Monday, November 7, 2011

THE " BACKWARDNESS" MYTH

Last month, my daughter studying in class 9, in what I would call an "elite" school brought home a form to be filled in. This form had been sent by the school requesting the parents to verify information relating to the child's name, date of birth,citizenship etc for forwarding to the Council for Indian school certificate examinations which conducts the ICSE exams  for which this batch is slated to appear in 2013. Among the list of questions was one relating to caste with the usual  options of  SC/ST/OBC etc. The Principal had put in a small note at the bottom of the page which said " parents please be judicious in filling up the information on caste. This benefit is for underprivileged children. We believe that none of our students in this batch  are underprivileged in anyway". We were completely in agreement with the Principal's message because almost all the children in her class come from families where both parents are employed - usually in high profile corporate jobs. In fact we also noted that about 25% of the children were not of Indian citizenship ( though of Indian origin) because it was most likely that they were born while the parents were professionally placed in a foreign country.

But we were very surprised to hear from our daughter that many of the children had brought in forms that had the caste option filled in with SC/OBC etc!!! Now, this is a school with a very small class size and with only one section per class. So we know practically everyone in her class -children and parents. When she  told us the names of the children whose parents had filled in those options we were shocked because we know these parents and they are no way "socially or economically backward" considering that they do international holidays, live in  very upmarket localities, drive around in fancy cars etc!

So what is this reservation for backward castes all about? This example about my daughter's school is only an illustration of what is actually happening around us.

I work for a non profit organization which takes me to villages around the state of Tamil nadu. I find that when we do surveys, people are most reluctant to give out information relating to their income and assets ( in fact they sometimes even deny that the house they live in is theirs) but the information that they make sure we have taken down is about their caste! Therefore, caste as a basis for  entitlement is something that is here to stay- irrespective of whether people deserve those entitlements or not!  I have found through my interactions with the poor that the caste-class linkage can only be seen where it comes to the scheduled castes and tribes. When it comes to the "backward castes" it just does not work!!! I am yet to come across a person who is of the BC category ( MBC/ OBC and what have you!!!!) who is actually poor! So why this reservation?

I have also found that the castes that call themselves backward vary from district to district even within the same state. For e.g caste A would call itself MBC ( by the way folks MBC stands for Most backward !!!) in Cuddalore but when we move to Madurai they would not figure in that category. So how is this thing called backwardness judged?

The state of Tamil Nadu has probably been the worst offender in this regard particularly when it comes to educational institutions where nearly 60% of any number of available seats are "reserved". I would say that a better way to deal with it would be to declare that only  40% of the seats would go by open competition or merit ! 

There are two points that worry me about this caste based reservations-first being that the really deserving among these so called back ward groups would lose out because they would be competing with those who go to elite schools like that of my daughter's and benefit from the high quality education there and the second being that with nearly 60% of the capacity having to comply to lower standards, there would be an increase in overall mediocrity. The later is something that is fast becoming a reality.

Actually if we take the state of Tamil Nadu into consideration, we find that the government in general is promoting mediocreity . For e.g the quality of school education in the state is rather low. But the state keeps the standards low and also practices the system of liberal marking so that a student who is below average in terms of capacities also gets 80% or above. And when this is coupled with reservation around " backwardness"  what do you get ? Your guess is as good as mine!

While I am a strong advocate of affirmative action and the benefits it can result in for the underpreviledged ,we need to take a balanced view on this. A person is not backward if s/he comes from a family that is economically well to do - whether the income is farm based or a professional salary is not the question! There has to be an economic criteria put into the fixing of the reservation. There are people who believe that with the coming in of the system of Unique ID for every citizen we would be able to track and correlate the caste with the income tax returns being filed. I think that would be good way to weed out those who do not deserve such entitlements!

It is about time our government realized the harm it is doing to the country by viewing the short term benefits of caste based electoral politics. If backwardness has to be addressed then there has to be good and sound targeting - so that those who deserve it get the benefits and much more! I am sure that Babasaheb Ambedkar who gave us this wonderful constitution, would not have ever imagined what the system of reservation proposed by him has been turned into by a group of shrewd vote mongering politicians and an electorate of avaricious individuals using "backwardness" as a trump card to corner all benefits and entitlements!

