The single biggest argument both in favor and against the current policy of reservations in educational institutes is of merit. Thousands of students marched on the streets declaring this to be the death of merit, many prominent personalities expressed concerns about the dilution in merit in the top Indian schools. Many on the other hand pointed out and rather correctly that merit is not genetic and it does not belong to one particular group. Also in context of a country like India, merit cannot be based solely on academic performance, it has to include other things. The mere fact that we are not finding enough meritorious students from large sections of society, is an indication that our system has anomalies. I couldn't agree more with this point of view.
Unfortunately, supporters of the reservation, after making this excellent observation, make the mistake of hasty decision. In simple terms, current reservation policy says that for the top n students, only the academic performance matters and suddenly after the first n student, caste becomes the deciding factor with academic performance being the tie breaker. I wonder why a category student who has worked hard and qualified outside quota, finds himself bereft of any concessions acknowledging his underprivileged background? Why shouldn't a underprivileged student scoring equal to a GC student get a higher rank? Are we really trying to encourage the talent, the merit here or just trying to fulfill population quotas?
Moreover, I think the rampant abuse of merit argument has robbed it of the little essence which is actually present in it. When we are talking about merit at the professional, post-graduate and higher levels, it is not about the raw talent or intelligence. It is more about the preparedness of an individual for the course of study which is the task of 12 years of schooling. IIMs' flagship course and MTech courses in engineering are 1.5 years in duration. In this short amount of time, they cannot makeup for all the short comings in the previous education of a candidate, be it week undergraduate education or lack of communication skills or lack of proficiency in English. Some amount of difference in preparedness is however bearable but that has to be decided relative to the others who are entering the course. One good example is the JEE rule of SC/ST cutoff being 2/3 of GC cutoff and no less. A blanket quota policy overlooks all such issues and forces the wastage of precious resources that lie unused because the quota could not be filled.
Argument of diversity in the classroom is another strong argument in favor of affirmative action but we need to ask ourselves what kind of diversity are we bringing to the class room by admitting a urban middle class OBC over a urban middle class GC? Where are the points for being from a rural area, for coming through a government school system and for being a girl, who incidentally have much poorer representation in higher education (Engineering) ? I read in one of the articles that having a tribal with the knowledge of traditional medicine system would be a very enriching experience for others in the class. This is an excellent idea but that is where it ends because the person coming to medical school under that tribal quota more often than not, share little more than the caste name with that dream boy. The point is that if we really care about the diversity, it has be judged at the individual level and has to be carefully nurtured by educationists. A high handed legislation can only harm the cause.
The main objection to the caste based reservation policy is however much more fundamental. The form that it has acquired today, it inculcates a culture of mistrust and caste loyalty in the youth of the country. SC/ST students are told that Brahman or upper caste teachers would be partial and that their poor performance is not because they may be lacking in something but because teachers are not letting them perform. All the achievements of a person evaporate in air the moment it is discovered that he belongs to upper castes, he no longer remains a role model of hard work and determination but becomes a symbol of privileges that 5000 year of history bestows upon him. This is where the real merit gets killed when instead of providing the young and aspiring with role models, we provide them with dosage of hate and demons. We limit the scope of role models to narrow boundaries of caste. The sheer negative pitch that has been acquired by pro-reservationaists sometimes makes me wonder if reservation can be called affirmative action any longer. To me it sounds like negative action.
As I have said above, in the resource constrained scenario of today, the resources should be invested in those who are best prepared to make use of them. How should we measure that preparedness by taking into account the social and economic realities of our country is always open to debate but what ever criteria we evolve, we must apply it to everybody equally without making arbitrary exceptions on the basis of one factor or the other. The long term focus however should be to correct this resource constrained scenario itself. As a nation, it is our duty to make sure that every aspiring child should get an opportunity to pursue his/her dreams. We need to drastically expand our education system at the higher level and cultivate more centers of excellence. Another thing to focus on is to provide support to underprivileged at a more basic and fundamental level so as to improve their competency and strength rather than spoon feeding them through reservation at every level. This would require beefing up our now defunct government school system. This will help in more ways than simply fixing the percentage of every section of society in education. Even those who would not be able to make it to top institutes, would be well prepared and good students. This will help in raising the standards of second tier institutes.
The suggestions I am making are not new and in fact they are repeated so often that many see them as mere rhetoric of anti-reservation camp. They point out that when quotas for OBC were being implemented in jobs, we complained that quotas should be in education and not jobs. Now when the quotas are being implemented in higher education, we are demanding that primary education be improved and that when it will be the turn of turn of primary and secondary education, we will again run away. But what else can a sane person say when he sees the ladder of reservation being constructed in the opposite manner? Isn't it common sense to see that first you give people good schooling, then you give them good higher education and then you give them a job and not the other way round? But nobody seems to question the proposals that education cess money that was supposed to go to primary education will be diverted to increasing seats in Institutes of higher education. This is another example of a knee jerk decision by the state in a long series all of which are wrapped in the name of social justice to make them more palatable.
The affirmative action policies of our state have gone on the wrong track. We neither know how much we have achieved through them till now nor do we have any idea about where we are headed to next. I think now the time is ripe for us to stop and take a good look at what we have done till now and also fix our aims for future. The opportunity has come before us when we can either take a historical step in the right direction or make a historical mistake. Let's not be hasty and deceive ourselves in the name of social justice. It is the right of both, pro and anti quota, to have a transparent, rational, directed and a monitored affirmative action policy. It is time we put in some real effort at providing social justice.