Vantage point

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why The Individual Is So Important

Elaborating a bit on my last post, where I spoke about the need to focus on individuals of the community rather than the entire community.

One argument I have often heard extended by supporters of reservations is this - Upper castes make up only around 15% of the population. Yet they corner almost 75% of college seats, jobs, when there is no reservation. In an ideal world, the components of communities in the workforce, or in colleges would be roughly proportional to their population. Since it is not, their caste would be an inhibiting factor. To correct this, we need reservations.

The problem I have with this argument is that it equates correlation with causation. While correlation is a good starting point for an argument, a causative link needs to be established as well. Without that, the logic extended is very hazy and not at all convincing.

Establishing a causative link will need a focus on the individual. Off the top of my head I can think of a few causal linkages between caste and lower representation in higher education. A student of the lower caste is more likely to be from a poor family and can not afford to join coaching classes which give richer students an edge. A student of the lower caste is more likely to spend a lot of time working, and earning money to support his family, and has to devote less time to studies. A student of the lower caste is likely to be discriminated against in a selection procedure that has an interview. A student of the lower caste is more likely to be from a poor family and can not pay capitation fees. A student of the lower caste is more likely to be from a poor family and can not afford to pay even the basic fees and can not afford to give up working to go to college full time.

All these are causes which can impede an individual from competing on an equal footing with a well off member of the upper caste.

So the affirmative action which will work, and which will be viewed as fair will be that which works towards removing these impediments for the individual. Or judging the individual taking into account these impediments.

For instance, take 2 students. Student A from a well off upper caste family. His parents earn enough, so he can study full time. He can join a coaching class. Thus he is better prepared for the entrance exam into a college. He scores, let us say, 90 marks. Student B is from a poor lower caste family. He works in a restaurant during the day, can not join a coaching class, and can study only half the time that Student A can. He scores 80 marks.

Now in my subjective opinion, both these students would do equally well in college if they have roughly the same amount of time to study. So Student B's 80 will be as valuable as Student A's 90 in my opinion.

An affirmative action proposal which would give weightage to these causes and seek to address them would be palatable to all. Make the weightages objective.

Unfortunately, I see many people offering correlation-equals-causation type arguments. Many people will say that if there are well off OBCs who are still not able to compete with upper castes in objective selection procedures, then it shows that caste is still an impeding factor. No causal explanation is forwarded about how exactly is caste an impeding factor for these 'creamy layer' OBCs.

So if there is Student C whose father works in the same place as Student A, who goes to the same coaching class, gets roughly the same time to study.... in other words he is identical to Student A except for the caste... and he gets 80 marks, the conclusion should be that he has been beaten fair and square. Caste has played no part in it.

But somehow many dogmatic reservation supporters draw the opposite conclusion. They say that if many students have access to the same resources and yet do badly in an objective selection process, it shows that caste is still impeding them. No causal link given here.

The measures proposed by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande have been applauded universally because they focus on the individual, and what impedes the individual. They have been applauded because the measures would help Student B who did badly because of certain causes but not Student C.

However the government's decision has been to implement numerical quotas, and without any creamy layer clause. This decision gives Student C the edge over not just Student A, but also over Student B. And even if not all OBCs are as well off as Student C, considering that there are 3.4 seats for every 1000 OBCs, there are definitely enough Student Cs to corner an overwhelmingly vast proportion of the reserved seats.

And that will be enough to satisfy the pro-reservationists who focus only on communities and not on individuals. As long as the proportion of students in higher education matches that of their population, they will be happy. That most students who were actually held back due to caste-related causes will continue to be held back, is a fact that will not be paid due attention. After all 27% students will be OBC, won't they? The pie chart looks diverse enough.

Note - These couple of posts are just to explore the arguments put forth for reservations and affirmative action. I am trying to differentiate the "good argument" from the "bad argument". It does not mean I support government-enforced affirmative action in private institutions. I do not.