Tuesday, May 30, 2006

An interesting read....

Eyes, Ears And Minds Closed
Why is India's middle class so hostile to the empowerment of the poor?

This column is not being written to defend Arjun Singh, nor the new quota regime, nor any formula/mechanism to implement reservations. That debate has been so polarised and distorted that any intervention which does not take one or the other side is destined to fall on deaf ears. No. My purpose is to point out that the passion-charged street power and the virulent rhetoric against reservations should be seen as part of a larger, disturbing pattern. India's smug, selfish, self-centred, satiated middle class, fattened on the fruits of the booming economy, is positively hostile to any policy which sets out to empower the poor. Over 900 million of our citizens live on less than Rs 90 a day. Of this, 300 million live on less than Rs 45 a day. Meanwhile, 200 million privileged have decided that these citizens must remain roughly where they are-or wait till the enormous wealth the rich, the ultra rich and the nouveau rich are accumulating trickles down. This is an obscenity. No fancy economic formulation can hide this appalling reality of India 2006.

Take the employment guarantee scheme or selling cheap grain to BPL card-holders or the Right to Information Act (which allows the marginalised to check corruption in moneys spent in their name) or increasing subsidies for essential commodities used by the aam aadmi. You need to jog your memory only lightly to recollect the outrage of the haves at these schemes. They said India would be ruined, the finances of the nation would collapse if "utopian" proposals were implemented. The poor are poor because they are lazy, worthless, unenterprising, incapable of availing existing opportunities. Of course, I caricature the argument and the mentality. But only slightly.

One understands India is an economic superpower challenging China, it is experiencing unprecedented growth rates, its middle class can buy Danish bacon and Spanish olives at the neighbourhood store. Conspicuous consumption reigns. But nine hundred million people must wait for market forces to somehow touch their lives. Sheer callousness apart, these 900 million people have something called the vote. And they use it extremely craftily. In 2004, they threw out a government which considered itself invincible. Forget the ethics, forget conscience, any political party which panders to the prejudices of India's fickle middle class is committing electoral suicide.

Remember, the poor will not go away. You cannot tuck them away in Kalahandi or Bastar. They will haunt India's affluent in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai at traffic lights, in unregulated slums, in shopping malls, outside five-star hotels. They will join Maoists and threaten the Indian state while slitting the throats of rich farmers. The 'Red Corridor' is an ominous development. Any moderately sane middle-class person must ask himself why the wretched of the earth increasingly decide to take up arms against a vastly better-armed and organised force in a war they know they are bound to lose. Better to die fighting than to die of hunger.

Doubtless, there are many infirmities in the proposal to allot 27 per cent seats to OBCs. The percentage may be too high, some wrong people may avail of the benefit, a few genuinely deserving might be unfairly penalised, implementation could throw up anomalies. It will not be painless. But you have to live in a state of permanent denial, you have to keep your eyes, ears and mind closed to avoid the fact that poverty and extreme poverty in India are closely linked to caste, closely linked to historical discrimination.

Let us take the crux of the reservation rejectionist's thesis. We're told that quotas and academic excellence are fundamentally incompatible. You can't have both.Added to the above is the rider that corporate India's "global competitive edge" will vanish. In other words, there is the firm assumption that affirmative action (AA), which in India takes the form of quotas (voluntary or mandatory), will produce second-class students.

In the hysteria generated, with assistance from a conflict-hungry media, this assumption has become gospel truth with the honourable but publicity-smart members of the Knowledge Commission lending their weight to the flawed thesis. In Harvard, Princeton and Yale, institutions at whose altar the rejectionists worship, the experience of AA has been hugely positive with no dilution of academic standards (see Outlook cover story Two Faces of Reservation, May 29).

Consider the story of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where mandatory quotas ranging from 69.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent have been in place since decades without social turbulence. Are we to assume that engineers, doctors, mbas from these southern states are substandard?

If notions of compassion and equity are alien to the rejectionists, perhaps the spectre of Maoists rampaging through pockets of urban India might help focus minds on the grotesquely unjust society superpower India is spawning. It could be the fire next time!

(Vinod Mehta is Editor of Outlook magazine)


manan said...

I have just a few questions:

- Why are the "poor" equated with OBCs? If the idea is to help the poor, why not have a categorization based on economic strata? Yes, I know it's not easy but OBC classification is completely arbitrary.

- Given that the existing quota for SC/STs and OBCs in many institutions remains empty especially in the better institutions, how is extending the quota justified?

- What is the government's intended benefit from this scheme? Given that it does not even know exactly what percentage of Indian population is OBC, how is it right to assign an arbitrarily large figure as quota? How many people are expected to benefit from this and in what way will it improve the economic situation of the poor in the country?

- When we as a nation can't guarantee clean water, electricity and such basics to the poor, are college seats the right place to start?

The sad part from the government is that it is totally hapless when faced with these questions. Read this interview of Arjun Singh if you don't believe me.


Anonymous said...

completely agree with the points raised by Manan.


sachmuch said...

Although the article starts with a disclaimer, unfortunately it fails to live up to it.

Also the article has misread the ongoing protest, I must state that
'it is not against the poor or the underpreviliged, it is against the government who wishes to exploit this disparity than address it sincerely'

Throwing data without context generates rhetoric among the ill informed and the article is a decent try towards that.

Outrage against subsidies, allocation of freebies is not aimed at the 'real' people who should benefit from it but is against the people at places who make sure that they are diverted to power groups than at the intended end.

The poor when they fight back, if you realise, fight back against the same invisible yet influential layer. They fight back against such cosmetic policies that the government introduces. How would you explain the conditions in North East? I guess the author would conveniently blame the 'greedy and selfish' middle class. If the political parties still carry the old placard of 'remove poverty' even after 50 years .. I wonder why people believe in acting like an ostrich in danger.

Also I must point out that many of the real policies being followed at the root level is courtesy either some unknown NGOs or conscious effort of people belonging to 'smug n selfish' middle class. e.g. E choupal. On the contrary I would also say that mmany in this class are from the poor class only who have fought against odd and made a place for themselves.

I may be wrong, but isn't the state reservation policy for the resident of the state than having a high quota for specific castes?
So it would be wrong to compare it to the centre's decision of cast based quota. Pl correct me if I am wrong.

Its high time we stop being a victim of such a rhetoric and wake up and smell the coffee. Democracy is 'by the people' for sure .. lets make it 'for the people also'

Anonymous said...

Future Shock

Wisdomless Politicians
Meritless Admissions

Meaningless Curriculums
Substance less Examinations

Faculty less Departments
Student less Colleges

VC less Universities
Knowledgeless Society

Developmentless Nation
Into that hell of gloomdom

My Father, let my country
go to Sleep
let my country go to Sleep.....

Poem by BR Natarajan BITS Pilani

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. Kudos to Mehta. Puts the things into perspective. The initial disclaimer is a little misleading.

Those who are peeved that poor may not necessarily mean OBCs, please note that no criterion is full-proof for implementing affirmative action.

Memoryking said...

Liked your blog.Here is mine http://www.emotionalzombie.blogspot.com/ "No! Let’s join the self-proclaimed snobs protesting with slogans “Remember your place”, polishing shoes and cleaning premises? Let’s pretend not to see it at all! Damn Reservations!"

supriya said...

i don't agree with reservations. tired of the debate and of arguing again and again over it now.