Debating India


OBC quota: stirring wider issues

Thursday 18 May 2006, by AGNIVESH*Swami , THAMPU*Valson

In this country of vast socio-economic disparities and inequities, it is unjust and misleading to define merit in an academic fashion. Should there not be a way by which `merit’ is translated into actual relief for the millions of our people in rural and tribal areas?

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R.V. Moorthy.
EMOTIVE ISSUE: Police remove a pro-reservation activist on Wednesday from the campus of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, where doctors and medical students are staging a protest against increasing quotas.

THE ESCALATING stir by medical students against the implementation of the 93rd Amendment, which is now Article 15(5) of the Constitution, is as symptomatic as it is significant. No one, neither the academics nor the politicians, had any problem when the constitutional amendment enabling the state to make laws to empower the socially and economically disadvantaged sections, besides the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, was being made. But now that the stage of its implementation has come, the volcano of grievance has begun to erupt.

Of course, we are familiar with the excuse. Medicos, and those who justify and fuel their sense of grievance, argue that they did not know that this was in the offing! And the Knowledge Commission, with the iconic Sam Pitroda at it apex, may provide it a fa?ade of legitimacy. But what this implies is indeed too significant to be glossed over. Doctors enjoy a significant place in society. "Next to God, doctor" is a popular saying in this country.

Doctors should be the custodians of the health not only of individuals but also of society. It is for this reason that medical ethics are more stringent than professional and business ethics in other sectors of service. But to serve society, one has to know it. To know is to engage; and to engage is to love. Very often ignorance results not from the dearth of information but from the lack of love. We are ignorant because we are indifferent. And we are indifferent largely because we are self-absorbed. Self-absorption implies an outlook that limits one’s relationship to the larger context - the country in this instance - wholly to what one may get out of it. This implies blindness to what one can do for the country.

The natural outcome of this outlook is hypersensitivity to `rights’ and total insensitivity to `duties’. For the medical fraternity, or any educated person, to confess they did not `know’ that the 93rd Amendment could have had this sort of implication is simply to expose themselves to ridicule. So the alibi of ignorance is unacceptable.

If it is not ignorance, what is it then? This brings us to the endemic problem in India: our appallingly poor track record in implementation. We have a plethora of progressive and pro-active laws. Our Constitution is one of the finest achievements of legislative wisdom anywhere in the world. We are almost there, but we will not make it. We dribble the ball with splendid adroitness up to the D and, then, dither. Our national score sheet would have made far better reading but for this.

Yet, it is not as though nothing has been implemented. The implementation index of a scheme or a policy remains sensitive to the social segment that is meant to benefit from it. Measures that benefit the privileged classes are less vulnerable to executive neglect or red tape. Correspondingly, it is far more difficult to implement policies that are likely to affect the advantages of the privileged segments of the society.

Honest governance

The mark of honest governance is the executive will to bridge the gulf between the letter and the spirit - between legislative mandate and executive action - of the Constitution. In the present case, the present government, especially Arjun Singh, the Human Resources Development Minister, needs to be commended for its clarity of vision and earnestness of purpose. We do the nation a gross injustice in seeking to subvert the implementation of the Constitution on the apprehension either that merit is likely to be compromised in the process or that a party is likely to benefit electorally in its wake. To obstruct the initiatives of a government to implement a constitutional amendment is to legitimise bad governance as well as to widen the gulf between law and policy.

The generic issue here is not whether or not the 93rd Amendment should be implemented. It is, on the contrary, whether we can tolerate the rule of law or not. Our commitment to the rule of law is not proved when we root for it when upholding the rule of law is to our advantage. It is proved more authentically when we stand by it even when it is in conflict with our personal or class interests. The insistence of the medicos that Article 15(5) of the Constitution should not be implemented is, in principle, akin to the stance of the Sangh Parivar that matters pertaining to faith are above the law. What is equally disturbing is the indication that the intellectual and academic elite of this country are losing their faith in a fair debate. The quota issue could have been openly and objectively debated.

But that option was foreclosed and the way of coercion was adopted precipitously. This is worrisome because this is not a one-off instance. We have been watching sadly the erosion of a culture of robust debate in our parliamentary democracy. Rather than debate, issues are clinched by holding Parliament to ransom. A more alarming symptom of our contrived collective faith in violence, and the corresponding loss of faith in debate and dialogue, cannot be thought of. This is the road we should not, and cannot afford, to take.

The anxiety that the proposed reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) will subvert merit seems plausible but is, in fact, purblind. Much depends on what we mean by merit. In this country of vast socio-economic disparities and inequities, it is unjust and misleading to define merit in an academic fashion. Shall we not say that merit, in the context of health care, should also include compassion and the spirit of service? Should there not be a way by which `merit’ is translated into actual relief for the millions of our people in rural and tribal areas?

The time has come for us to consider making rural and tribal placements, at least for a period of three years, compulsory for all prospective doctors. A doctor who is indifferent to social justice is an aberration. Also, there is no reason why the state should subsidise the medical education of the rich, mostly to enable them to find greener pastures abroad or in lucrative private practice in the metropolises. The cost of medical education must be indexed to the paying capacity of students.

Shocking events, one after the other, in recent times alert us to the ethical degradation that the medical profession is going through. The fact that medical students can, without any qualms, resort to sharpening the edges of their demands with the suffering of the people, by boycotting work, needs to be seen a symptom of this larger malady.

The root of ethical behaviour is the ability to see one’s interests in harmony with the larger interests. Upsetting this ethical balance, this human equilibrium, in the interest of protecting one’s own sectarian or class interests is a trend that needs to be seen clearly for what it portends for the society as a whole.

It strikes at the root of creating a wholesome social order without which neither merit nor progress makes any sense.

See online : The Hindu

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