Debating India


Reconciling competing interests

Thursday 18 May 2006

The anti-reservation stir that has spread across a few cities would seem to have as its ingredients hype and knee-jerk opposition mixed with some elements of genuine concern. While it certainly does not look like turning into an anti-Mandal II phase, it has disrupted the working of hospitals and threatens to heighten social tensions across urban India.

Already, agitations to counter the opposition to quotas in Central government educational institutions have been started in different parts of the country, including Delhi and Bangalore. After the traumatic Mandal phase, a balance has been struck, with all sections of political opinion remaining committed to reservations as a means of levelling the field for those who are socially and educationally disadvantaged. At the same time, a limit of 50 per cent has been set so that the principle of equal opportunity for all irrespective of caste or religion, and `merit’ in the sense of academic or entrance test performance are not overridden completely. The primary purpose of the Constitution (Ninety-third) Amendment was to extend reservations to private educational institutions after the Supreme Court struck down government quotas and reservations in private unaided institutions. The issue of reservations in Central government institutions was brought to the fore by a statement of Union Human Resources Minister Arjun Singh, particularly after the Election Commission over-reacted to it and raised the question of violation of the model code of conduct.

There are, of course, genuine concerns over the possible reduction in the number of seats open to all on the basis of academic performance. Such concerns can be taken care of by increasing the number of places available so that open competition opportunities are not diminished as a result of quotas. This indeed has been found to be a practical way of reconciling the interests of different sections in many States, notably Tamil Nadu, where reservations have been in vogue for several decades. While in the case of Central government institutions generally what is involved is the issue of social equity and striking a balance between the interests of different sections, the question of extending reservations to distinctive institutions such as IITs and IIMs raises a different set of issues altogether. Reservations by definition involve some sacrifice of academic `merit’ - testable in open, unmediated competition - at the altar of social justice; and in the larger interests of society it may be necessary to keep some institutions outside the purview of reservations, and committed uncompromisingly to open competition and the pursuit of academic excellence. The IITs and the IIMs, through their intensely competitive and rigorous admission processes that bring in the very best students and by their commitment to education of the highest quality, have gained an enviable reputation internationally. Public policy should ensure that they remain islands of excellence, uninfluenced by any other consideration. Even under a regime of reservations, there are certain areas where professional capability and performance alone count to the exclusion of all else - airline pilots, higher specialties in surgery and medicine, and the higher ranks of the armed forces, for instance. At the same time, improving access to these institutions through positive action should be made a priority. As for the rest, given the total political consensus at the national level in favour of reservations, no agitation by a small section of society, however worked up over the issue, is going to make any difference.

See online : The Hindu

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