There is a wealth of social science data that calls into serious question the efficacy of quotas in correcting historical injustice and inequalities. India is the biggest laboratory in human history of constitutionally mandated programmes of preferential policies whose primary motivation by now is not historical redress but political mobilisation. They survive, thrive and multiply not because they are good policy but because they make for good politics.
The resort by political parties to the well-worn politics of patronage is rife with pernicious social and political consequences. On economic policy, India has been moving towards the international mainstream of market-based solutions. On nuclear policy, it bucked international trends in 1998 but has been attempting to integrate into the global nuclear order since.
In policies of preferential politics, India offers salutary lessons to the rest of the world. Alternatively, perhaps India could seek to ‘colonise’ the rest of the world. The conspicuous failure of Indians in football — the World Cup is currently underway — and Olympics is an affront to national self-esteem and dignity. If every human being is entitled to outcomes-defined success in equal measure, should India not demand proportionate places on victors’ podiums based on its population weight? Why should rewards and recognition be tied to skills, talent, application and performance — this is against social justice.
The latest episode in the never-ending, Bollywood-worthy tragi-comedy serial is set, appropriately enough, in Mumbai. On 26 June, the ruling Congress-NCP government of Maharashtra announced that 16 and 5 percent of government jobs and places in educational institutions would be reserved for Marathas and Muslims, respectively. Recall that Marathas, comprising one-third of the state’s population, are a politically privileged group who dominate the state’s political leadership. Added to the 52 percent already set aside for numerous other minority and disadvantaged sections, this means that reservations in Maharashtra will account for a whopping 73 percent of all public sector jobs and government schools and colleges.
The quest for identity, justice and efficiency has led India into policies of positive discrimination mandated by the Constitution in 1950. ‘Negative rights’ included clauses outlawing discrimination on grounds of caste and no one objects to these. ‘Positive rights’ included clauses enjoining the State to implement what in the West came to be called ‘affirmative action’. Untouchables and tribals were given quotas in Parliament, state Legislative Assemblies, public sector jobs and educational institutions.
In 1979, the BP Mandal Commission concluded that although backward castes comprised 52 percent of the population, they held only 12.5 percent of Central government jobs, and only 4.7 percent of jobs at officer level. Its report, issued at the end of 1980, proposed massive discrimination in their favour but was quietly ignored until 1990, when the then prime minister VP Singh decided to implement the Mandal recommendations. He may have done so out of conviction or to harvest vote-banks.
The case for
The belief underlying preferential policies is that some groups are so far behind on all measurable criteria that their survival and integration into the mainstream of society will not be possible without the government taking an active role to bring them to the same economic, political and social level as other groups. On almost all dimensions — social, political, economic — the outcastes are the most marginalised, disadvantaged and destitute people in Indian society. After centuries of discrimination against them, they require sustained positive discrimination in order to make the transition to equal and full participants in modern Indian society.
In terms of the efficiency argument, India’s biggest asset is its people. The outcastes and backward castes comprise more than half of India’s population. The country can ill-afford to waste this potential pool of talent by refusing to develop and tap their abilities and skills. Socially, preferential policies will help to integrate the cast-offs into the mainstream of Indian society. It will restore dignity and self-esteem to the people who find themselves at the bottom of the heap for no fault of their own. The exclusion of outcastes from the social mainstream is one of the biggest causes of the material and spiritual degeneration of the country; the caste hierarchy corresponds to the occupational hierarchy; breaking the link through government-enforced recruitment of outcastes into high-income occupations will sound the death-knell for the caste system. Economically, affirmative action programmes will help to draw more and more of the formerly excluded groups into the expanding middle classes. Politically, preferential policies will help to absorb the downtrodden into the national mainstream and make them stakeholders in the prevailing political order. Otherwise, they might be alienated from the political process and take to destructive violence.
According to advocates of affirmative action, the argument about the adverse effects of such policies on job efficiencies is less than persuasive. For example, positive discrimination to help the backward castes began in the princely state of Mysore (today’s Karnataka) in 1921, but its quality of government is not noticeably bad in comparison to other state governments. Similarly, the argument that the benefits of affirmative action are restricted to a minority of individuals or families within the target groups is also specious. When a backward caste person becomes a senior government official, the material benefits may accrue only to his family. But the considerable psychological spin-off extends to the whole community, which feels socially elevated by having its ‘own man’ in the corridors of power. Safeguards against abuse of the programme were set by the Supreme Court in 1992: quotas may not exceed 50 percent, the ‘creamy layer’ of target groups are to be excluded from the reserved quotas, etc.
The case against
After being in operation for more than six decades, preferential policies have produced eight demonstrably harmful effects.
Persistence. Affirmative action programmes are always described as temporary expedients. The rhetoric of transience is negated by the reality of persistence and proliferation. They were meant to have ended after 15 years in 1965, but don’t hold your breath. As group-based programmes permeate the public institutions of a country, they end up institutionalising the very divisions they are meant to eradicate.
