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Myth Of Caste Division

Myth Of Caste Division

Author: P V Indiresan
Publication: The Times of India
Date: April 20, 2007
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Myth_Of_Caste_Division/articleshow/1925776.cms

As one would expect from a person of his judicial background, Rajindar Sachar made a dispassionate analysis of the problem of the OBC reservation issue (April 16, 2007).

However, not having direct experience of the education system, he cannot know the ground realities. Hence, his conclusions need some modifications.

Even though it is more than likely that the proportion of the OBC population is in excess of the 27 per cent quota proposed by the government, the court has decided to proceed with caution.

That caution is necessary on two grounds: One, it is important to decide who the OBCs are today and not who they were 75 years ago.

Two, it is necessary to check whether backwardness of OBCs in 2007 is the result of 5,000 years of tradition, or whether it is a creation of 50 years of education (mis)management?

The Planning Commission's Approach Paper to the Eleventh Five Year Plan states: "Thirty per cent (of primary school teachers) had not even completed Higher Secondary. For a large proportion of our children, school is an ill-lit class room with more than one class being taught together by someone who may not have completed her own schooling... 38 per cent of the children who have completed four years cannot read a small paragraph with short sentences meant to be read by a student of Class II. About 55 per cent cannot divide a three digit number by a one digit number... often the need for children of poorer families to work also drives them away from school. The monitoring above will need to correlate such facts with learning skills to identify where the real problems lie".

Thus, the government's own top policy body supports the view taken by the court for objective analysis and contradicts the stand taken by the HRD ministry.

The Approach Paper continues: "Even where service providers exist, the quality of delivery is poor and those responsible for delivering the services cannot be held accountable. Unless such accountability is established, it will be difficult to ensure significant improvement in delivery even if additional resources are made available".

Reacting to this statement, finance minister P Chidambaram has written: "It can be argued that you do not repair a leaking water supply pipe by simultaneously stepping up the water pressure".

Thus, at the highest levels of government there are deep concerns about accountability and about the acts of omission and commission of the HRD ministry that have led to the current poor performance of the education sector.

Whatever the finance minister may say in public, it is evident that he too is not convinced about increasing the pressure of prevailing policies which are leaking all over the place.

Inclusion is the fashionable expression these days; it has attained the status of moral imperative. Inclusion is the policy by which the HRD ministry swears by. The actual ground situation is different.

The Approach Paper observes that "relatively better off sections have virtually stopped sending their children to public schools".

According to a World Bank report, the share of unaided schools in secondary education has increased from 5.59 per cent in 1973-74 to 23.56 per cent in 2001-02. Currently, the proportion will be much higher.

Thus the poor quality education that the Approach Paper complains about is largely confined to government controlled schools; the better off sections have escaped the malaise by opting out of government and government-aided schools.

In effect, the poor and the poor alone have been excluded from acceptable quality education. Is this exclusion the result of age-old caste tradition or is it the result of political failure of recent decades?

That enquiry is moot because most chief ministers and almost all education ministers are OBCs. Therefore, the ground situation is quite different from the caste divide painted by the HRD ministry.

Before Independence, in many parts of the country, OBCs controlled land and forward castes concentrated on educated employment.

Income from land has dwindled and the OBCs are seeking to take over the economic space that was occupied by forward castes.

Is the difficulty that the OBCs are having to make that transition due to obstruction from forward castes, or is it due to administrative failures that neglect education of poor children?

In the case of higher education, the Approach Paper has set three goals: expansion, inclusion and excellence.

It is pertinent to ask whether excellence can be achieved at the higher education level when there is no excellence at the lower school levels; whether 12 years of bad schooling can be corrected merely by privileged entry into higher education institutions.

It is politically fashionable these days to paint forward castes as amoral and anti-social. The Supreme Court may like to consider enquiring how far this allegation is true.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira begs for five villages for himself and his brothers. The Kauravas rejected even that modest request on legalist grounds. Is not the current situation similar?

Is it not the fact that the political class is rejecting a modest request that at least a few IITs and IIMs be left free to pursue excellence, not exclusively for forward castes but for one and all and without caste bias?

Finally, which is the true divide: Forward-backward castes or is it politically over-privileged castes (POPs) and politically under-privileged castes (PUPs)?

The writer is former director, IIT Madras.

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