Debating India


Privatise affirmative action

Friday 26 May 2006, by RAO*Jaithirth

Our great government has decided that since they cannot improve primary and secondary education, they will have quotas in higher education both in elite government institutions (IITs, IIMs, etc) and in private institutions (except those run by “minorities” who can do whatever they want) in accordance with constitutional amendments which are passed by Parliament with the explicit objective of subverting considered Supreme Court judgments.

Government schools have insufficient blackboards and toilets; teachers do not turn up to teach (they turn up to collect salaries). They are committing a crime against India’s poor children. But being members of “Teachers’ Unions” no one can discipline them. A couple of chief ministers tried. They lost elections. Ergo our political class has concluded that if the choice is between pampering lazy unionised teachers or being fair to the children of India’s poor, then any day our leaders will ignore the children. Government schools don’t teach in English. The rich and the wannabe rich including all politicians and bureaucrats make sure they send their kids to private schools where English is central. The children of the poor are condemned to no education, poor education or education that gives them no skills that they can leverage into decent wages. All these are well-known even to leftist economists like Amartya Sen. But since these are too complex, we have decided in our own Indic, Hindoo, Gandhian, Nehruvian, Socialistic, Mandalesque, Common-Minimum-Programmatic way (because we are like that only) to come up with a sham symbolic solution which we know does not work (at least does not work to fulfill the objective of uplifting the underprivileged).

So many friends wrote to me asking me why I was “silent” on the reservations issue. I told them that I was silent, because I am convinced that we are faced with a fait accompli. Like it or not, this battle is lost. Reservations will not go away. Their stranglehold will increase. No group which gets concessions is going to let go of it. More and more groups will spend time, energy and money getting themselves classified as “backward”. Others will buy fake certificates. Just like we have ghost voters, ghost ration card holders and ghost employees, we will have ghost members of OBC groups and the Chief Commissioner of OBCs (such a post will be created if it does not exist) will frequently investigate wrongdoings, punish a few and allow many to go free!

Even as I was getting depressed, my mercenary, money grubbing, profit smelling self reasserted itself. There has to be a business opportunity here. When such an absurd arbitrage is forced upon us, there must be a larger scale and more legitimate business proposition here than merely printing fake caste certificates. And then lo and behold, from the depths of my market-loving soul there emerged the contours of a brilliant business opportunity.

The decisions of our honourable Central cabinet (populated doubtless by honourable men and women), the diktats of our feudal-socialist HRD minister, the directives of our much-amended constitution do not apply in...Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore, Dubai, Pakistan. They are are all exempt and some have enlightened rulers. Eureka! Let every educational entrepreneur worth his salt open up colleges in these “unreserved” countries. All who can afford and some who cannot (but who will borrow - an opportunity for our banks!) will become willing students in these colleges. Given that most engineering, medical and management colleges involve hostel-living anyway, the additional burden may not be much. And trust me, the holders of “unreserved” foreign degrees will command higher wages than holders of “reserved” domestic degrees. The immutable laws of the labour market shall prevail and once again our cabinet of central planning aficionados will be made fools of, albeit after adding transaction costs to the economy and unbearable and avoidable angst to thousands of deserving “non-backward” students who are not rich enough to cross the borders to the new colleges that spring up.

I had completely under-estimated Indian entrepreneurship. Indian organisations have already opened up medical colleges in Nepal and management institutes in Dubai. They obviously had good astrologers for consultants. They knew that the UPA government bored with nothing to do (upgrading primary schools or fast-forwarding the judicial process being too lowly tasks for them) would announce the great reservations mela. Having anticipated this, our entrepreneurs have already moved. Now all that they need to do is expand and grow. Even the much-persecuted (uniformly and impartially by the NDA and the UPA) IIM directors must have been prescient. Hence their desire to expand to Singapore and so on!

On a different and serious note, I believe that corporate India has another business opportunity. In a country where there are tens of millions (maybe hundreds of millions depending on which babu you ask) of unemployed, reserving jobs either in the public or the private sector will achieve very little. If we tap into the entrepreneurial skills of our people who revel in self-employment (we are a nation of hawkers and of farmers, both classic self-employed categories) we can create an explosion of productive capacity. Corporate India should introduce an affirmative action programme in the management of its vendors, suppliers, dealers and distributors. This programme should target entrepreneurs and self-employed from underprivileged backgrounds (with a catholic definition of the term “underprivileged”). These persons will be role models and will in turn create wealth and more jobs. These individuals will not have access to unionised sinecures, but will need to compete against similar persons and deliver to demanding standards. My friend Vaidyanathan from IIM Bangalore says that the need of the hour is the “Vaishya-isation” of all of India’s castes. Let’s go for it. From India Inc’s perspective, a self-imposed, self-regulated measure is likely to deliver genuine results, that is, uplift the needy and deserving. A cabinet or parliamentary decree will result in one more law that the corrupt will sidestep and which, while enriching numerous government inspectors, will leave India’s poor (of all castes) pretty much where they are.

The writer is chairman and CEO, Mphasis

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