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Do our institutes connect with the real India?

By Tarun Jain
Last updated on: May 22, 2006 19:55 IST
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Shauke-deedar hain agar to nazar paida kar.

The new reservations policy has produced a lot of distress among students. Aspiring doctors and engineers are agitating on the Internet and on the streets. They worry about the quality of education, and argue that admitting students through a quota will destroy their institutions.

These are valid concerns. But the current debate is not just a time to ask about who gets in, but also an opportunity to look at the institutions themselves, and question whether these national institutions connect with the real India in a meaningful way.

After all, for the crores of rupees spent on educating these bright men and women, the tax-payer can reasonably expect to ask what the nation receives in return. And if students and teachers of the national institutes would actually benefit from having more diversity in backgrounds and thoughts in their classrooms.

The middle class deserves what it is getting

Could a more diverse student body work more broadly in the national interest than it currently does? The national institutes produce computer programmers, dam builders and investment bankers, and fine ones at that. But perhaps a more enlightened investment would also produce managers of farming co-operatives and social movements, and young engineers designing check-dams and inexpensive power generators for remote hamlets.

Diversity of outcomes is closely linked with what is taught. "In my civil engineering classes at Kanpur, we never discussed issues of displacement that accompanies big dams, says Shivani Saxena, who obtained a BTech from IIT Kanpur and went on to get an MS from Berkeley. "There is a severe disconnect between the class work and what are the real issues around infrastructure projects. It took me many years to develop a holistic view of my work."

This disconnect comes not just because of the demands of the curriculum, but also because there are very few students who have been displaced by construction projects. How different would the classroom be if tribal students from the Narmada valley also present?

Cynics will argue that tribal and lower caste students are incapable of engaging issues at a sophisticated level like those who enter through merit. But that means that we must question what merit means, and whether the wisdom of the current system really works.

Doctors in arms

Given the calcification of ideas at the top, it would be hard to think that there can ever be change. But reservations work here too. One distraught agitator on the Internet said, "There should be reservations for Arjun Singh's job too!"

There actually is. Seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies are reserved for scheduled castes and tribes all over India. And their representatives have succeeded at their jobs. SC and ST legislators vote consistently to fund welfare programmes for their SC and ST constituents, despite political pressures from the upper castes.

The same for women in reserved panchayats. Women pradhans implement policies that increase access to drinking water, primary education and basic health. Policies that 'meritorious' men prefer to ignore.

In study after study, representatives from reserved constituencies debunked the myth that they are incompetent, or puppets of others, or just not capable of handing the pressures of their jobs because they reached there through reservations.

But assessing their success does require that we see their achievements in a different way. The representatives are far more likely to be sympathetic to interests of the disadvantaged groups that have been ignored for so long. And justifiably so. After all, if the rest of the legislators had been just as sympathetic, those groups would not have been disadvantaged in the first place.

The idea that we all benefit when our classrooms have students from different communities is well recognised in the West. Most American universities have voluntarily developed 'affirmative action' programmes. And defend them vigorously.

'What more do the upper castes want?'

Even the largest corporates support the university affirmative action programmes. In one famous case in 2003, when the University of Michigan was sued over its affirmative action programme, Fortune 500 companies rallied to the university's defense. Microsoft, Intel, KPMG and Johnson and Johnson were among 20 major companies who argued that they need employees who have experience dealing with people of different race, ethnicity and gender. Affirmative action is not just a sign of a virtuous society, but also makes sound business sense.

The Indian version of affirmative action makes sound business sense as well. "Not only did my friends from 'backward classes' do extremely well in academics, they were the leaders in extra-curricular activities too," says Priya Ranjan, an Electrical Engineering graduate of IIT Kharagpur who obtained a PhD from the US.

He relates the diverse fields his classmates entered -- IPS, IAS, IT and journalism. "And they're all doing extremely well. Knowing them must have been a divine boon for me otherwise coming from super-feudal Bihar, I would not have had much exposure to social issues at all."

Even though his children might lose out because of reservation, Priya Ranjan says what he fears the most is ghettoisation from different castes living separately. "If mixed populations live together which is how it was in cities until we started building gated communities, I think mutual disbelief and hatred can be reduced tremendously."

The management and medical schools would also benefit from admitting a variety of students, rather than just the urban, coaching institute fueled students that currently dominate their ranks. Admitting a critical mass of Dalit students into B-schools would change attitudes about them just as the way the entry of women in large numbers killed the idea that women were "too emotional" to be good managers.

Reservations: The economic factor

Similarly, medical researchers from an Adivasi background might be able to share the medicinal traditions of their tribes in a medical college, debunking the myth that treatment always comes in a pricey little pill. This is not an easy task. We have a deep-rooted suspicion of traditional knowledge as not being 'scientific' and overcoming this suspicion along with discomfort with tribals who propagate it requires significant change in mindset.

The challenge for the national institutions in the current debate is not one of head-counts. But to find ways to reflect the real India in their work as they seek to become hotbeds of innovation. 'Those who want to conserve must be ready to repair,' wrote Babasaheb Ambedkar in the 1940s. He was referring, of course, to the entire Hindu society. But we can start with our elite institutions and our outlook to education. It will be a welcome repair.

Tarun Jain is a PhD student in Economics at the University of Virginia.

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Tarun Jain