India’s new government—elected on promises of an improved life for the poor—is edging closer than any of its predecessors to forcing private companies to implement affirmative action for low-caste Hindus. But the opposition is entrenched.
NEW DELHI—Chandrabhan Prasad, India’s only newspaper columnist from a caste once considered untouchable, lives with his wife and one-year-old daughter in a modest four-room apartment in East Delhi. It’s not a luxurious life, but it’s a happy one, filled with hope. And Prasad believes it’s a life he’d never have known, but for constitutional provisions that reserve a portion of all jobs in the government and government-run public sector units for historically underprivileged Indians.
“My brother was able to get a reservation job in the police,” explains Prasad. “Because of that, I and my brothers and sisters were able to go to school, instead of going to work ourselves.” Reservation policies also helped Prasad make the “big leap” from a poorly financed, Hindi-medium college where professors wrote out Shakespeare in Hindi script to the highly respected Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he began writing editorials for the Pioneer and other national dailies. “The only question is how to get that opportunity,” he says.
For most Indians who come from what the Indian Constitution describes as “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” the answer to that question is reservations, or the quota system that India adopted in the 1950s as its answer to affirmative action. But as India dismantles its socialist-style economy and sells off more and more of Nehru’s public sector units, the number of reservation jobs is shrinking at an alarming rate. And along with those economic changes, the call for expanding the program to include private sector jobs is steadily increasing in volume.
For 2,000 years, Hindu belief has divided humanity into four Varnas, or groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Once, the caste you were born into determined your social status and the job you could do. Brahmins and Kshatriyas, at the top, were the scholars, priests, rulers and warriors of the society. Vaishyas were traders and the Shudras were menial servants. Beneath them all were those forced to perform tasks deemed by the Hindu religion to be polluting--making shoes, treating leather and scraping human excrement from primitive toilets, among myriad other jobs. To low-caste leaders like Udit Raj, national president of the Indian Justice Party, those were the most unsavory reservations of all. “Right from the Vedic period, the Brahmins reserved the top positions for themselves,” he says.
But in recent years lower caste Indians have gained substantial political power as the long-domination of Nehru’s Congress Party has given way to an era of coalition-based government. Though economic advancement has proven more elusive, former untouchables, who now call themselves Dalits, and lower caste Indians commonly called “Other Backward Castes” or OBCs—who together make up around 50% of the population—are essential to any electoral victory. For that reason, if no other, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government elected this May listed a call for a national dialogue on the expansion of affirmative action to the private sector in its post-coalition mission statement. President APJ Kalam then threw down the gauntlet on behalf of the new government in his June 7 speech at the opening of the new parliament, saying, “The government is sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservation in the private sector, and it is committed to faster socio-economic and educational development of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.”
Soon afterward, the Congress government of Maharashtra—home to Mumbai and many of India’s largest corporate interests—became the first to take action to make good on the promise. Working through a law passed earlier this year, Maharashtra vowed to implement by July 30 a 52% quota for the underprivileged in "any Government-aided institution: those that are recognised, licensed, supervised or controlled by Government." Like all reservation policies, the quota did not mean that companies would have to fire upper caste workers and hire lower caste replacements—a common misconception—but would apply to all future recruitment. Indian industry responded immediately, opposing the plan on the basis that any limitations on recruitment would hurt corporate efficiency and make it more difficult for India to compete globally.
“We’ve already been suffering under many constraints, like socialist economic planning and labor restrictions,” says Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto, the world’s largest manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles and one of India’s largest companies. “If we implement reservations, we’ll have no way to become internationally competitive.” Though he is not without sympathy or a sense of social justice, Bajaj is convinced that now is not the time to saddle industry with responsibility for achieving it. Also, he believes caste-based discrimination is rapidly fading away. “There are poor people,” he says. “The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are suffering. Nobody says nothing should be done about it. We must do something. But we can’t correct one wrong with another wrong…. Most of us do not have that prejudice. That is nonsense. Bajaj Auto, out of my total employees of 10,500, today Bajaj Auto employs 28% [people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes]. Where is the discrimination?”
A spokesman for another of India’s top companies asked not to be quoted by name for this article because, he said, “As it is our hiring practices are based strictly on capability and on the fit in the [company] culture and the overall organization.” He said the company was unaware of how many of its workers came from historically underrepresented groups because “We don’t capture any data about caste, only about education and job history.”
Likewise, Nandan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys Technologies, India's billion-dollar software-services giant, said in a statement, "We compete with the best in the world and recruit people who are the best, without any consideration for age, gender or caste. We believe that to retain its competitive edge, the country has to invest in training and developing our talent for the global market place."In a more candid television interview, Nilekani sympathized with plans to help create a more equal society. "There is no substitute for economic growth and globalization to remove people out of poverty," he said. "The point is, how do you make sure that the wealth creation is funnelled into social causes? Clearly we need to have affirmative action. We really need to give people an opportunity. But I think the focus has to be on education and making sure that we create high-quality education opportunities for everyone and then provide, obviously, the jobs that can absorb them. Reservation in a company, per se, may not be a great idea."
