Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Reservations and social justice

The Moving Finger Writes
M. V. Kamath

Members of Parliament belonging to the Democratic Progressive Alliance in Tamil Nadu are up in arms against the recent Supreme Court's ruling abolishing government quotas and reservation in unaided, professional educational institutions. In a show of great concern, the MPs belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the CPI, the CPM and the Indian Union Muslim League presented a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding a central legislation to provide reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other Most Backward Castes in unaided higher educational institutions.

Their concern is very touching. Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister Jayalalithaa went a step further and demanded that the powers of the State government should be prescribed in the Union legislation to ensure that college managements follow government regulations on determination of merit and reservation. According to a former chief minister of Karnataka, M.Veerappa Moily, who should know, the Indian population of over 1.2 billion people consists of six main ethnic groups, 52 major tribes, six major religions, 6,400 castes and sub-castes, 18 major and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. In India, it would seem, everybody belongs to a minority. Poverty, incidentally, is not the exclusive characteristic of Scheduled Castes and Tribes or of Backward Classes and if social justice has to be equitably meted out, the needs of the poor among the so-called Upper Castes will necessarily have to be met.

The poor among all castes and classes have a problem. They can't afford to send their children to school. It is claimed that there are 40 per cent dropouts at the primary level and 55 per cent dropout at the upper primary level. According to Shri Moily, upward of 66 per cent of enrolled students do not attend primary schools and less than 7 per cent from the poorer sections even pass the 10th standard. And out of the 7 per cent, not even 1.5 per cent go in for higher education. Surely one cannot attribute these facts to discrimination against SCs, STs and OBCs? Even as matters stand, the problem is not non-availability of opportunities but of abject poverty which compels the poor from among all castes and classes to put their children to work right from the age of nine. That is the tragedy of it all.

Take the case of just one State, Andhra Pradesh. The SCs and STs jointly form 22 per cent of the total population of the State and, as of now, they are guaranteed 21 per cent of quotas in professional educational institutions. But, according to the 2001 census, the percentage of SC/ST engineers is 0.029 and that of doctors a mere 0.006 of the entire population. Even within their own communities, according to a report in Deccan Chronicle with a population of 1.73 crore, the percentage of people who make it to professional colleges in minuscule. What is true of Andhra Pradesh is more or less true of other states as well.

Instead of trying to fight the Supreme Court the government can raise its expenditure on education as a first step towards meeting the needs of ST/SC/OBCs. Besides, nothing, prevents State governments from setting up education corporations to run professional colleges on the same lines as private bodies. The truly dedicated do not complain: They act.

According to the Chronicle (August 20), of the 29, 03, 778 SC students attending educational institutions in Andhra Pradesh, 91 per cent are enrolled in schools, just 5 per cent are pursuing education after SSC and alarmingly 0.6 per cent are engaged in vocational courses. Two points need to be made in this connection. One is that the immediate problem is not one of providing reserved seats to SC/ST/OBC students in institutions of higher studies in medicine and engineeringlike some other states Andhra Pradesh spends nearly Rs 250 crore exclusively for scholarships to SC/ST students in these fieldsbut of providing SC/ST families the bare wherewithal to live and have a roof over their heads. Deprivation levels among the relatively vulnerable social and occupational groups are extremely high. The latest available estimates from the National Sample Survey put the incidence of illiteracy for male and female workers from agricultural labour households at 56 and 81 per cent, respectively, and almost 40 per cent of children from such households in the 6 to 14 years of age segment are reported to be out of school.

The task of the Government, then, is to meet this challenge of unemployment and under-employment by making provisions for money-related jobs and occupation-related study courses. One does not even have to be literate, to be a good carpenter, electrician or engine repairer. If only State governments would provide excellent vocational schools teaching crafts to students in the five hundred odd districts within their jurisdiction, they would have rendered extraordinary service to the poor and the needy. To have status in society one does not need to be a doctor or an engineereven if one forgets the fact that there is large-scale unemployment among trained engineersand an honest electrician or radio-repairer can surely command respect among his comperes.

The truth is that we have our priorities wrong. In the caste-conscious society that we are in, people seek social status more than economic independence. It is not that higher educational institutions are limited in number. They have been growing at a fantastic rate. Colleges for general education increased from 4,862 in 1990-91 to 8,737 in 2001-02; colleges for professional education during the same period rose from 886 to 2,409 and the number of universities from 184 to 272. In Tamil Nadu alone there are 231 private engineering colleges, six medical colleges and at least 140 private colleges offering paramedical courses. And they are mostly run by non-Brahmins. Surely they owe it to their fellow caste men to get free seats without being ordered by Governments?

The Kothari Commission had suggested way back in 1968 that public expenditure on education should be about 6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) but the highest expenditure so far has been 4.18 in 2001-02. Instead of trying to fight the Supreme Court, the government can raise its expenditure on education as a first step towards meeting the needs of ST/SC/OBCs. Besides, nothing prevents State governments from setting up education corporations to run professional colleges on the same lines as private bodies. The truly dedicated do not complain, they act. What we are presently witnessing is politicisation of a Supreme Court verdict to garner the SC/ST/OBC votes. The social pretensions of our political parties need to be exposed. Giving State governments control over private educational organisations is to encourage large-scale corruption in official circles. There has been enough of it in the past. What the Supreme Court judgment has done is to free private institutions from ministerial and official claws. The nation should be grateful to it.

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