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Why reservation won't work

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June 22, 2006 14:35 IST

There have been enough discussions on the merits and demerits of reservation in central educational institutions. So far these institutions have been above caste- and religion-based quotas, except the legitimately mandated quotas for SCs/STs (Scheduled Castes / Scheduled Tribes).

That the move for the new quota system for OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in such institutions is politically motivated is a well-known fact. It was taken without consulting those who have built up institutions of excellence in science and technology in the country or those who were charged with making India a knowledge superpower in the 21st century.

This is unusual in a democracy.

Jawaharlal Nehru the architect of modern India set a high bar in science and technology for the country when he set the foundation stone of IIT Kharagpur in 1956 in West Bengal. Since that day 50 years ago, India's march towards excellence through centrally managed educational and research Institutions has been a remarkable story.

Whether it is the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), Centre for Development of Telematics (CDOT), etc., it is basically merit which mattered.

After the liberalisation of the 90s, it was the story of information technology whose foundations were laid through the telecom revolution in the 80s under late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who also opposed the quota system for OBCs.

IT, as we see today, would not have come up had merit not been the sole criterion. Is the country ready to witness all these fruits of hard labour go to waste by becoming a victim to political opportunism? The OBC category is a fuzzy set and only the creamy layer becomes thicker and thicker leaving behind the poor in all categories.

It is true that many states, because of political empowerment, have lifted large portions of their population to create a level playing field in terms of first level science and technology degree graduates. Many of those graduates are now part of the national process of knowledge building in the central sector. This is good social progress.

However, the central sector educational institutions have always put a premium on excellence, thus catapulting the country towards becoming a knowledge power in the near future. This dual strategy of social progress and excellence is a win-win situation for the country.

What does the political class find unacceptable in this scenario?

The seats for IITs, which are barely 4,000, can be increased easily to admit the next 10,000 meritorious students through the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) in a matter of years. This will make it possible for a larger section of the applicants to have access to quality education. There are 300,000 seats in state engineering colleges and states are free as per a Supreme Court ruling to allocate them up to 50 per cent in whatever way they wish; or, as in the case of Tamil Nadu, up to 69 per cent.

Good school education/coaching can hasten the process for neglected OBCs to compete with rest of the students to get into the IITs. With more IITs and merit as the criterion, most of those who aspire for an S&T career will be accommodated. Paradoxically, one of the states that did not have a quota system is West Bengal which even today is not very enthusiastic about it. The cost, in terms of having a fractured society among students and also faculty in central institutions because of the quota system, is too high.

The OBC quota system in many states has undergone several variations. Many states, particularly the southern states, have implemented this over more than two generations. But institutions, which are at the higher end of the spectrum of knowledge creation, still remain in the central sector.

The spirit of competitiveness is what has made China an economic powerhouse and that is the model we need to go for. One would have thought that the states which had a quota system for a long time, would voluntarily give it up, except for the SC/ST category. That has not happened and is unlikely to happen since perks and privileges are hardly taken away in a democratic framework.

The same thing is going to happen now if the quota system is extended to central institutions. There will be long-term damage to the country's S&T infrastructure, if 50 per cent of the seats are not merit-based. The knowledge industry is difficult to build, but easy to destroy.

As the county moves towards a knowledge economy, excellence is to be nurtured more than anything else. Moreover, the history of the country for the last six decades has proved that excellence is NOT the monopoly of any caste or religion. A cursory look at the IT industry in major cities of India will reveal the nature of the melting pot.

This is also evident in all the central institutions of higher education and research. For the first time after Independence, India has the chance of excelling in S&T with a huge mass of young talent pool. To squander this golden opportunity now is sheer intellectual hara-kiri.

One hopes that even at this stage, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his advisors will look at this issue and consider its long-term impact. It is too serious a matter to be left to those who have not taken part in nation-building efforts in science and technology.

The best thing under these conditions is to have a status quo and expand the central sector such as the IITs, IIMs and the medical schools. Thus, with more seats the net is cast wider to have a large number of meritorious students. This will automatically draw in the OBCs if good school education is made accessible. Then students of all religions, castes and sub-castes will find a place under the sun.

The author is Professor Emeritus at University of Illinois, USA, and was formerly at IIT Kanpur (1963-1981).

M A Pai