosphere. When the government was contemplating to mandate the private schools to accommodate (and subsidize) students from the lower strata (to the extent of 25% of their rolls), the elite press was quick to criticize such a move citing various reasons like freedom, deregulation etc. I suspect the elite class was not very comfortable with the prospect of their wards inter-mingling with the not-so-fortunate kids from the slums. Now, I'm at a loss to comprehend the members of the very same elite class displaying compassion and concern about the lack of good quality primary education for the poor. Is this argument trying to say "work on schools (a Herculean task by itself) and abandon the reservations"? Nice try :)
  • Increase seats / opportunities, obviating the need for reservations - I suspect this also to be a ploy to convince people that reservation can be done away with, by following 'better options' like these. While educating a billion people is no mean task, with a majority of them not having the resources to afford it, such arguments can win admirers from like minded people who want to believe that reservations are bad / evil and should be opposed at any cost. Even assuming that it somehow becomes possible to equip a large number of Indians with a college degree, providing them jobs that match their qualifications would be even tougher. The historically advantaged classes would have a better shot at cornering most of the available openings and the rest would be either unemployed or underemployed and underpaid. Then the social inequality debate would resume, and we would be back to square one.
Having said the above, am I bullish on reservations? As has been widely conveyed, there are no studies to back up on the promise of reservations and whether it has played any significant role in uplifting the lower strata. But the common sense assumption is that all sections should be fairly represented in all institutions, academic or professional, so that the benefits of economic growth are accessible to one and all. It's like a weight-lifting competition where lifters are categorized according to their body-weights (based on the assumption that a lifter who weighs more, can lift more) and members from every body-weight category have an equal chance of winning the gold.

Instead of just a one-time announcement, if the implementation of reservations is constantly reviewed and fine-tuned to maximize its benefits, it may possibly level the playing field for our underprivileged countrymen. If it works (yes, a big 'if' does exist), it could create a more egalitarian society for my future generations. Many more demographic sections could become affluent, expanding the size of the domestic market, which in turn could propel the country's economic growth. So I too am driven by vested interests to enter this debate, after all :)

PS - Just out of curiosity, I googled for "the philosophy of selfishness" (also to see if I could come up with a better title for this post). Not surprisingly, 'Objectivism' and its proponent Ms.Ayn Rand featured prominently in the search results. That should be good news for many who swear by her name :)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Discrimination at home

Quite a few valuable lessons are learnt at home, and discrimination happens to be one of them.

Unlike in other places, urban life in India offers the luxury of hiring a domestic help at an affordable cost. A luxury that most upwardly mobile families choose to avail. There is a demand and then there is plentiful supply. So, all is well from an economic standpoint. A minor detail that's overlooked is the caste factor and its ugly fallout. As is obvious, most of these upwardly mobile families are drawn from the dominant upper castes who have held the upper hand for centuries and hence have had the early mover advantage for ages, in that rat race called life. And the domestic help that is available is mostly drawn from immigrant labour, typically rural poor of lower castes, who came to the city in search of greener pastures, and leading a squatter's life.

So there is this situation of two sets of people, each from different backgrounds and castes, who come in contact with each other to fulfil their respective needs, in a small cozy place that we call home. In these enlightened days, we pride ourselves in public about being progressive, liberal, egalitarian, secular, equal opportunity and what not. However, all that glory and idealism vanishes, once inside the home, sweet home.

Here, age old casteism is on display, in its pristine glory. The employers remind themselves about their upper caste backgrounds, and about the lower caste / unhygenic surroundings / lifestyle of the domestic helpers. Where possible, the domestic help is allowed to enter only through the back door / rear entrance, and this requirement is compromised only in the case of apartments where there is only one way to enter the premises - through the front door. (Apparently, the front door is reserved for Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, to make her auspicious entry) Once inside, there are areas / quarters which are beyond the reach of the lowly maid, since they are considered too pure, precious, valuable, or plainly just not accessible. Examples include rooms / places of worship, furniture like sofa, chairs, dining table etc. on which the maid is not allowed on, and even rest rooms that are meant for the inmates of the house. So, a maid can sit, but on the floor, and can use separate rest rooms, if need be. Of course, she would be offered some tea / coffee of questionable quality, and an occassional snack, as an act of kindness. But here comes the catch - these things would be served in cups / plates that are separately set aside for them. Typically made of plastic or similar cheap materials, or in cups / plates that have long been discarded by the family, because they have lost their sheen or have developed cracks. And in these days of mineral / ozonized drinking water, the maid should of course settle for the tap water, in case of thirst, however hard it maybe (coz, God knows what kind of water she gets at her place). Often, left-overs would be handed down, with the justification that the maid would also look forward to receiving them (coz it can feed a hungry soul back home). And such gestures are made only when the family decides that the food has become unfit for consumption, by its members.

The sad part is, the maid / domestic help is often unmindful of these discriminations, as the conditions are often worse at her place of residence. She is probably thankful to her employers for providing at least this much. The worrying aspect about this whole thing is that young India gets to learn its baby steps towards practising casteism, by watching these acts of its elders. And the art of discrimination gets passed on to the next generation, like the so many wonderful indigenous arts that were handed down from generation to generation, without a single word being written about them.