If India’s employers are so committed to social reform, why is the opposition to affirmative action so strong? Just as in other countries with such policies, like the United States or Northern Ireland, there is a huge gap in opinions about how much discrimination exists, especially between the privileged and the disadvantaged. While many of the elite, like Bajaj, believe most prejudice has been eradicated, most lower caste Indians believe discrimination is so prevalent that it defines every social interaction. That is why most industrialists think the government should focus on uplifting the poor, regardless of caste, while lower caste leaders believe such a shift in emphasis would mean only that the lion’s share of the benefits they now enjoy would be transferred to poor Brahmins.
Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit who moved from state-run Bharat Petroleum to become managing director of Petrolnet India, a private sector company, says this debate reveals a fundamental misconception about the purpose of the reservation policy. Most people believe the policy is intended to uplift the poor, rather than to offer redress for 2000 years of discrimination. “There is never an iota of reference to the intrinsic disability of the Indian society to treat all people equally and justly,” he says. “It is not the disability of the Dalits but the disability of Indian society that necessitates reservation.” Meanwhile, when industry suggests that requiring companies to fill positions with Dalit personnel will erode efficiency, it implies that Dalits are by nature incompetent, he argues. “I would say the very tone and tenor of these reactions against reservations from the corporate leaders constitutes reason enough for reservation in the private sector…. None of them seems to consider the possibility that there could be people from these castes with requisite merit and capability.”
“The opposition to reservations in the private sector on the grounds of efficiency is not acceptable to me,” agrees Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar, a Dalit who is vice chancellor of Mumbai University and a member of the national Planning Commission, speaking on his own behalf and not for those organizations. “Can efficiency be caste based or religion based or language based? Efficiency is acquired. Efficiency is the outcome of circumstances.”
But however offensive industry’s statements about efficiency are to many low-caste Indians, there is at least a kernel of truth to the argument that too few Dalits and OBCs receive top-quality education and skills training. And while low-caste leaders believe their people will more than make up for that handicap if they are only given a chance, the industrialists have a point when they say that will take time and time is money. At the same time, the growing number of low-caste Indians who do have the requisite credentials and experience to win coveted jobs say they still face discrimination—some conscious and some unconscious—in the job market. People may talk about meritocracy, says Prasad, but often the competition goes no further than language and culture. The English-speaking elite, educated in expensive convent schools or British-style public schools, have a decided advantage in interactions with their peers over low-caste Indians. “His language, his style, his mannerisms, the way he dresses, in everything he will look very smart. But those are external qualities that don’t reflect your genius. That reflects your culture, your manner, your sophistication.” This is a statement that gives new meaning to corporations’ claims they weigh a perspective employee’s “fit with the company culture” when making hiring decisions. Nor do those who believe they are victims of discrimination have recourse to law. Although the Constitution has provisions to protect Dalits from being denied access to public places or facilities and from the atrocities that are still all-too common in rural areas, India has no equal opportunity laws to protect them or any of India’s minority groups from job-related discrimination.
Concerns about efficiency also mask greater worries about what will happen to high-caste Indians if as many as 50% of new jobs are reserved for their low-caste countrymen. And those fears can translate into vitriol—even violence. The last time India increased the scope of its reservation policies, when former Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to implement the findings of the Mandal Commission and extend job quotas to include not only the scheduled castes and tribes but also Indians from “other backward castes,” fanatics burned themselves to death in protest and riots broke out across the nation, eventually leading to the end of Singh’s government.
Tempers still run hot. “There are so many so-called backward castes. Take the Nadas [a South Indian caste]. They’re filthy rich and yet they get preference over Brahmins everywhere in Tamil Nadu. For all the things Brahmins did 100 years ago, you can’t keep penalizing them,” says K. Mahesh, chairman and managing director of Sundaram Brake Linings. “They can screw up their government departments by having more backward castes there if they want. We don’t need to do that. It’s about time they uplifted themselves.”
“A lot of people feel there is this class of people that are being pampered and so much is being done about them,” says Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit who is principal adviser in the department of economic analysis and policy at the Reserve Bank of India who also spoke on his own behalf. “Most people do not recognize that actually in every single walk of life the extent of actual implementation of reservations has been extremely poor.” Despite more than 50 years of reserving 22.5% of public sector jobs, intended to govern promotions as well as recruitment, members of Scheduled Castes—who make up about a quarter of the population--hold only 10% of group A positions (the top), 13% of group B positions, 16% of group C positions and 21% of group D positions in central government services. Meanwhile, 44% of the sweepers—a designation that includes jobs like cleaning toilets and collecting garbage that Hindus consider “polluting”--come from Scheduled Castes. Even fewer good private sector jobs go to low-caste Indians, say Dalit leaders, though statistics aren’t available.
“We’re not saying make every Dalit a leader or a doctor or a television anchor. That is not possible. What we’re saying is among hundreds of persons, let’s consider having ten or twenty from Dalit backgrounds as well. We’re saying: Give us an opportunity. Then you can fire us. If we don’t satisfy you, then fire us. But give us an opportunity.”