Amit Phansalkar opens the debate on Maharashtra's possible extension of job reservations, or quotas, for lower caste Indians to the private sector on Living in India. Maharashtra is the first state to consider acting on this proposal, which is part of the new United Progressive Alliance government's Common Minimum Program. Currently, India reserves a portion of all jobs in public companies and seats in government-run schools and universities for members of historically oppressed castes.
As an outsider, my experience with caste discrimination is limited. (Once untouchables of a sort, we firangs somehow acquired honorary Brahmin, Kshatriya or at least Baniya status sometime in the 20th century, it appears). But through the course of reporting several caste-related stories, I have met with 20 or so low-caste leaders, both from trade union type organizations and political parties. Without fail, every one of them credits reservations in education and government employment for his rise from abject poverty to relative affluence, usually accomplished in a single generation. For example, I met a union leader in Gujarat who began life as the son of a bootblack, helping his father shine shoes before and after school, in a remote town in Kutch. Through reservations, he secured a place in college in Ahmedabad. Commuting by bus (by that time the family had moved to a nearby town), he completed a degree in commerce and gained a job with a nationalized bank, again benefitting from reservations. Far from being a burden to his employers, he earned promotion after promotion until he attained a middle-management position. One of his sons now has a job with a private bank, while the other is planning to go abroad.
I mention this example to refute the notion--accepted as a given by most opponents of reservations--that quotas inherently hurt productivity and/or ensure that unqualified personnel receive jobs. To the contrary, most reservation jobs remain unfilled because administrators insist that they cannot find qualified applicants from the required castes, a claim that low-caste leaders strongly dispute. Countless people told me the same tale: You can get through all the quantifiable portions of the application process, but in the end it comes down to a face-to-face interview. And if you run into a bigot there, he can easily get away with inventing some shortcoming. In America, you'd have some hope with an anti-discrimination lawsuit. But in India? If it weren't enough that an Indian civil suit is "the closest man can come to experiencing eternity," as a wise man has put it, the low-caste plaintiff must plead his case before a high-caste judge.
Job and education quotas are problematic, to be sure. But considering the fact that there is not a single accredited Dalit journalist and only a handful of non-accredited Dalit journos, the debate seems a trifle one-sided, even when the liberal-minded elite join in. Barring the sudden induction of Dalit writers by the press--a move that might happen without reservations in the private sector?--it would be good if all those who enter the debate have met at least one Dalit on equal terms, sat down and shared a meal, perhaps. Otherwise, we're really just talking to ourselves about whether India's elites should share a small part of their "hereditary" wealth.