Triple Expansion. Quotas have trebled in scope, embracing additional measures for the same target group — in the latest such demand, on 6 July, Lalu Prasad Yadav called for 60 percent reservation in government contracts for the Extremely Backward Castes; extending positive discrimination to newer sectors of society, for example the private sector; and incorporating additional target groups into the programmes — the mooted legislative quotas for women being a good example. One commission identified 2,399 backward castes, comprising 22.5 percent of India’s population, in the 1950s; another managed to find 3,743 by the 1970s, representing 75 percent of the population. The backward castes and tribes already had 22.5 percent of government jobs, parliamentary seats and university admissions reserved for them. Mandal recommended the incorporation of another 27 percent into the reserved quota. But if any member of the target groups succeeded in open competition, that would not count against the reserved quota. By definition, then, every one of the quota — almost half of all government jobs — was to be filled by unqualified people.
In 1992, the Minorities Commission recommended that job reservations should be extended to religious minorities as well as the backward castes. The Maharashtra government seems set to implement this, thereby expanding the scope of reservations to religious groups who are outside the Hindu caste system. Churches demand set-asides for the converts to Christianity. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government added another 126 castes and sub-castes to the category known as “other backward castes” who are eligible for 27 percent reservation in the Central government public sector (on top of the 22.5 percent reserved for “backward” castes and tribes). The government also extended quotas to promotions.
After decades of constitutionally sanctioned efforts to protect and promote sectarian preferences, India is caught in an escalating cycle of increasing numbers of groups putting forth expanding claims to entitlements. On their own terms, therefore, preferential policies have failed in producing results (proliferation) opposite to those intended (amelioration). After more than half a century of the reservations system being in force, the number and proportion of the disadvantaged has risen alarmingly. If this is not failure, what is? One is reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result each time. Indians today are more caste-conscious than at Independence. Where the British divided and ruled, we have subdivided and misruled.
Fraud. If membership of a particular group confers unequal privileges, and if job markets and prospects for upward mobility are stagnant or shrinking, then fraudulent claims of membership in the target groups will multiply. Scarcity and low incomes also feed into a pervasive culture of corruption. If one’s chances of being admitted into prestigious institutions or getting good jobs are improved by being able to claim a particular caste identity, the requisite documentary proof will always be available at the appropriate market-clearing price.
Dirigisme. The spiralling cycle of preferential entitlements, and the need to ensure against fraudulent claims, leads to an expanding role for government at a time when India is trying to reduce government intrusion into the economy and society. For example, by the time that the government of India decided to implement the Mandal recommendations, it was required to establish the following distinctions: membership of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes; meaning and membership of the other backward castes whose status would be decided by the National Commission for the Backward Classes; following a directive from the Supreme Court, the definition and composition of the More Backward Castes from among the Backward Castes; the apportionment of separate quotas to the two sub-categories of the Backward Castes from within the 27 percent reservations for them; the definition and determination of the ‘creamy layer’ within them who are ineligible for reserved quotas…
Capture. Within groups receiving preferential treatment, benefits are inevitably and predictably captured disproportionately by the better educated, more articulate and more politically skilled elite among the ‘disadvantaged’. Instead of uplifting the historically disadvantaged, they have created oases of newly affluent political aristocracies of a creamy layer of Dalits. With respect to women’s parliamentary quota, we can safely predict that the scheme when introduced will be immediately hijacked by the “bibi, beti and bahu” brigade. When Lalu Prasad Yadav had to resign as the chief minister of Bihar after finding himself in jail due to corruption charges in 1998, he promptly installed his wife Rabri Devi as chief minister and ran the government through remote control.
Divisiveness. It is telling that in the recent General Election, Indians united behind Narendra Modi’s inclusive agenda while the ‘secular’ Congress resorted to open communalism. Every affirmative action produces an equal and opposite sectarian reaction. If a government frames public policy in a caste-conscious way, it cannot expect groups suffering relative deprivation to act in a caste-blind manner. In 1990, as the Central government tried to broaden the definition of the underprivileged and extend the range of reservations for them, Indian society was convulsed. Students took to highly publicised suicides, streets were in flames and the instrument of sectarian harmony became the path to civil conflict.
The pernicious effect is bigger than the numbers involved, for a perverse reason. In conditions of scarcity, the number of aggrieved is several times the number that could have got the job or university admission. For any one post filled on a quota, only one alternative person would have succeeded in a merit system, but hundreds can feel aggrieved for having lost out due to preferential policies. If 100 candidates apply for every vacancy and that vacancy is filled by a caste quota, then 100 disappointed people will feel hard done by because of the system of reservations, even though only one of them could have been successful in open competition.
