Today the papers are reporting that Bharti became the second big corporate to embrace "voluntary affirmative action" -- India Inc's rearguard action to prevent the government from stepping in and mandating quotas or some other scheme to create equal employment opportunities for Dalits. While this is a laudable move by Bharti and Infosys (the first company to make the move), I can't help but feel that voluntary actions alone won't do the trick.
I doubt that the large mass of "anonymous" Indian companies will find the same incentive (and spare cash) to start training/employment programs for Dalits and other historically disadvantaged groups. It's good PR for Infosys. But for X Generic Autoparts, which never gets in the newspaper, it's just another cost burden. Also, there remain serious concerns about prejudicial hiring practices, and the voluntary system means that there's no oversight. How do we know what progress is being made if nobody is keeping track? Just as it was ludicrous for the government to start defining quotas without a recent and accurate estimate of the number of people making up the so-called Other Backward Classes, it's absurd to think of an affirmative action program that is based entirely on an abstraction. Good will, even if it exists, is simply not enough. (Consider the surprise which greeted the Sachar report on the socio-economic condition of India's Muslims).
I'm not sure quotas are the answer, either, of course, though it's hard to deny that quotas in the government sector have been responsible for much of the progress that Dalits have made so far. Yes, quotas work--though some on both sides of the debate will argue they don't work as well as they should. But India cannot legislate a job for everybody, as they have sought to do in education, both for the practical reasons related to competitiveness that industry claims and for expedient reasons related to the political and social fallout that such a move would engender. Again, there's plenty of learning to be gained from the debate on quotas in education, especially where related to dealing with all the various groups in India that face discrimination/disadvantage that doesn't stem from caste.
But rather than to fall into the usual trap of doing nothing because we can't think of a plan that is absolutely perfect, I suggest that the government can develop its own mandatory affirmative action plan that isn't based on quotas. It could start with Dalits and be expanded to include OBCs and religious minorities as needed. Essentially, this would be a very simple system. All companies would be encouraged to employ X% of Dalits in their organizations, with some kind of weighting system to give greater credit for those who employ Dalits at senior levels. If the company meets the requirement--say it's 13%--it gets a significant tax break (maybe the tax break could be tied to the percentage of Dalits the company employs). On the other hand, if it doesn't meet some minimum, the company would have to pay a penalty tax, from which 100% of the revenue would go to supplement existing funds devoted to scholarships, improving primary education, job training, and other programs for the advancement of the Dalits (or, later, other concerned groups).
This would mean three things. First, we'd have an accurate count of the number of Dalits employed in the private sector (or the organized sector, anyway). Second, industry would have an incentive to employ Dalits that goes beyond good will or PR. Third, there would be some allowance for industry to avoid hiring Dalits where they weren't qualified--but at the same time ensure that they were funding programs to alleviate that problem.
Under this scheme, Bharti & Infosys would benefit -- although I'm guessing the amount of money they've devoted to their voluntary affirmative action is considerably smaller than the tax penalty they'd have to pay under any realistic mandatory plan -- and those companies without the will to work toward social equality would lose.