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  Down the Quota Abyss  


By: Raghbendra Jha
July 09, 2006
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


With the announcement of the reservations for OBCs in institutions of higher learning in India the wounds of quota discrimination are again open. Nowhere in the world – in particular in the presently developed countries and those developing countries which have substantially improved the living standards of their citizens – has there been such a coordinated onslaught on talent as the Indian system of reservation has inflicted on education, on jobs, on promotions – the list goes on an on. And threatens to become even more pernicious with time.

This fact alone should make Indians think hard about the usefulness of this policy. India certainly has some institutions of higher learning of truly excellent standards. Not one of these has opted for the kind of reservations being proposed. Some universities – particularly in southern India – have had such reservations but while some of them may provide good undergraduate education very few of them could be counted among research powerhouses in India, let alone in the world.

In fact whereas there are some excellent research institutions in the country the overall standard and quantity of research and development done in India is nowhere near what is required to make her a world leader in innovation and research. If India wants high growth rates not just for the next quarter or the next two years but for 25 years or more (and India needs such growth to eliminate the scourge of poverty and unemployment) India has to become a knowledge economy. Remember in 1978 India and China had approximately comparable per capita GDPs but almost three decades of GDP growth rates in excess of 8 per cent per annum have meant that now there is a huge gap between Chinese and Indian GDP per capita. India cannot expect to have a good chance to catch up unless she exploits the innate ingenuity and intelligence of her vast young population for productive use. Already good teaching and research faculty are hard to find in a number of institutions of higher learning in India and some have hired faculty from abroad. There is a proposal to extend the retirement age of medical teachers. There is one simple reason for this paucity of good teachers – India is just not producing enough qualified faculty to fill the growing needs of the young population. The government has promised to build more institutions of higher learning. But such institutions are made not just out of concrete and mortar but also top quality teachers and researchers and an atmosphere conducive for higher learning and research.

The quota route is moving in exactly the opposite direction to that required. The new quota regime will frustrate and drive away even more good teachers and researchers out of the profession or out of the country exactly when they are most urgently needed. It will crush talent, divide young people along caste lines and vitiate the work atmosphere. The fact that some newspapers are conducting polls to gauge support for quotas is indicative of such divisions. By their very nature truly good higher education and research are elitist occupations, not in the sense of caste or class or community, but in the sense that there are only select few who can pursue these effectively according to the high standards demanded by a rapidly globalizing world.

This is not to suggest that policy does not have a role. Policy has the very important role of ensuring that all Indians have equal access to institutions of higher learning. However, therein lies a catch. Assuring equal opportunity is much harder than creating quotas. Almost 60 years after independence SC and ST, women and other disadvantaged groups are disproportionately represented in the poor, the illiterate, the dropouts from school and so on. The inability of the Indian state to provide equality of access to higher education must count – despite possibility trillions of rupees spent over the years on such measures – as one of the serious failures of governance in India. However, even assuming that the political will to provide equality of access is not present and young Indians are condemned to suffer inequality of access to higher education, quotas do not solve the problem. One of the basic principles of economic policymaking is that one should attack a problem at its source. If one does not then one risks compounding the problem. If I have diarrhea taking a remedy for malaria will not help me but may well aggravate my diarrhea. If the problem is inequality of access to education creating quotas will not help. However, creating quotas helps secure vote banks or so some political parties think.

Lest unfair comparisons be made the quota regime is very different from the affirmative action program of the US which does not penalize talent. There is no escaping the fact the brand image of India has already been hurt by the quota issue. Prospects for sustained high growth rates will suffer. Just as the young people of today look back at the years of license-quota raj with abhorrence young people 15 years from now will look upon the current quota debate and pursuant policy as a watershed that denied them their place in the sun. A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste.

Raghbendra Jha

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