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Not in the affirmative - The Telegraph

Andre Beteille ()
30 August 1997

Title: Not in the affirmative
Author: Andre Beteille
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: August 30, 1997

Quotas cannot replace education as guarantor of socio-economic equity

Jawaharlal Nehru had said on the eve of Indian independence, "The spirit of
the age is in favour of equality, though practice denies it almost
everywhere." He then went on to declare, "Yet the spirit of the age will
triumph." A good way to assess the changes that have taken place in the 50
years since independence will be to ask how far the country has progressed
on the road to equality.

Almost immediately after independence, a number of important measures were
adopted for securing greater equality among the people of the country.
Principal among these were democracy based on universal adult suffrage,
sweeping agrarian reform and positive discrimination in favour of the
backward classes.

All of these have led to some gains for equality, but each of them has had
many unexpected and unsuspected consequences. The important point is that
the country has throughout this period never turned its back on the goal of
greater equality But the road to equality has revealed many snares and
pitfalls that Nehru and his generation had not foreseen.

Before independence, they had thought that all their projects were being
callously thwarted by a hostile colonial regime, and that once they became
masters of their own destiny those projects would be realized at little
cost. They had underestimated the capacity of an ancient hierarchical
society to resist wellmeaning attempts at radical change.

The hierarchical society inherited from the past may be likened to a
gigantic iceberg of which only a small upper portion is visible above the
waters, with its massive body resting below, frozen, immobile and
submerged. In the warm environment created by independence, the ice has
begun to melt, releasing swirls and eddies of incalculable force and
momentum. Is it surprising that the gains of orderly progress appear again
and again to be swept aside by massive outbursts of turbulence? It is a
great mistake to believe that a hierarchical society can reconstitute
itself on the basis of equality within a generation or two in a smooth and
painless manner, without conflict, without violence.

It was natural for those who took over the governance of the country on
independence to assume that politics and state power could be used for
achieving their main social objectives. They greatly overestimated the
transformative capacity of politics. It can certainly solve some kinds of
problems, but not every kind of social problem. The indiscriminate use of
politics to address every problem in society has now become a habit of mind
with us. It delays and even obstructs processes of change that have their
sources outside of politics and operate unnoticed across long stretches of

I do not wish to deny to politics its role in social transformation in
general and in reducing social inequality in particular. We may, for
example, consider land reform as a measure to reduce the inequalities
between classes in which politics had a significant role. Agrarian reform
had been a major political objective of the Congress since before
independence, and the legislation enacted in its furtherance after
independence was voluminous.

Many of those who had hoped for the complete elimination of unequal re
rations in agriculture were disappointed by the immediate effects of the
reform. It is however clear in retrospect that the old feudal relations
have steadily lost ground over the last 50 years. It is another matter that
many of the expected gains, of land reform were eaten up by massive
increases in population throughout, the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

Inequality between individuals based on the distribution of land and other
material resources is not the only problem faced on the road to equality.
There are also massive disparities between castes that have existed since
time immemorial. These too were matters of major concern for the leaders
of the newly independent country. But attempts by successive governments to
reduce caste disparities by political means have been less successful than
agrarian reform.

What the government did in fact was to take over the programme of quotas
devised by the British, and then steadily expand quotas in every direction.
Many now realize that the gains to equality from the programme of
reservations are small while the programme itself undermines the spirit of
liberal democracy

But the quota mentality has in the meantime become firmly established and
no political party - whether of the left or the right - has the nerve to
question it. Naturally, it will become further entrenched with the adoption
of quotas for women.

To the extent that India's leaders were sincere in their commitment to
equality at the time of independence, their mistake was to put so much
emphasis on politics, and so little on education. The gains from political
intervention are often immediate and dramatic, but they as often evaporate
without leaving much trace. The gains from education take time, a couple of
generations at least, to become visible, but then they become permanently

The passage from hierarchy to equality can be made effective only by
creating the widest range of open and secular institutions to which
recruitment is based on individual ability and not birth in a particular
caste or community. This comes with the emergence of a new occupational
structure and a new educational system essential for its support. It is
only through the joint operation of these two systems that the principle of
equality of opportunity - or of careers open to talent - can be made
socially effective.

In a society such as ours with its massive burden of inequalities inherited
from the past, equality of opportunity cannot be effectively secured in a
decade, or even a generation. For, real as against purely formal equality
of opportunity depends not merely on the removal of disabilities but also
on the creation of abilities. It is here that the role of education is
decisive. In creating the kinds of abilities that are essential for a
progressive economy and society, there is no substitute for a sound
educational system.

Instead of investing in education for all, we have tried to reduce
disparities between castes through the shortcut of reservations. Our
programme of reservations is perhaps the largest in the world, and our
performance in primary and secondary education among the weakest. The gains
to equality from reservation have been small, and what is worse, we have
failed to develop the human capital which alone can give substance to the
principle of equality of opportunity in the long run.

It is not my argument that affirmative action should have no place at all
in the overall plan for greater equality. But to be effective, it has to be
administered sparingly and with restraint. Such programmes have indeed
achieved good results in other countries, precisely because they have been
used judiciously In our case, particularly in the last 20 years, the
programme has been buffeted around by political pressures to the point
where it has come to threaten the very principle of equality of opportunity.

The urge to find instant political solutions to deeprooted and longstanding
social problems may not be uniquely Indian. What does seem to be
distinctively Indian is the faith in quotas - shared by conservatives and
radicals alike - in solving all the problems of distribution and allocation.

(The author is professor of sociology, Delhi School of Economics)

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