Quota Unquote

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate.

March 17, 2011

Reservation’s biggest failure is that it seems to reinforce rather than dilute caste-based popular clamour. Social groups, some not-so-needy, continue to seek its supposed protective cover, often through violent means. Try telling that to India’s politicians, who’ve long turned quotas into a tool of competitive electoral mobilisation. Rajasthan’s leaders sometime ago granted Gujjar demands for self-serving ends. Today, Haryana’s Hooda and UP’s Mayawati back a Jat agitation for central jobs under the OBC category. What’s blinked at is that, six decades ago, it was thought that ostracised and marginalised groups needed reservation only as a timebound instrument of socio-economic levelling. India has come a long way since then.

Today, reservation has ended up creating “creamy layers” in targeted sections. The Supreme Court’s 50% ceiling on quota has been breached as well, as in Tamil Nadu. Quotas were meant to facilitate upward mobility in terms of jobs, livelihoods or status. Instead, they have virtually come to resemble sarkari privilege, promoting a race to the bottom with more and more social groups demanding inclusion under SC/ST or OBC categories. Clearly, if we’re to have reservation, it must be based on the economic criterion. More important, quota-based positive discrimination must make way for affirmative action in the form of efficient services delivery to the poor across the social board.

To the UPA government’s credit, social schemes are being pushed with a broad, secular approach to promoting socio-economic uplift, be it through Bharat Nirman or the National Rural Health Mission. Whether NREG, the proposed food security scheme or right to education, the focus has been on need, not caste. This is as it should be. Whereas quotas create social friction by building coddled niches, welfare-for-all has unifying potential, and hence can help bridge caste divides. The midday meal scheme in schools – encouraging community eating at a young age – is a case in point.

The underprivileged have a sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem precisely because they’ve been treated as a faceless collective to be swayed by political populism, rather than as individual citizens with distinct identities and entitlements. Here’s where UID and financial inclusion come in. By giving the poor identity, financial agency and provable claim to social benefits, such projects can do more good than quotas ever could. Similarly, reservations in perpetuity can’t substitute for genuine empowerment flowing from access to education, healthcare and infrastructure. Development, fast-tracked, will work the magic reservation hasn’t in over 60 years. In a new, aspirational India where votebank politicking increasingly seems an anomaly, the needy realise this. The outcome of key elections in Bihar – a state long associated with casteist politics – has demonstrated this not once but twice.

Posted on http://www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com

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