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Break The Quota Routine

Break The Quota Routine

Author: André Béteille
Publication: The Times of India
Date: June 15, 2009
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Editorial/TOP-ARTICLE--Break-The-Quota-Routine/articleshow/4655296.cms

Introduction: Push social uplift through affirmative action

It is agreeably surprising that the distinction between affirmative action and numerical quotas has found at least a toehold in the higher leadership of the Congress party. It is an important distinction with far-reaching implications. It is to be hoped that the point that has been made by a member of the Union cabinet will get a favourable hearing.

The argument being made against quotas for Muslims is that they will create resentment and generate a backlash. This is a weighty argument and it is almost certainly true, although it is unlikely that the victims of the backlash will be the same as the beneficiaries of quotas. Quotas by their very nature directly benefit only a few individuals and their extended families. Does that not create resentment among the hapless many against the resourceful few who have learnt to manipulate the regime of quotas to their own advantage?

There are as yet no quotas for religious minorities, but we can form some judgement of their possible consequences from our long experience of quotas for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the other backward classes. It cannot be said that quotas for SCs and STs have brought no benefits to the wider society. They played a useful role in the colonial period and also in the early decades of independence. But as their scope expanded after 1980, their social costs began to outweigh their social benefits.

In India, the Constitution and the laws have been committed since independence to the principle of equality of opportunity. But translating that principle into practice is no easy matter. As R H Tawney, who was a major intellectual inspiration for the welfare state in Britain, pointed out, the existence of equality of opportunity depends not merely on the absence of disabilities but also on the presence of abilities. Affirmative action is important because it serves to create those very abilities without whose presence equality of opportunity remains only a formal principle. Numerical quotas undermine that difficult and delicate process by putting individual effort at a discount and reinforcing the sense of incapacity from which disadvantaged castes and communities feel they are doomed to suffer.

Extensive numerical quotas have not only created resentment among those who fall outside their scope, they have also sapped the morale of their intended beneficiaries. Successful performance in any field of endeavour depends not only on innate intelligence and access to social capital, it depends also on determination and effort. It is often pointed out that there is a social bias against the backward castes and the religious minorities. No government can eradicate all bias from society. What sensible social policy can do and must do is to encourage individuals to overcome the bias by rewarding those who make a special effort to do so.

Muslim politicians who clamour for quotas may succeed in bringing some benefits to individual Muslims in the short run, but their actions can serve only to undermine the morale of the Muslim community in the long run. Indian Muslims have a tradition of pride and self-respect. That tradition should be harnessed for achieving worthwhile social objectives, and not squandered away by joining the rush for the loaves and fishes at the government's disposal.

Recourse to quotas for addressing every perceived social imbalance has become a habit of mind among leaders of every political party. The habit has become so deeply ingrained in our political culture that even to raise a question in public about its wisdom is to risk causing a scandal in the political establishment. It is in this environment remarkable for any single political leader, no matter how high his standing in his party, to question the advisability of quotas for his own community. But it is too early to say how far the statement will carry.

If serious thinking has begun in political circles about the limits of numerical quotas and the need for affirmative action in the case of Muslims, should there not be the same kind of thought given to policies relating to women? If quotas will create more problems for religious minorities than they will solve, will the case for women be significantly different? There is a Bill awaiting Parliament's approval for quotas for women. As soon as it is adopted and made into law, pressures will begin to build for quotas for women in education and employment.

No one can deny that women in India suffer from a host of disadvantages which begin within the family and are carried over into virtually every sphere of public life. Here again, equality of opportunity will depend on the creation of abilities and not just the removal of disabilities. There is enormous scope for the creation of those abilities among women through sensible affirmative action. The adoption of quotas will subvert the course of such action. They will inevitably act to the advantage of upper caste, middle-class women as against women of other classes and communities, and create bitterness and strife within the political class without seriously addressing the problems that hundreds of millions of ordinary women face in everyday life.

- The writer is professor emeritus of sociology, University of Delhi.

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