Parliament is today expected to take up and pass the 117th Constitution Amendment bill providing for quotas in promotions for SCs/STs in government jobs. I must state upfront that I am generally a supporter of Affirmative Action (AA). AA is required in a country like India because a large part of our population was historically ostracized for no fault of theirs except that they belonged to certain “lower” castes. Most people who read this post might feel otherwise; they may feel quotas are wrong in all forms. In my opinion, there are good quotas and bad quotas. Quotas at entry level in education and employment are good but quotas in promotions are bad.
For those who don’t believe in quotas at all, let me point out that quotas are not only an Indian reality. There is international support for AA. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulates that AA programs may be required in countries in order to rectify systematic discrimination. Caste ostracization is an example of systematic discrimination. However there are caveats that exist. Such programs “shall in no case lead to maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives have been achieved”. The key issue is one of timing. The UN Human Rights committee adds to this: “such actions may involve granting for a time certain preferential treatment”.
The problem in India comes not from AA itself, but from the politics that follows. Parliament has often frustrated the original intent of the Constitution by enacting amendments which make a mockery of AA. From an earlier post of mine: “The Constitution identified several SCs and STs and gave them 15% and 7.5% reservation in government and PSU jobs and in government aided education institutions. But then came the Mandal Commission of 1980 – and the VP Singh government in 1990 extended the reservation benefits to OBCs taking the total quota of reservations up to 49.5%. While the Constitution never provided for it, the 77th Amendment to the Constitution in 1995 permitted reservations in promotions also. When in 2005, the SC delivered a 7-judge unanimous order that the State cannot impose its reservation policy on private colleges, Parliament enacted the 93rd amendment which specifically provided reservations in private educational institutes. When in 2008, the SC stated that the “creamy layer” should be excluded from the quota, the political class hemmed and hawed. Though the SC has mandated a 50% cap on reservations, states like TN allow 69% reservation. Though the original Constitution only allowed for a 5-year time bound reservations policy, the timeline has been routinely extended by all the governments.
Those who have been dealt a bad hand by history need our protection and generosity in the present so that their future can be made better. But quotas have to be balanced against merit. AA policies are good at entry levels in education which prepare the underprivileged to take advantage of opportunities in the country. Likewise quotas in jobs at entry level can also be justified.
But when quotas start intruding into territories where merit alone should matter, a problem starts to develop. Work efficiency gets sacrificed as quality suffers. In a competitive world, the country starts to lag behind others in its league. One of the reasons why every government department in India underperforms is because there are too many people who have entered without having even basic skill sets. Besides if quotas are provided in promotions, there may be a day when a demand is made that the CEO’s job or the Cabinet Secretary’s should also be reserved. Or that reservations must extend to the Board of Directors. I do understand that if reservations are not provided, the underprivileged may never be able make it to the upper echelons. But can we take this a step at a time, rather than a huge leap at the very beginning? Can we first ensure that all the underprivileged get basic education? And at least some jobs in their hands. Later, as they catch up with their forward caste brethren, they can move into the senior positions?
In their zeal to gather votes, most political parties find it difficult not to support such policies. This time around also, all parties except the SP and the Shiv Sena have supported the quotas bill. The BJP is doing the right thing that at least Article 335 of the Constitution – which provides for administrative efficiency – is not deleted. The SP’s position is little to do with promoting merit; it has everything to do with protecting its core voter base which does not include the sections that supports Mayawati.
Net net, my view is that quotas should not be provided in areas that require pure merit. That is why I oppose quotas in medical and engineering colleges. I also oppose quotas in promotions. We often forget that there is a flip side to quotas just like there is to everything else. If we don’t give primacy to merit we will progress slowly and the benefits that should seep through to the lower sections won’t materialize. We will actually end up harming their interests. The Government itself now realizes this. That to fulfil its social objectives, it needs to continue the pace of growth. If that slackens, all social programs come to a screeching halt.
One last point. Even if reservations are provided in promotions, how can the % be the same as at lower levels? Unfortunately, the proposal is to make the same 22.5% reservations applicable to promotions as well. One day, this will be raised to 49.5%. If reservations have to be provided at higher levels, the % should be low and keep coming down. Maybe less than 10% reservations may still be acceptable, but 22.5% is not.
The real truth is that AA policies are required, but must be restricted to entry levels. Besides, they should be time bound and reduce over time. They should never enter areas where merit is the only consideration. They cannot cover promotions. Period.