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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reservations - A simple problem of 'framing'

The government want’s to increase reservation in higher education institutions and there are widespread protests against the same. The government proposes to reduce the impact of this move on general category students by increasing the overall number of seats so that the number of seats in the general category remains the same.

But the issue being protested is one of ‘merit’ and whether number of seats are increased or not – is not the issue at hand.

I myself have been aghast at the proposed move. I simply find it impossible to accept the fact that a bunch of people get entry into a college inspite of their poor performance in the entrance test – but because of their caste. It's outrageous..

But then this morning, I was watching telly (as usual nothing interesting ever seems to be on) and a thought came to my mind. What if the issue was framed differently? What if the government were to announce that they are going to set up new engineering, medical and business schools specifically for backward caste students. All of a sudden, I find that this move is not quite so abhorrent. Why? Both things ideas (reservation with increased seats or new colleges) tantamount to essentially one and the same thing – but the difference in reaction is stark. And although I have not explored this with others, but my sense is that there will be quite a few from the ‘opposition to reservation camp’ who would react in a manner similar to how I reacted.

Yes, when I think deeply I can find flaws with this idea as well – but the violent initial reaction that the idea of reservation generates in me was (almost) completely absent here. The difference in initial reaction could not have been starker.

If I think deeper as to why my reaction changes so drastically – the answer is simple. In the reservation idea, one gets a sense (at least I do) that something is being taken away from one section of the society and given to other (rightly or wrongly is immaterial). But in the second idea when the issue is being framed differently, one does not get a sense that something is being taken away. It’s just that something is being created new and given to a section of the society. While one may argue that in the same token something should also be created for the other section of the society – but not creating something for one section does not evoke the same negativity and strong views as when something is taken away from one section and given to other.

Does herein lie the solution for the current imbroglio? I do not know – its for the ‘guardian’s of our constitution’ to decide!

But, this has been a true eye opener for me. I mean I have read in books about the problems associated with ‘framing’ and how humans react differently to what is essentially the same problem if it is framed differently. Fine – but when you yourself experience it, it springs a set of completely contrasting emotions. Firstly there is disappointment – because you’ve just realized how gullible/irrational you are, and then there is elation – because you have probably discovered something new about yourself, something new on the issue at hand and somehow I felt as if I made a connection with the theory!

This incident is going to stay with me for some time.

That’s it for now….

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reservations : Betrayal, Opportunism and a Sly Human Resources Minister

The decision by the Union Cabinet to implement reservations for OBCs in higher education institutions is without an iota of doubt a highly condemnable one. I do so not because I am from upper caste (which I am), but purely on logical-objective grounds. To my knowledge these grounds (many of which are in public domain) have not yet been disputed on objective parameters.

If anyone comes up with objective manner of disputing these objections or if later information contradicts any of the points made here I would be more than happy to reconsider my view points. Indeed there could even be a situation wherein I support reservations (which I am opposed to in principle), if data points out that the condition of OBCs (or for that matter SCs and STs) is even worse than what we think it is and that this is down in large proportions simply to their being of a particular caste rather than any other reason.

Here it goes..
  • What makes us believe that we need reservations for OBCs? The main justification given is that OBCs are disadvantaged lot. Does any data bring that out? We cannot go about taking such a decision based on our gut feelings. Indeed the latest government data (NSSO study in 1997) indicates that the OBCs - so far as education is concerned are not as disadvantaged as most of us think. If this data is thought to be incorrect or outdated - there needs a fresh study so that we have facts before us. This is common sense to me.
  • Even if the data points that in terms of education the OBCs are a disadvantaged lot, for them to enjoy reservations (if at all), that condition of theirs needs to be attributed to their caste rather than any other reasons. For example it may be the case that a OBCs are disadvantaged educationally - but that is down to their economic backwardness and the economically advanced amongst the OBCs are not educationally disadvantaged. Further, the data may show that the economic disadvantaged amongst the upper caste are equally disadvantaged educationally. Such a scenario clearly calls for a different course of remedies. But unfortunately, we do not have any data - we have not identified the problem, we are doing chemo without knowing where the cancer is (if at all!)
  • We have had reservations for more than 50 years now for SCs and STs. There has been no study on the efficacy or otherwise of this measure. What is sacrosanct is the objective - that of uplifting the socially disadvantaged sections (not castes), and not the remedy - reservations. One pointer towards the efficacy of the remedy is that even after 50 years, the SC and ST seats in educational institutions are not fully occupied. This prima facie points towards a deeper malaise or a wrong medicine, certainly (again prima facie at least) warranting the employment of a different medicine. Again continuing the same medicine without knowing for another section of the society without knowing its efficacy (indeed having reason prima facie to believe that the medicine has not worked) seems a bizarre thing to do.
  • Finally, there has been no national debate on the said topic. Last time this issue was brought up (in 1990), it had to be shelved due to widespread student protests. What made anyone presume that the objections students had or in general people had gone away? In fact given the fierce competition that exists for the fairly limited seats at institutions of higher education, the stakes are if any, considerably higher today than they were before. If the minister has/intended to address the concerns while bringing this proposal then the manner in which the concerns were going to be addressed needed to be highlighted - this was not done and as it now turns out the concerns have not been addressed.

Don't get me wrong - I am not against the upliftment of the socially disadvantaged sections of the society. I am all for it - my only point is that we identify exactly who the socially disadvantaged sections are and that we apply the right medicine. What we are currently doing sounds highly political to me. The fact that UP elections (a state in which the Congress party has for the last few years done very very badly) are round the corner where a significant portion of the population comes from the very section of the society to whom the proposed reservation (appeasement!?) policy is aimed at.

