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Friday, January 23, 2004

dir="ltr">One of the most contentious issues in public discourse in India is the quota policy (reservations) in favour of Dalits and other disadvantaged sections. Almost all educated Indians are divided on this issue of reservations on caste lines. In any group, the opponents of reservation are most likely to be caste Hindus who fear loss of opportunities, and supporters tend to be disadvantaged sections seeking more opportunities for advancement. Our Constitution-makers took great pains to make special provisions in favour of disadvantaged sections. Article 16 (4) dealt with public employment and empowered the state to reserve “appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented under the State”. This was further strengthened by the very first amendment of the Constitution in 1951, whereby Article 15 (4) was added after the judgment in State of Madras v Champakam Dorairajan case (SCR, 525, 1951). Through this Article, the State could make “any special provision for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes or citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”. These provisions form the basis of reservation policy for admission in educational institutions and recruitment in public sector.Over the years, the political and social system have reached a measure of equilibrium on this difficult issue of quotas. The extention of such reservations to backward classes during the early 90’s did deepen divisions. But the parties and governments acted with great restraint and good sense to restore harmony and promote justice. We can keep on arguing about the merits and demerits of reservations. But the fact remains that even today the fate of a vast proportion of children is determined by the accident of the caste or family they are born into, and not on their natural endowments. That is why 45% of Dalits are in poverty, whereas the national average is 25%. Most of the child workers, abjectly poor persons, workers in undignified occupations, those involved in back-breaking drudgery are from the Dalits and occupational backward castes. Reservations may not alter the reality; but it is a way of the society promoting diversity and establishing the legitimacy of the system by a policy of inclusion and accommodation.Now that the role of government is being redefined as part of economic reform process, private sector is growing rapidly. True, this growth is not accompanied by significant employment generation. But the fact is, much of future employment has to be outside government. Out of the estimated 370 million workers in India, only 28 million are in the organized, monthly wage-earning sector with secure jobs. Of them, nearly 20 million, or over 70 percent, are in government and PSUs. There is a lot of need and room for restructuring in government. We have too many clerks, peons and drivers; and too few teachers, health workers, judges and law enforcement workers. But the government employment cannot expand.  The recent strife in Mumbai and Assam about employment in low-skilled jobs in railways is a timely reminder of the shrinking job market, and the passions public employment can arouse. On an average, about 500 candidates applied for every job. While the required qualification is 8th class education, many with university degrees competed. And there were serious acts of vandalism, murder and mayhem on grounds of partisanship or discrimination. Understandably, employment in private sector is under sharper focus now. And opportunities for the Dalits in the economy is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Many entrepreneurs, economists and analysts are horrified at the thought of affirmative action policies in private sector. Some dismiss it as unconstitutional. Fierce arguments can be advanced by both sides to support their contentions. But this is not a polemical issue. We are dealing with the lives of a quarter of our population denied the opportunities for vertical mobility. There are several issues we need to address. We need affirmative action policies backed by strong legal mechanisms to prevent discrimination on grounds of caste, region, religion or gender. In an increasingly globalized economy, the competitive edge of the industry cannot be eroded. There must be greater reliance on the market mechanisms for promoting diversity and opportunity for all. Can we find such win-win solutions acceptable to all? The experiences of South Africa and the US along with India are instructive in this respect. Scholars like Krishna Tummala of Kansas State University have done important work in this field which can offer us valuable lessons. There are three measures our society should consider seriously. First, we need an Equal Opportunities Act similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US. Such a law, with a strong mechanism to enforce it and swiftly penalize any discriminatory practices will force industry to recognize the diversity of our society, and recruit workers from Dalits and other poorer sections. Second, the State and private sector must provide training opportunities to Dalits and other disadvantaged sections to enhance their skills and productivity. Most jobs in industry require simple, reliable skills, and the employer cannot have the excuse of unsuitability once the worker is trained to suit the specific needs of an industry. Actual recruitment can then reflect social diversity, and the trained workers form the pool for recruitment from Dalits and poorer sections. Finally, civil society can play a proactive role with government support. Research organizations should come up, and rate corporates on the basis of recruitment practices. If a company makes no effort to employ Dalits, it can be threatened by boycott of its products in the market. No sane entrepreneur will lose market share by discriminatory practices. The issue of equal opportunities and employment for Dalits in private sector cannot be wished away. Neither short-sighted political populism, nor ostrich-like neglect of our social and economic realities will help. Growth is great, but it is not sustainable only if all segments of population have real stakes in it. Otherwise, the resultant discord and strife will erode our competitiveness and undermine prosperity. Undeniably, only good quality school education available to all children, and universal access to reasonable standards of health care are the best guarantors of opportunities for vertical mobility. Only a comprehensive restructuring of our political and governance process can accomplish these goals. Meanwhile, we need to act decisively to enhance the stakes for all sections. If human potential is not fulfilled, liberty becomes meaningless, and democracy will be in danger. The political system and the industrial class must honestly address this issue and come up with creative responses.



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