There is now a great to-do about the reservations for OBCs mandated by the Supreme Court. By excluding the so called ‘creamy layer’, the learned Court has managed to please nobody, except perhaps the vanishingly small minority of people who really want quotas to change the face of Indian society. The OBC lobbies are smacking their chops in vain over the windfall that has now been snatched away from their lips, and the anti-reservationists will of course wring their hands and wail at the erosion of merit and excellence in education.
I am filled with awe at the cunning with which the Supreme Court took the wind out of the sails of all parties concerned. The biggest bruit of protest from the pro-reservation lobby objects to the means-test clause as it will ‘drive a wedge’ through caste groups. Exactly! The more wedges there are through caste groups, the weaker will be their hold on the lives of citizens. By making provision for caste-based discrimination to wither away, the Court is living up to the spirit of Ambedkar’s Constitution. The Court’s response to the problem of reservations for the Other Backward Classes is finely calibrated to rearrange the power centres of Indian society into a more equitable and less self-serving shape.
The problems before the bench were as follows: unlike ST and SC groups, the OBCs are a huge, heterogenous, amorphous and unwieldly set of social categories, some of which occupy multiple positions on the ladder of privilege depending on the language they speak or the local spelling of their names. Clearly to grant flat reservation to such a group would result in disproportionate advantage to those already privileged within it. It is fairly clear that all Dalits and tribals have been ground by the prevalent social system pretty much in the same way all over the land: this is not true of OBCs. Hence an intelligent rider was needed to make sure the benefit of this social engineering project went to those who needed it most: the poor.
However, there are still a lot of problems ahead of the measure. The one which everybody is shouting about, namely that merit is in danger, I am not so sure about. I have noticed that the very same people who shout about merit also agree that the various Entrance Examinations are, above a certain level of academic excellence, a lottery. For every hundred people who get in to premiere institutions, there are two hundred just as good who don’t. Furthermore, the intellectual basis of many of these entrance tests is often suspect: the tests consist largely of cut and dried math problems, or exercises in abstract reasoning that have little relation to real life problem solving and don’t measure any useful quality in the candidate. The trouble with this sort of test is that one can crack it like any game, by learning the rules and playing hard, and this has little to do with one’s real intelligence though it does take a certain amount of what we used to call low cunning in our student days. Officially this is never acknowledged although the people who make a living out of beating the system, the coaching class managers and tutorial home faculty, cheerfully admit it. Indeed, their occupations would be gone if the tests were not so dauntingly byzantine (or possibly Kafkaesque, with apologies to both Kafka and Byzantium).
The problem is a difficult one: exams are never a very good measuring stick to determine a student’s calibre at the best of times, but usually they’re all we have. Intelligent design is very rarely found in the architecture of examinations, and their format is often even more conservative and resistant to change than the syllabus itself.
(I’m aware that the IIMs are inordinately proud of their CAT, and rightly so. But it is a patent fact that we just don’t have enough good institutes teaching management to accommodate all the good students, so clearly the CAT has to function as a gatekeeping system to keep a substantial portion of applicants out simply because there isn’t room. Think about it.)
Therefore the number that stands by a candidate’s name in a merit list of such an exam often has only a tangential relation to his or her ‘merit’. Until we have better entrance exams I will withhold judgement on the question of merit and whether it is compromised by a lower cutoff mark. Personally I think we have more than enough talented people to fill these institutions even with a huge increase in seats and a drop in the cutoff marks, which is nothing but a rationing system to make sure that our existing inadequate infrastructure is not overwhelmed by demand. Legitimate demand for technical and specialist education far outstrips supply in this country. With our huge (and young) population, we have only a fraction of the schools, univs and tech institutes that the US, for example, has. The biggest problem will be finding enough people to teach them and getting funding bodies to ratify the creation of new teaching posts, a task much more thankless than carving out reservations.
The second problem I envisage is that of fees. The new quota comes at a time when the IIMs have hiked their fees, and what the IIMs do today everyone else is sure to do tomorrow. How will these means-tested students pay for their educations? Will there be enough scholarships for the deserving? Will there be enough hostel rooms? or will this just be an empty gesture, and the official quota of seats remain a paper measure curtailed by overflowing classrooms and the cracked voices of overworked teachers? It is all very well to airily say that seats will be expanded over three years, unless there’s also provision for new buildings and facilities.
So after all, I’m not really very hopeful.