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Letter from India: Revisiting Reservation

August 2006
Letter from India: Revisiting Reservation

Letter from India

Revisiting Reservation

50 percent! That's how much a new initiative wants to allocate for reserved seats for the underclass in all educational institutes. What's affirmative about this action?

"Jahaan is four, how come he can't write his name yet?" My friend was surprised at my toddler's apparent inability to sign his Daliesque artwork. "You will have to send this American bachcha for coaching classes, you know."

I am not one of those over-achieving mothers who immerse themselves in omega 3 oils and Beethoven when pregnant. Am I going to have to bite the bullet on this one? We do want a "good" school for Jahaan during our yearlong stay in Mumbai. To that end we have been advised by all and sundry: He must attend a play school during the day followed by preparatory classes in the evening. All this to ensure a stellar performance when interviewed by top-of-the-line schools.

And pray tell, what do they ask at such screening tests? In addition to number and alphabet recognition (both upper and lower case) with phonetic sound, children must answer questions of the following type: What vegetable did the fairy godmother use to make Cinderella's carriage? What is your father's mobile phone number? Heck, I can't remember my own mobile number, or name the colors in a rainbow. Young children are subject to enormous pressure. My seven-year-old niece spends at least two hours a day tackling homework! Whatever happened to scaling trees for fun? School years are entirely devoted to accruing superior grades necessary for college admissions.

And the UPA government has just compounded the challenge. In an ill-conceived affirmative action agenda, policy makers plan to rev up reservations to 50 percent for ST/SCs (scheduled tribes/castes) and OBCs (other backward classes) in all educational institutions – whether public or private, funded or non-funded – by the next academic year. This includes the venerable IIMs and IITs. The fact that a majority of the existing quota seats in scholastic establishments remain vacant appears inconsequential to the Union Minister for Human resource Development, Arjun Singh, who's the master-brain behind the reservation resurrection. Unfortunately, none of the unfilled reserved spots can be offered to the millions of deserving candidates in the open category.

The quota system has thus far proved ineffective in levelling the playing field. Yet the present regime chooses to fuel this flawed scheme. I dug deep and thumbed through Arun Shourie's latest treatise, Falling Over Backwards: An Essay Against Reservations and Against Judicial Populism. A scholarly study into the origins of quota, it enumerates a gamut of defects: the slippery line between caste and class, the obscure statistical data on which the government has buttressed its case. By the end of Shourie's commentary, the proposed 27 per cent reservation for OBCs seems absurd.

Reinforcing segregation via reservation eats away at the liberal, democratic fabric of the nation. We are cementing the very "narrow domestic walls" Tagore disfavoured. Yes, the Dalits have been social scapegoats for eons, but labelling them further – even when done with noble intent – highlights their birthmark. Besides, not all "lower caste" folk are destitute. Irrespective of lineage, it is the economically disadvantaged who are in need of amelioration.

So convinced is Arjun Singh of his ingenuity, he expects the private sector to follow suit by allocating jobs in the name of affirmative action. The odds are stacked against the "upper caste" youth from "middle class" families who find themselves without any "contacts" or "donation" mullah. I've heard of such people asking their Dalit servants to adopt them! At a time when India Inc. is on the global fast track, the country appears to be on the verge of making a U-turn. Will somebody tell the United Progressive Alliance which way is forward?

Sixteen years ago, dressed in black, I took to the streets of New Delhi in protest against the Mandal Commission (responsible for augmenting reservations). At some level India has not progressed at all. The netas of my country have squashed any secret desire I may have had of returning to India permanently.

By Reetika Khanna Nijhawan

[Reetika Nijhawan is regular contributor to Khabar. An Atlanta resident, currently she is on a one-year sabbatical to India, from where she will comment on life from the perspective of an expatriate. We welcome your responses to this article. Please write to]

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