The opposition - well, no one can really dare to oppose this proposal. If anyone does, they stand to lose the OBC votes.

As a last ditch effort, even if we finally did decide to implement reservations I hope we do so in proper manner. What I think is a right way to implement reservations is mentioned here.

Thats it for now...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Banning the Da Vinci Code

It is interesting tracking the controversy surrounding the release of the movie based on the book Da Vinci Code. Some people are understandably disturbed (to put it mildly) at some parts of the movie and are in favor of banning the movie.

For someone like me (and I am sure many more) this seems absurd. After all we live in a democracy and there is something called 'freedom of expression'. If some people are disturbed or aghast at some sections of the movie, they have the option of not watching the movie. But that is no reason to ban the movie.

But when I think deeper, it brings out the inherent hypocrisy in my thought process. I have no sympathies for Catholics whose feelings are hurt by the movie and I can make a general statement that most Indians do not - but I ask myself this simple question:

What would have happened in this world if something similar was said against Prophet Mohammed? Just some piece of cartoons are sufficient to have weeks of protests across the world. A statement as blasphemous as one in the book regarding the prophet and the entire Muslim world would have been up in arms and would have burnt for weeks.

Why go that far? How would I react if some similar statements were made about Hindu gods/goddesses in a movie? Would I be equally loudly trumpeting the cause of 'freedom of speech' - probably not. Already we have had examples of how people reacted against M.F. Hussain for his paintings of Hindu deities in what were perceived as being in an 'objectionable' manner. We all know how a certain political party's activists reacted violently to a book on Shivaji. We have instances of people protesting violently against movies which do not 'glorify' people like Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Ambedkar or Subhash Chandra Bose. In most of these cases, my first reaction was also one of intense anger at what I considered to be exploitation of the right of 'freedom of expression' Even today, I do not think that a lot of these actions/expressions were justified and that the right of freedom of speech is not a absolute right under which all acts can be subsumed.

The very fact that most of the Christian world has just shrugged off this movie says a lot about the level of tolerance of these people to contrary views (and how contrary). As a society we brag about how tolerant we are. But are we really? I know that I certainly am not, certainly a long way from what would be considered to be a global benchmark in tolerance.

We have a long way to go... I have a long way to go....

That's it for now...

Monday, May 01, 2006

A sensible way to introduce reservations…

In the midst of the debate about reservations in higher education institutes and private sector, I thought I should add my couple of words as well (for whatever it is worth…)

Firstly, let me put records straight by saying that I am completely against reservations of any kind (and most definitely where the basis of reservations happens to be caste). I do agree that ‘affirmative action’ is one of the solution to remedy the problem we have (and yes, we do have a problem on our hands) but more importantly I believe the solution lies in bringing the lower caste candidates to the level of the ‘more privileged’ upper caste candidates be it in terms of scholarships or infrastructure or extra tuitions etc – but ultimately people (irrespective of caste) have to come up with the goods to deserve selections.

However I must also disclose that I belong to the ‘upper caste’ and thus my views may be considered to be prejudiced accordingly.

Now let me come to what I think is a sensible way of introducing reservations (if the Indian society at large has made up its mind for doing so)

  • Limited time period – First and foremost the law which introduces reservations has to be with a limited time period and which is predetermined. Further it has to be the case that the law expires after the passage of the pre-determined period and if the law is to be extended, then it again needs to go through the process of parliamentary approval. The effect of this is that this thrusts the topic of reservations once again into public domain when the time for its lapse/renewal comes. As to what should be appropriate time period – society has to be the judge but suffice it to say that a couple of years is too less a time for the law to have an impact and a couple of decades too long.

  • Measurable criterion to judge effectiveness – Second thing (and this ought to be extended to all existing reservations) is that we should have measurable criterion to judge the effectiveness of the law. The quantifiable parameters could be in terms of social or economic parameters or a mix of both. But certainly we should have set parameters in mind the achievement of which shall establish that the law has served its purpose and it needs to go. Now irrespective of whether the parameters are social or economic or both, they ought to be in terms of dispersion of these parameters on caste and ought to be compared in a like to like manner (e.g. given similar economic backgrounds is it more likely that lower caste people are less educated? or given similar geographic background are lower caste people likely to be less economically advanced etc). Further we must have in place robust means to gather such data. If the census does not serve this purpose, it needs to be recalibrated accordingly for 2011 edition and onwards.

  • Measurable criterion to judge failure – Third thing (and this too ought to be extended to all existing reservations) is to be able to have measurable criterion to be able to determine that the law has failed to serve its purpose. After all it is no body’s claim that reservation policies are a panacea of all caste problems. It is just one of the measures being suggested to solve the caste problem (at least partially). Hence we must be able to judge and determine (and conclusively) whether the presumption is indeed valid. It may very well turnout that reservation policies do not solve the problem (for whatever reasons) and we must then move on and try something else. And once having turned our back on reservations never comeback to it unless there are sufficient circumstances which warrant that (and definitely not before we try other untried measures first).

Well, these are just some thoughts that came to my mind which unfortunately no one seems to talk about when discussing reservations. No one even those who favor reservations seem to have any clue as to what is the most efficient way of implementing the policy. Above points seem to me to be very fair and reasonable expectations from a ‘upper caste’ person who opposes reservations, in case the country does indeed decide to implement this policy.

May the persons concerned get some sense (no pun intended!)…

That’s it for now….