Saturday, May 20, 2006

Students Of India, Its Your Problem As Well !

I'm glad the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) students (finally) emerged from their campuse in Bombay to form a chain of protest. That’s good to hear. Now, where did they do that ? Not near distant Mantralaya or Azad Maidan or some such public place where their protests would surely have more impact. Rather, in the relative comfort of Powai, in North Bombay. Oh yes, it was right outside their campus. Wow ! That must have taken some effort.

As long as they protested, I guess. Maybe this is exam time. Which leads me to wonder. Why, again, is a fundamental issue of meritocracy in education not affecting the rest of the country's student community ? Or the creation of more quality education seats. Surely, even a child can tell you that adding seats in premier institutions is not like topping up an ice-cream cone. Or packing a Bombay local train with a few more hundred commuters. Its got to be thought out and planned out.

China has faced similar problems. And responded with a strategy to hugely enhance education capacity. Across disciplines. Like information technology & English language where it wants to play catch up with countries like India. But China has also calibrated over-capacity in colleges (which strains the job markets) with tighter admissions. But no quotas ! Which obviously is the easiest thing to do for our politicians. Because the other option requires an intensity of execution which they largely lack. And its a longer term solution. Why bother when you have a quick fix !

I hear youngsters talking about these issues all the time. So, I presume they care. And yet no one has really moved, excepting a scattered few. Is it the because the medicos have made themselves the sacrificial goats ? And they are managing and fronting the show.

Stage Managed, So What ?

Before I move on, there are suggestions, here and there, of the medicos’ protests being stage managed. Are we thinking foreign hand here ? Or is it just opposition parties ? Or is it some third force that we are yet to be acquainted with ? Didn’t realize that this is how we regard the folks we visit we go to when our lives are hanging in balance. I wonder, then, why you would entrust your life to someone you equate with politicians, middle-men, brokers and god knows who else.

Lets assume that the medicos are `stage managing’ the whole thing. They band together every evening, draw up plans of attack, farm out duties at a national level, ensure reports are constantly flowing in and monitor the whole thing, using whatever technology they can afford or access. I don’t get it. What’s wrong with that ? The best protests are stage managed.

From Davos to Tinamen Square, people don’t happen to get together like that. Following a cup of coffee at the local Barista. The most effective protests are meticulously planned. And executed with precision. It happens all the time, all over the world. That’s how student protests (I am limiting my argument to them) ought to be. That’s why student protests usually achieve more in the longer term. As history tells us. As opposed to crowds going berserk.

Now, What ?

To return to the point, so the protests have picked up steam. The student in me reiterates that every student should take up the issue. Whichever way you feel. Particularly, if you want a serious debate and conclusion. Studies conducted by Surjit Bhalla and Sunil Jain in Business Standard debunk some popular theories. For one they challenge the commonly touted OBC stastic, saying its 36% and not 52%. Bhalla than goes on to attack the lawmakers saying they’ve blundered in principle.

This is not something, unfortunately, that’s been widely debated. Though Ive seen some interesting points of view on this blog and elsewhere. Though I think that's only one of the issues at stake. Lets understand one thing. There is a large section of society whose lives are not exactly rocking the way yours and mine are. I say this because if you are reading this post, you can read, have access to a computer and know where to surf. I have said this before..there is an increasing disconnect between the post-liberalization riches that have benefited a few and this class.

The issue is not whether its 36% or 52%. We are talking tens and hundreds of millions of partly educated or uneducated, unemployed youth. Who watch TV, films and develop aspirations which are similar to you and me. They would not like to be condemned to the lives they were born into. They want out. And not all have the necessary DNA to become entrepreneurs or migratory labour.

Wake Up, Or Suffer

Something about the system is not working, because opportunities are not being created. China has created over 100 million manufacturing jobs in the last few decades and has pulled some of its populace out of poverty. We have nothing to show in comparison. Except more stock-option blessed riches in urban India. And the occasional vanilla farming jackpot.

I have argued this before as well. Politicians can be trusted to come up with some pretty unimaginative responses. The rest of us unfortunately pay the price. Either by being denied seats or facing some other fall-out. To that extent, the problem is all of ours. Particularly all students. Because its you who will suffer the most. And you better wake up. Instead of watching with equanimity.


Ashish Sharma on 9:02 am said...

