Those of you who have dutifully trolled through all my articles know that I have written several times about caste, discrimination and India's reservation policy. The truth is that my views on the subject are still not fully formed, and each time I revisit the topic I learn new things that color my perception of the problem. One thing never changes: my sympathy lies with the Dalits and to a lesser extent with the other lower castes that have been dehumanized by thousands of years of prejudice. I am also convinced that reservations have been the single most important tool in uplifting those few Dalits who have managed to break out of a cycle of poverty, poor self-image, exploitation, and more poverty. (Any Dalit who's made it will tell you).
Those issues aside, I have begun to believe that the thinking about India's reservation policy has become narrow-minded and cynical--motivated purely by vote-bank politics--at the very time that it needs to be most forward-thinking and innovative. For example, the government has failed to IMPLEMENT reservations at many levels, claiming that there are no qualified personnel to fill the reserved posts, but rather than seek a solution to this dilemma, they continually battle about whether the number of (unfilled, I presume) reserved places should be increased. So, too, in education. Only here the short-sightedness of the bureaucrats and elected officials is more frustrating, because they are squandering the only tool that we have to eliminate the need for reservations, instead creating a system that will only entrench and perpetuate the inequality of India's castes, and therefore enshrine reservations as an endless political necessity.
What do I mean?
India's reservation policy--and indeed the lion's share of its education spending--is focused nearly exclusively on higher education. As I understand it, the only thing that the government has done is require state-run (and now other) universities to admit x percentage of students from Scheduled Castes and Tribes and (later) Other Backward Castes. As far as I know (I confess ignorance here) there has been no effort to ensure that they succeed once they enroll. More importantly, there has been no effort to improve the quality of primary and secondary education that the lower castes receive, or to provide some kind of supplementary preparatory education, so that they would (at least over time) be able to meet university entrance requirements without the aid of quotas.
So what should be done?
There are several possible courses of action, but all of them would focus on a single goal: restructuring India's education funding system to focus on primary and secondary education instead of (or in addition to) the university. I won't go into it here, but my assumption is that the high value of university education in the job market would allow universities to charge much higher fees than they do at present, that a healthy banking environment would make low-interest college loans available, etc. Let's leave all that aside, however, and talk about what the problems are with the primary education system, a quick fix and some longer term ideas.
First, the government must acknowledge that India's state-run primary and secondary education system is a failure. The middle class, and even the lower middle class, has already acknowledged that fact and voted with their kids' feet--nobody who can afford not to attends government schools anymore. Next, the government should acknowledge that however good it is at making laws and writing rules, it is miserably bad at implementing them, so initiating policies intended to improve the quality of government schools, throwing money at the problem, etc, are likely to prove futile at worst, and proceed at a snail's pace at best. Finally, the government should review what IS successful about India's education system and reconsider how it can take advantage.
This is what I believe they would find, if they went about this exercise sincerely. The most effective and successful education initiative that the government has ever pursued was the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Meanwhile, the most effective and successful initiatives in primary and secondary education have all come from the private sector; India's private schools are excellent, as good as or better than those found in the US or Europe, perhaps. To me, this suggests two courses of action. First--and this could be done most quickly--the government could explore ways to support and expand the nation's private schools, while simultaneously making it profitable and desirable for them to admit students from the depressed classes. Second, over the long term, the government could establish "IIT-style" primary and secondary schools, beginning in key cities, where top-class educations would be provided for a nominal fee to students who pass a competitive exam. This would take some doing, but maybe the test could be of an IQ test sort, so that kids from the depressed classes would not be at a disadvantage due to a lack of books in the home etc. There could be extensive efforts to ensure that EVERY kid in poverty-stricken slums takes the exam, awareness campaigns, etc, etc.
But why reinvent the wheel? There are already excellent schools in nearly every Indian city, though not enough of them. The main problem for the depressed classes is that they cannot gain admittance to these schools (because they aren't adequately prepared) and cannot afford to pay the high fees. The government has tried, and failed to implement, laws to force these private schools to admit children from the depressed classes, because everybody in India knows that the government is impotent when it comes to enforcement. It simply doesn't wield the stick. Or only after a 25 year court case. OK, then, point taken. But why not hold out a carrot instead? How about a comprehensive, national merit scholarship program that would allow qualified students from the depressed classes (whether Dalit, OBC, tribal, poverty-stricken, Muslim could be decided later by the babus) to attend the best private schools? Hell, you could even give the schools HIGHER FEES to take these kids, to compensate them for the work they'd have to do to incorporate them into the mainstream, eradicate caste prejudices, soothe parents' ruffled feathers, etc. Today, as far as I know, there are scholarship programs to send these students to university, but they largely go unused because the kids who would take them never got the fundamental schooling they'd need to take advantage of a university education. Kill all these programs immediately, and put the money into a similar, but better organized and promoted, program for the school level. No more money would be needed, but the effects would be immediate. What's more? Why not give the project to a McKinsey & Co (founder of the Indian School of Business) or like organization to administer? Get the babus out of it, lest they screw up the private schools as badly as they have the government-run outfits....