| The air is thick with that sense of déjà vu, of being let down. Again. In one swift move, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has pushed the envelope further than even V.P. Singh did, raising the spectre of a divided India. Besides imposing a quota in central universities and institutes, it is also pushing companies-some would say to the wall-for a jobs quota in the private sector. It is the summer of discontent and disillusionment. In corporate corner rooms, CEOs and chairmen have put on pause thoughts of growth and global competitiveness. In huddles at seminars and in chamber discussions, they are trying to dress their concerns in the language of political correctness. On the street and at teen-haunts SMS, blogs and email have replaced pamphlets and college corner meetings. The terms of disengagement are familiar, even hip-hop. "To divide and rule is not cool," said one placard rather succinctly. |
The unstated question though was: Could this be happening again? In a sense, it should not have been a surprise because the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the UPA does discuss codifying all reservations and enacting a Reservation Act. It also speaks of "being very sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservations in the private sector". The CMP may have confused affirmative action with reservations but how could the Prime Minister, was the mute refrain. Perhaps it has something to do with expectations. When Manmohan Singh was sworn in as Prime Minister, it wasn't just the Sensex which applauded. Many saw reason to hope for a new deal, for a Government which worked for inclusive growth but not divisive politics. As with the V.P. Singh regime, expectations from Manmohan, India's cerebral Prime Minister, have met with harsh reality. Populism is masquerading as policy. The desperation is a reflection of the fact that the Congress (or the BJP, for that matter) is unable to reinvent itself in its quest for a majority. Neither party can boast of the social diversity that is necessary to represent the plurality of India. The country's two largest parties are controlled by upper-caste satraps. Four out of six general secretaries in the BJP are Brahmins, while four out of eight in the Congress are upper-class politicians. The Congress believes it can alter its state of irrelevance in over 200 Parliamentary seats by wooing back the Dalits and, perhaps, get a share of the OBCs, too. Witness the programmes it is pushing through. There's a certain gameplan that is undeniable. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, the Forests Land for Tribals Bill, the newly-mooted quota in central universities and now, the proposition of jobs for Dalits in the private sector are all aimed at inclusive growth. They are also about ramping up vote share to take the Congress closer to a single party majority.
History though has belied such hopes repeatedly. In Tamil Nadu, where reservations were pioneered as early as in 1918, the Congress is a bit player. As it is in Uttar Pradesh, where the bulk of the Dalit votes are with Mayawati's BSP while the OBC votes are with Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party. Even in Maharashtra, where the Congress has had a sustained run, it is the sibling NCP which has a bigger following among the OBCs and even the Marathas.
Since the late 1980s, deprived and newly-empowered sections of society have found their own power structures leading to what is now dubbed as the age of coalition. The Congress may perhaps yet improve its lot, but it would be a miracle as the newly-empowered political groups will resist yielding ground. The Congress has neither the troops on the ground nor the inspired leadership in the social groups it so desperately needs. It is attempting the political equivalent of the "shock and awe" strategy of the Iraq war.
It is not like Mandal 1989, as yet. But the stench of cynicism is unmistakable. It is difficult not to be cynical when faced with tokenism. RSP leader Abani Roy dubs the attempt to foist quotas on the private sector "as callous, political and unsustainable". It is true that the socio-economic landscape of India is uneven and patchy. Dalits, who have been denied dignity and access to opportunities, desperately need help. The newly-recognised red serpent naxal belt that stretches from Tirupati to Pashupati in Nepal has two common inhabitants-poverty and Dalits. Notwithstanding growth in literacy across India, fact is that among the Scheduled Castes, barely four out of 10 Dalits are literate, while the figure is lower among Scheduled Tribes, where almost seven out of 10 are illiterate.
| "It's a very complex issue. Both sides have valid points." |
Rahul Gandhi, Congress MP
"There is a need to uplift socially backward sections but reservation is not the solution."
Subodh Bhargava, VSNL Chairman
"The issue has been raised again by politicians and certain vested interests."
Rahul Bajaj, Chairman, Bajaj Auto
"A quota in the private sector is political. It can't be sustained."
Abani Roy, RSP leader
110 Number of sitting OBC MPs in both Houses of Parliament
12 Number of sitting OBC chief ministers in the country
Reams of paper have been written on by scholars who have revisited the familiar sights of deprivation. Almost every discourse lists a series of sequential steps needed to uplift the underprivileged-ranging from education through vocational training to financing of enterprise for creating entrepreneurs. Successive regimes, though, prefer quick-fix solutions. The Congress-led UPA regime, too, has followed the beaten path. It has taken the diagnosis of a physician and approached a quack for the prescription.