Politicisation. Preferential policies are a specifically political response to symbols of sectarian identity. Caste is commonly used as a system for the distribution of political spoils. Meant to reduce and eliminate inter-group disparities, instead they create and nurture vested interests parasitically dependent upon the dispensing of State privileges. Group leaders like Lalu, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are dependent for their leadership positions on the perpetuation of perceived disparities. As castes identify with parties rather than individuals, caste associations are organised and act as pressure groups. Thus the modern idioms of parliamentary institutions have been absorbed by ancient caste lineages and are being used to serve the ends of the latter. When senior Congress leader Janardhan Dwivedi bravely suggested on 4 February that caste reservations should be replaced by quotas based on financial need, party leader Sonia Gandhi slapped him down within a day, insisting that Congress remained committed to quotas for the Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Caste-based parties are organised for capturing political power and the social and material benefits that flow from it, whether it be a government job, preferential entry into an educational institution or a government licence. A solution of ethnic or gender problems would deprive self-appointed leaders of a platform and a role; upping the ante by raising ever-expanding demands enlarges the role of group activists and gives them a bigger stage from which to manipulate more people. When demagogues take over, reason retreats. Bellicose intransigence and deliberate seeking of conflict with out-groups can be politically rewarding for netas. Considerable cynicism towards the political process is now evident in India because individual and national interests are widely perceived to have been subordinated to the claims of numerous special interest groups. The Maharashtra government initiative falls very much into this category. Where caste has misled, will gender follow? Or does this year’s General Election herald a new maturity in the Indian voter in rejecting identity politics in favour of a credible development agenda?
Counter-productiveness. The most insidious consequence of quotas is that State dependency undermines the dignity of a collective entity and retards the realisation of human worth of its individual members. Preferential policies promote group solidarity and dependency instead of fostering the middle-class values of thrift, hard work, self-improvement, property ownership and self-reliance; rest on the assumption of superiority in the non-target group (think how elitist the Congress is for all its rhetoric of socialism); reinforce the sense of inferiority in target groups; perpetuate their sense of being victims not masters of their destiny; and keep them in ghettos.
The pathology of preferential set-asides is universal
These perverse effects are found in almost all countries with such policies. Distinctions based on accidents of birth should not be acceptable criteria for discrimination, positive or negative, between individuals. State intervention can be as market-distorting in the cultural marketplace as in the economic. Because it promotes an artificial market, it could be as futile an effort as State economic planning. In both cases, the proper role of the State is to provide the political, legal and administrative contexts whereby non-government actors can compete freely on a level-playing field. Laws and policies should be neutral between the religious, caste and gender as well as economic competitors.
Not all preferential policies have to be abandoned. But when public policy shifts from equality of opportunity to outcome, individual and national interests are subordinated to the claims of special interest groups. The formulation and implementation of policies of positive discrimination requires sensitivity to potential pitfalls as well as past injustices. What the traditionally deprived social groups need, like everyone else, is good public schools and hospitals, clean toilets, affordable and reliable public transportation, and reasonable job opportunities. The politics of caste and religious quotas is a distraction from the genuine development agenda, and the Congress, in particular, has milked it as an alibi for failures of development policy for 64 years.
Those genuinely interested in social justice rather than patronage politics would base State assistance on the caste-neutral economic criterion of household assets and income. If the lower income levels are dominated by a particular social or religious group, they would automatically receive a disproportionate share of the benefits, while preventing the benefits from being captured by the well-off individuals and families within the broader groups. To eliminate caste consciousness, the government should abolish caste-identifying questions on every application form in the public and private sector. Any discrimination based on caste, religion or gender should be severely punished. Faced with government-created obstacles to educational and career attainment, the best and the brightest among the upper caste ‘elites’ in India are giving up and migrating to western countries more hospitable to their talents. India’s loss has been the West’s gain: think of the many top positions in the US now filled by the deepening talent pool of Indian migrants.
Escaping the quota trap
How does India get out of this trap? Several interlinked steps are required. First and most obviously, the quotas should be progressively scaled back and abolished outright in 10-15 years. By itself, this will not work. It must be accompanied by broad-based development that lifts all boats, builds capabilities, provides outlets for talent, ability and application to flourish, and fosters an inclusive national and social identity. What India desperately needs is not scarce jobs reserved for particular groups, but enough job creation to absorb the existing and entering labour force. The State should provide public goods: health, education, infrastructure, law and order and national security. Wealth creation should be left to the private sector. Barriers to the entry of foreign investors should be progressively lowered except for nationally sensitive sectors.
The State should get out of the business of wealth redistribution, concentrating instead on providing adequate social safety nets for all citizens regardless of caste or religious identity. Comprehensive but clear anti-discrimination laws and measures should be strictly enforced. With the requisite health, nutrition and education needs of all citizens met, talent should be spotted and fostered in the scientific, business, creative arts, literature, sport and athletics, and entertainment sectors. And good governance policies should be embedded in good governance institutions that are robust and resilient enough to survive changes of government. The licence raj system with its chalta hai corollary was built on the racist assumption that India and Indians do not deserve and cannot match world standards. This became a self-perpetuating myth that suited the rentier elite very well as it plundered the nation’s wealth and bankrolled poverty through the public purse. The reality is that India has the resources and the population base — and Indians have the abilities, drive and determination — to emerge as a sophisticated, dynamic and self-sustaining modern economy.