7 comments:

Rahul Bhatia said...

Unfortunately, Meera, in today's world the greed to corner everything has reached inhuman proportion and what you see is the manifestation of this disease!So good that you have highlighted this happening even in elite schools... Shameful!

anilkurup said...

Why fret? This the way India will be. I sound cynical? I , honestly cannot help not being so.

Sixty plus years since the drafting of the constitution and putting caste based reservation on the statute, we still have immense penury among the so called SC/ST/BC etc. Why? Who should be blamed?
The purely caste based reservation, though in the early days were necessary have no become inelastic and negative in returns. Various governments, politicians and community heads want it so. They want two tier populace The second rung coming out of the so called government run shacks called schools can be used as fodder for larger political games .

Mediocrity is systemic. I remember that when I passed my SSLC in the mid seventies the average pass percentage was about twenty percent. Now the percentage is ninety plus of the students who sit at the exams. Is this a sign of increased levels and standards? Well no. The evaluation of a students competence is adjusted so the percentage passed is higher.

Vote banks you know that is important. I shudder at the prospect of professional education. A few years from now we will be infested and deluged with mediocrity , physicians , Engineers.

There is no sign of far-sighted policy in the anvil. India is all set for a revolution and contagion of mediocrity.

Cloud Nine said...

Meera- you have taken up a very pertinent issue here. Caste is something that bogs us down. I too have never seen backward castes and SC, STs suffer. They deprive the meritorious students of other castes by quota reservation in colleges. And what is it with people who can't even acknowledge the house they live in is theirs? The system sucks! I wish the Givt abolishes caste based reservation and brings about an economic condition based reservation. What ever happened to the creamy layer thing???

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks folks for your comments. @ Anil you are right- imagine being treated by a doc who is mediocre? @ Cloud nine, people are like that- they want to show that they are worse than they are just so they can get all the benefits and that is how it is. @ Rahul welcome to my blog and I completely agree with you.

Juxtaposition said...

I agree with the Unique ID idea. It's definitely a way to make sure that only the deserving get to use the reservation quota.

Jack said...

Meera,

First visit. Read all current posts. Made a quick visit to fiction too but will read those later. You write on very important issues as seen in most of the posts, be it Vasudaiva Kutumbam or this one. Machismo made not only interesting read but stated facts too. Had a good laugh at "Purr" fect. Best wishes to your daughter. I agree fiction writing makes one thing a lot unless you are writing pulp. State dole outs will make the state of affairs worse and for what - just votes without thinking of ill affects. What you spoke in minorities is so true. We need to get over such biases. Religion is personal choice and it should not affect a person's love for nation. God hears silent prayers first and closes ears to all that din. This is a very thought provoking and factual post. Reservations, if any, should only be in education and at entry level for jobs based on not just castes but economical state too. Economical weaker persons will be from said casts too. For competitive positions a minimum marks criteria must be set, say 5% less than the last person in general list but no more sops.

Take care

PS : Do visit, if you find time.

simple girl..... said...

Oh this caste thing.. Meera you have raised such pertinent points.. Same thing happened in our school too, which was not an elitist school but nonetheless usually had students from lower middle class and middle class and upper middle class families. One of my classmates had both of her parents working, but registered herself as an SC, we came to know about this when our registration certificates came before our class 10 board examination, this resulted in many students whispering behind her back how she was a 'low caste' and had hidden it so far and registering now just to take advantage blah blah blah.. My classmate was an average sensible student but ended up taking advantage of this caste based preferential treatment while getting into college..People would smirk at her back.. However there was this other classmate who also was of the SC caste and was able to secure a good college because of this. In the second case it was all right because for this caste based thing he was able to get into a good government college which had low fees, else he would have had to enroll in a private college which could not afford.. Now if this preferential treatment would have been economic condition based, the second classmate would have definitely been able to access it, whereas the first one not and it would have been justified.. I so ardently wish it would have been so....

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