Consider its proposition for job reservations or quotas for Dalits in the private sector. Assuming a population of 1.02 billion, we can guesstimate the SC/ST population to be around 240 million. Going by Indian demographics, the working age population of this group would be around 120 million. Now, juxtapose this against the opportunity that the proposed quota would create. FICCI Secretary-General Amit Mitra points out that "of the 400 million jobs in the country, only 7 per cent-or 28 million-are in the organised sector. Of this, around 19 million jobs are in government and the public sector, where reservations are already in force". Which means that the universe for application of quotas is limited to around nine million. As economist and PHDCCI Secretary-General Bibek Debroy points out, "Even if reservations were to be implemented instantaneously, it would only create around two million job opportunities."
Of course, the quota cannot be implemented with immediate effect as no company or government can survive the crisis that sending a fourth of the workforce home forcibly would entail. So, we are talking about incremental jobs. Truth is, employment in the private sector, including services, actually dropped from 8.7 million in 1998 to 8.4 million in 2003 before picking up in the last two years. Factor in the fact that companies like Hindustan Lever, Tata Tea or manufacturing outfits like Tata Steel and Bajaj Auto already employ a considerable number of Dalits and backward class employees. Ergo, there aren't all that many jobs being created to be doled out to OBCs.
More importantly, it is not just about creating the jobs, but about finding people to fit in. Despite five decades of reservation in government, the number of Dalits in Class I jobs in the Central Government is barely 6 per cent. This is not surprising if one looks at the drop-out level of Dalits at school. Nearly eight out of 10 Dalits drop out of school before Class X. Over 80 per cent of reserved seats at industrial training institutes are vacant as there are no takers. Small wonder then that across the country, state governments have over 1,00,000 jobs vacant. Indeed, Department of Personnel studies show that in the first three years of this century, nearly a quarter of the reserved posts were never filled. Also, in almost every category of UPSC exams, applicants from the unreserved category outnumber those from reserved categories 2:1. Sunila Basant is the only Dalit Secretary to the Government of India, as claims of most Dalits are stifled at the joint secretary stage. JNU professor Sudha Pai points out that governments are "abdicating their responsibility. They will not spend money in educating or training. They expect NGOs to set up schools and the private sector to give them jobs".
Nor are the underprivileged encouraged to grow their enterprises. Mitra points out that the Economic Census of 1998 reveals that Dalits and obcs own 44.8 per cent-or 13.6 million-of India's enterprises, employing over 40 million people. Eight out of 10 are self-financed and finance is difficult to come by. The sc Finance Development Corporation of the Government has a budget of Rs 1,000 crore. But "it's almost impossible for a really needy Dalit to get a loan because of the paperwork one is put through and the miniscule amount of Rs 2.5 lakh that can be borrowed", says R. Shekhar, a Dalit entrepreneur. If the Government helped fund even five million entrepreneurs, it could create 15 million jobs.
Every piece of evidence points out that quotas are a quick-fix solution. The Congress's return to power after eight long years was supported by two critical segments: the urban middle-class, which seeks a moderate and modern face in governments, as also the underprivileged, who want a place in the new shining India. Both could be disappointed.
It need not be so. If economic backwardness, for instance, were to be used as the measure to make available access to education and provide equal opportunity employment, the Government could actually align two goals and even out the pock-marked socio-economic landscape. And the Singh Parivar of reformers is uniquely placed to set the agenda that could seize political momentum as also put India on high growth orbit. China, for instance, has made nine-year compulsory education universal. Using a fairly developed middle-school and university vocational education, it is able to deliver equipped craftsmen to satiate the appetite of an economy growing at 10-plus per cent. This is obviously a more efficient way than reservations in IITs and IIMs.
At another level, Singapore encourages high-tech local startups even if they do not have a track record and has created a body of entrepreneurs who contribute to growth and distributive justice. So can India, by replicating easy credit and the price preference systems afforded to PSUs. Business leaders like Ratan Tata, Azim Premji of Wipro and others have indicated their willingness to partner the Government on such initiatives or any equal opportunity formula based on economic criteria. So would CII, FICCI and Nasscom.
But for that, governments will need to think out of the ballot box. A superpower cannot be based on the foundations of a divided society.
-with bureau reports