Hello Govind,

This is Ashish here, i read ur comments...found interesting....during past few days i m having an email conversation with Prof.Thomas Sowell of Stanford University...on Affirmative actions around the his book, he has written a chapter on Caste Reservations System in India...and how effective it has been..For this book Sowell has done research on reservations systems in India, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, arguing that the same flaws in the systems appear everyhwere. i am not able to get hold of the book here..if u can find one...its is must on Affirmative actions...Govind...Prof Amardeep Singh of Lehigh University has posted his review on Sowells are some of The important points he has highlighted...Here are some ideas and facts about reservations in India from Sowell's book that I found interesting. The information I'm passing on isn't slanted either pro-reservations or against them. I do provide my own interpretations in parentheses, but other interpretations of the facts might be possible:

1) Caste violence still occurs. Sowell cites a 1991 India Today article on the public lynching of cross-caste lovers in a village 100 miles from Delhi. But more importantly, Sowell cites government statistics: "Government statisticts on atrocities against untouchables never fell below 13,000 per year during the decade of the 1980s and reached well over 16,000 in 1984. Far from abating with time, these officially recorded atrocities escalated to more than 20,000 a year in the 1990s. "

That's 20,000 a year. Most atrocities occur in a small number of states (Sowell cites Bihar and Uttar Pradesh especially). They are primarily rural occurences; Sowell acknowledges that strong caste feeling -- the kind that can lead to violence -- is rare in India's big cities.

(This evidence supports the idea of government intervention, at least as a matter of basic civil rights. It doesn't directly support the reservation system)

2) Unfilled seats. Reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC) in schools and government posts remain largely unfilled, whereas reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are generally filled to capacity. Sowell cites a 1997 study that indicates that nationally preferential policies only benefit 6 percent of Dalit families. Moreover, the same study reported that "none of India's elite universities and engineering institutes had filled its quota for members of scheduled castes."

(This could be read in many ways -- but at the very least, it proves there are problems and imbalances in the reservations system. OBCs are not necessarily 'backward')

3) Continued underrepresentation. People from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continue to be absent from white collar positions. "For the country as a whole, members of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes -- combined -- did not receive as much as 3 percent of the degrees in engineering or medicine, though together they add up to nearly one-fourth of the population of India."

(This suggests that reservations have not been wholly successful, though perhaps even 3 percent is a dramatic improvement over what one might have seen 50 years ago)

4) Other economic and practical factors. The government provides scholarship to SC students to attend school, but sometimes that is not enough: "Even when the government provides primary schooling free of charge, the costs of books and supplies may not be affordable by very poor people. For secondary education, rural students especially may not always find a school nearby, so that those whose parents cannot afford the costs of commuting or relocating -- and paying for housing and boarding -- have little realistic prospect of attending, regardless of preferential admissions policies." (32)

(This evidence suggests that reservations may not be systematic enough to really create equality of opportunity)

5) Dominance of some SCs. Some Scheduled Castes do better than others with the system, raising the demand in some quarters for 'quotas within the quota'. A particular case in point are the Chamars, historically a leather-working (and therefore untouchable) caste. There are lots of statistics here, so I'll quote at length:

In the state of Maharashtra, the Chamars are among the most propserous of the scheduled castes. A study found that they were 17 percent of the state's population and 35 percent of its medical students. In the state of Haryana, the Chamars received 65 percent of the scholarships for the scheduled castes at the graduate level and 80 percent at the undergraduate level. Meanwhile 18 of the 37 untouchable groups in Haryana failed to get any of the preferential scholarships. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, Chamars were 53 percent of all the scheduled caste students in the schools of that state. In Bihar, just two of the 12 scheduled castes in that state--one being the Chamars-- supplied 61 percent of the scheduled class students in school and 74 percent of those in college.

(This suggests that caste status should really be indexed with a family's economic background where there is evidence that certain communities are no longer impoverished. Wealthy families from low castes should not be given preferential treatment.)

There's more. Sowell also has sections where he talks about local reservations issues in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra (he is compelling on Assam and Andhra, but not on Maharashtra -- the Shiv Sena is a separate can of worms). He also refers to some of the bizarre ways people work the system (i.e., higher caste students who are 'adopted' into lower caste families in order to benefit from reservations). Most of these examples are, however, anecdotal.

What is lacking in Sowell's chapter on India is any treatment of the Mandal Commission report, which recommended the expansion of the reservation system in the 1980s. When the V.P. Singh government implemented the recommendations of the Commission in 1990, it led to chaos, and eventually the collapse of the government.

