The reservation debate has now turned out to be the most contentious political issue faced by the Manmohan Singh government.
Earlier this month, the Knowledge Commission -- that advises the government on the knowledge economy -- sat down to debate the controversial reservation issue.
Six of the Commission's eight members felt reservations should not be extended or proposed in educational institutions, rather it is a historic opportunity for India to craft more effective policies to make educational institutions socially more inclusive.
Two members -- Dr P M Bhargava and Jayati Ghosh -- did not agree with the majority view.
Dr Bhargava is currently chairman of the Medically Aware and Responsible Citizens of Hyderabad, the Sambhavna Trust, Bhopal, and the Basic Research, Education and Development Society, New Delhi.
In an exclusive interview with Managing Editor George Iype, he reveals why he supports reservation in educational institutions.
Why do you support the reservation system?
I support reservation conditionally. My argument is let us devise a strategy to end reservations, and not prolong it for decades.
You mean you support reservation to end it?
Yes. Reservation cannot go on for ages. My suggestion is to find solutions to end it, rather than abruptly end it. We must recognise that the OBCs/SCs/STs have been the most underprivileged sections in society since the 1940s.
After Independence, we started the reservation plan to educate and better the lives of these people who have always remained backward. Then we put in the Constitution that we would end reservation in 10 years. We set up beautiful government schools to educate everyone. Do you know India had the best government schools till 1960s?
All our leaders, politicians and bureaucrats of the post Independence era were educated in government schools. They had good teachers; the reservation idea was also then based on the presumption that the government schools would be expanded and the poor and the needy would be educated.
But sadly, the government schooling system collapsed by 1960.
Because of the government's lack of plan and action. It is also because India began changing socially, in different ways. Do you know that in the 1960s there was no corruption in India? There were no cheating cases; there was no airport security checks in India. Everyone lived happily, without worrying much about their lives.
The first security checks in India in airports were introduced in 1971. Before 1970, Lucknow used to be a peaceful, great city. We used to go out in the evenings without locking our homes. There were no murders in Lucknow before that. What I am saying is that India used to be a different country before 1970.
When and how did India change?
India's face drastically changed after 1970. The main reason for this change was the utter commercialisation of education. Government schools began to be looked down upon with contempt. The middle class began to be affluent. But the middle class also grew to be a totally self-centered class.
Today, the middle class is not concerned about anything; they are bothered only about themselves. They are not concerned about public social welfare. They always think how our children can make money and live happily. They fight for their rights, but when it comes to the upliftment of depressed classes like the OBCs, STs and SCs, the middle class turn away and say that looking after the poor and downtrodden is the government's business.
After the 1970s, private schools began mushrooming across the country; the affluent middle then made it a point to send their children to these schools only.
So the government education system collapsed because of all these reasons?
Yes. A combination of factors such as the commercialisation of education, the middle class mentality and corruption have led to the decay of schooling system in the country. The government schooling system collapsed.
It is now the season of capitation fees. For students to get admitted, it is a prestigious now to pay capitation fee. That is the reason why India is compelled to continue with the reservation for OBCs, STs and SCs in the country.
You said corruption also led to the downfall of the schooling system. How?
Yes, of course. Before the 1970s, there was rarely any corruption in India. Now do you know which are the fields that are most corrupt? Corruption is most acute in the health and education fields. For instance, transfer of health workers and teachers is ranked as the worst systematic corrupt sector in the country.
Do you think bringing back the glorious days of government schooling can help resolve the reservation issue?
Look at Western countries, especially America. The success of America today is because they have the best run free neighborhood schools, where there are no class and caste barriers. In such schools, every citizen studies, irrespective of whether they are rich or poor, belonging to one class or another caste.
In India also we need to bring back such schooling to ensure that the OBCs are also educated at par with the middle class and the rich.
You said providing reservation now is to end reservation? What is the strategy you are talking of?
My recipe for ending reservation is that the government must first of all set up four lakh (400,000 high schools across India. Do you know which are the best-run schools in India today? The government-run Central Schools rank as the best schools in quality education in India these days.
There is no scarcity of funds with the government these days. The government collects every year around Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion) through the education cess. We should utilise this money to set up new government schools across the country. Local self-government bodies must manage these schools. If this is accomplished, every child in India -- irrespective of whether he is an OBC or not -- can be educated in the next 10 years.
How does this help resolve the reservation issue?
When everyone in India gets the best of school education, where is the need for continuing with reservations? We can start then decreasing the reservation percentage from the next 10 years. By 2020, we will be at the end of reservation. I call this affirmative action. Now what happens in the name of reservation is largely politics.
So you are opposed to the hike in reservations that Minister Arjun Singh has proposed in elite institutions?
I support reservation, with certain conditions. When you increase the reservation intake by 27 per cent, you have to increase the seats in these institutions also by 27 percent. This will increase the infrastructure and staffing in each institution. They all become large campuses where more students can study.
But there are also privileged, rich people/students among the reserved category. Should they also get the benefits of reservation?
No. Never. We should not give reservation to the children of, for instance, for a minister who belongs to the OBC, SC or ST. These creamy layers of society should not be provided with reservations.
Have you discussed your proposal with the Government of India?
Yes, I met with HRD Minister Arjun Singh and sent my ideas of reservation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I am told that the HRD ministry has accepted many points in my arguments.
Why is it that a majority of the Knowledge Commission's members opposed your support for reservations?
I do not know. I stand by my proposals, which I truly believe would benefit the society and the underprivileged.
Two members of the Knowledge Commission -- Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Dr Andre Beteille -- resigned on the reservation issue. Why is it so?
Yes, they resigned because they say the prime minister has not supported the Commission's majority view against reservation.
So why should they resign on this account?
That is what I am also wondering. In democracy, everyone has a viewpoint. I do not know why they should have resigned.