There are certainly other limitations and flaws too, but at least he provides some helpful data and a starting point for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ashish

Very interesting..and very useful analysis. The more I read insights like this, the more I am convinced that the political class comes up with concepts like increased reservations as a quick fix for a problem they have no clue how to solve.

Assuming they understood the problem in the first place and are genuinely interested in doing something about it.

I have not for instance come across a single game plan which says "Here is a long term solution to improving primary education capacity or middle school capacity in India. In the context of where our economy is going and where we want to be."

Read in a paper today that one reason for HRD minister Arjun Singh coming up with this idea is a combination of envy and the desire to control a successful government created system ! Keep writing in !


Unknown Indian on 12:00 pm said...

Hi Govind

Back at your blog after a while. The reason for the differential level of protests is not difficult to see:

1) Engineering, MBA and medical courses in most states (such as Maharashtra) already had 50% reservations. The novelty factor is in reservations in central univs (including DU), IITs, IIMs and central post grad medical colleges. Which is why protests started in Delhi and have been lukewarm elsewhere

2) Medical students (doing their MBBS) still need to get into post graduate institutes to do MD level courses - engineering students usually don't care for post graduate courses in India - once you are in engineering (esp. IITs), reservations do not matter any more.

3) IITians who want to do an MBA in IIMs would be impacted - but an IIM MBA is only one option. If an IITian does not get into IIM, he can go abroad (which is even today the preferred option), take up a great job, or do an MBA after working for a few years either abroad or at ISB.

4) You surely don't expect school kids whose chances of getting into IITs will be hit to be on the streets, do you? They will be cramming even harder than ever to get into the few residual seats

5)As for IIM grads - come on! They have (at least as long as the global bull market continues) made it in life. If India sinks, too bad - they can go to Hongkong or Singapore or NY. Like me, the max they will do is crib on their blogs (or yours)

6) What about private sector reservations? Yes that will hurt. It will kill Indian industry if implemented at every level - but most people expect industry to successfully fight it off - or worst case be stuck with token reservations wherein the security guards and office boys who have been outsourced to Trig or Sodexho are brought back on the rolls to meet quotas. The street is clearly NOT the place for this group to act.

P.S. Now that I have typed so much, will probably post this at my blog. Hope you don't mind

kaurwakee on 9:40 pm said...

Yes its a fight for everyone. Today i'm working and dont have to enter PG course but its my fight too. What answer will I give my kids when I tell the" dont study in India , Aim for going abroad" . Should I tell them that their fault is being a general category student? That there is no point scoring 90%?
In a country which is boasting of growth and a young population, what motivation standards are we setting for students?

And what bothers me is no one, not even one politician( barring N Siddhu ) has shown empathy towards this. Why cant they provide free and compulsory primary education to all OBC's. Why not free coaching centres for the students? Why not make educaton free for the quota if at all they want to bring out potential of merit.

Seeing the police beat up medical students fill sme with embarrassment. Years ago I was a kid and I asked my Dad what does mandal commission means and the answer i got was" even if you are a topper, you might not get admission because we are brahmins!" So which class will suffer when my daughter asks me this question?

Anonymous said...

My senior from IIMK and I had a discussion on the whole issue of reservations. We discussed for a whole hour before the topic went to who were the reserved students in my batch from IIMK. So I handed him my year book and he started making guesses. Amazingly he had a 80% strike rate.

His secret! Those who do not work hard are sure candidates. The rest you can ascertain from the lack of spark in the candidate.

Reservation promotes resistance to hard work and exertion. Of all the reserved students that I have seen during engineering and b-school I can count those who worked hard on my hands. The other treated the stay as a vacation, failed and got a job in a PSU. May of them were sons/daughters of rich parents - IAS officers, Engineers and Doctors. Did they need reservations? The best example was a girl in engineering. She was born and brought up in London and came to India when she was in the 9th and took a quota seat in Engineering. Did she need it?

Finally Mr Arjun, stop playing dirty politics. If you have to gain votes, ask your concience "Is this the right method"? or should I win votes based on my merit ?

qfunk on 6:29 pm said...

i am a newbie to the blogging community (though not 2 writing). Having browsed thru a reasonable no, i think blogs can be categorized into general daily fart and serious stuff. I must say ur blogs r very well written...

Dusty on 9:13 pm said...

Hi Govind, I am getting so tired of this. Besides, history repeats itself. When we were students it was Mandal. But, what I find more appaling is the system of donations. I just met a very bright kid who has just cleared Std X without joining any classes. She has got a real good grade, much above the cut off mark in most colleages, but donations are still asked for.


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