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Democracy, Disagreement and Merit

At this juncture, even before we discuss what effective access policies should look like, we need to clear some space and ask: How will we handle disagreement in this domain? For fundamentally, the reservations debate has become a debate about the character of democracy, in more ways than we recognise.

Democracy, Disagreementand Merit

At this juncture, even before we discuss what effective accesspolicies should look like, we need to clear some space and ask:How will we handle disagreement in this domain? Forfundamentally, the reservations debate has become a debate aboutthe character of democracy, in more ways than we recognise.


he current dispute over extending reservations for OBCs in central institutions has raised a question that is being little discussed. The question is this. Assume that many people agree on the objective of creating a socially inclusive education system, where students are not deprived of the relevant opportunities because of their financial and social backgrounds. But assume further that even serious minded people disagree over the best instruments to use for this purpose. How should this agreement be accommodated in a democratic polity? How does one move beyond the banal statement that reasonable views must be respected, and give these views some institutional space. It seems that, at this juncture at any rate, this question requires some consideration. Unfortunately in the reservation debate, the distasteful attribution is made that people hold the views that they do because of their caste identity. But let us assume that there might be reasonable disagreements over the subject even when people make good faith arguments.

Although the empirical data on this subject is deeply inadequate, I suspect that in the end even empirical data is not going to do too much to resolve these disagreements. This is partly because we seem to have gone from the presumption that in a democracy everyone is entitled to their opinions to the assumptions that everyone is entitled to their own facts as well. We need to reflect on why reference to empirical argument has become more of a rhetorical tool than a serious exercise in reflection. But it is also likely that data may underdetermine policy options. We can always turn any argument on its head. If we find that existing quotas are not being fulfilled, we can see this as a failure of quotas, or evidence that there is no will to enforce them. Perhaps like the divisions over religion, divisions over this matter will be irresolvable and deep. I do believe that nothing is more dangerous for sound policy than the assumption that anything goes under the name of social justice and that there are no such things as relevant facts and cogent arguments. But in the final analysis, we cannot deny the possibility of fair minded disagreement.

Gamut of IssuesGamut of IssuesGamut of IssuesGamut of IssuesGamut of Issues

After all, our disagreements on affirmative action run the gamut of issues. While we can all agree that we share the same goal, building a more socially inclusive education system, we disagree over the most effective instruments for doing so. There are also disagreements over the objective of affirmative action policy. Some think that the creation of equal opportunity should be limited to anti-discrimination measures. On this view, we need to ensure that, other things being equal, no candidate is discriminated against for being who they are. This is probably a baseline aspiration on which all can agree. But beyond this aspiration things get more complex. Some think of reservation as, rather implausibly, an instrument to fight poverty. Some think of it as creating equality of opportunity. Others still think that it is simply an instrument for creating a middle class of dalits and OBCs even though reservations do not achieve a generalised equality of opportunity. Some think that we must go beyond equality of opportunity to something closer to equality of outcomes. It is intrinsically desirable that jobs and educational institutions roughly mirror social cleavages in society. It is not simply enough that certain disadvantages be compensated for, or certain obstacles to opportunity be removed, but that the only test of success is that institutions are literally mirror of society. We also disagree over exactly how much weightage to grant different forms of deprivation. We can debate whether these are the aspirations we should have, and we can debate whether reservations are a plausible way of achieving these goals. But there is no doubt that at the moment, there is serious disagreement.

We also disagree over the consequences of reservation as practised. Does it produce more social integration by giving access, or does it re-entrench caste by making it an axis of social distribution? Does reservation extend a genuinely helping hand, or is it merely a politics of condescension? Is it a way of saying to backward castes, “We don’t think giving you resources and removing the obstacles that stand in the way of realising your talent will be enough.” You will also require these additional “crutches” as one scholar has called them. Does being identified through a caste tag harm the interests of those students from backward classes who are able to make it in the general merit list? The list of relevant questions could go on. We also disagree over the relevant target groups that should be included. Are the claims of SC/STs the same as those of OBCs? How much sub-group differentiation should there be? How are intra-caste differences as opposed to inter-caste differences to be accommodated? What are the other groups that need to be brought into the discussion of deprivation? Or further still, what do we mean by merit? How do we weigh the relative importance of granting autonomy to institutions to experiment, with the objectives of social justice?

There is one way of diagnosing these disagreements. This is simply to assume that our positions in this debate are structured by our caste or class interests. While there is no doubt that many individuals and groups strategically seek to advance their interests, the idea that all our disagreements can be traced to who we are is insidious for a democracy. It makes reasoned discussion and argument, reciprocity and mutual acknowledgment almost impossible. If we are so sure from the start that our identity structures our arguments why even bother having discussions at all. Are all of us going to be diminished and miniaturised, because we have no possibility for speaking for any identity or interest other than our own? If all our concepts are mere ruses of power, is there going to be any possibility of public reason? The way that arguments over reservation have proceeded over the last few weeks makes this question unavoidable. It is not that there are no better or worse arguments; public reason would not survive if we did not believe that. But in these complicated matters, there are so many underlying causal assumptions and judgment calls about how the world works, so many diverse ways in which our experience

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

impinges upon us, that it would be fatuous different roles and catering to different to express commitment to social justice,
to expect agreement. At this juncture, even needs and demands? For instance, there they can express this commitment in the
before we discuss what effective access could be institutions where the state feels institutional forms they choose; if others
policies should look like, we need to clear numerical quotas are important, there could find this notion anathema, they could
some space and ask: How will we handle be institutions were other kinds of deprihave their own institutional forms that
disagreement in this domain? For funda vation indexes are used, there could be express their preferred mode of social
mentally, the reservations debate has be institutions that have open admissions and justice. Some might have reservations for
come a debate about the character of de take it upon themselves to admit anyone 33 per cent, some for 50; some might target
mocracy, in more ways than we recognise. who cares to show up, and there could be dalits, some OBCs. The diversity of insti-
It would be too easy and tempting to give institutions that have very stringent criteria tutional forms was a default position of
a moral psychology for why disagreements of entry. The lack of diversity in instituinstitutions in India, which has been pro
on this subject are so deep and passionate, tional forms in higher education extends gressively eroded. What the current quota
but I think it is time that we reflected on beyond access policies as well; arguably proposal, of extending reservations to
one aspect of the way in which this debate ours is amongst the most homogenised OBCs in all central institutions does – and
is structured. Part of what gives the res large education systems in the world. For the reason it elicits such opposition – is
ervation debate such an edge is the fact a country that prides itself on its diversity, that it threatens to erode the pockets of
that it has become an all or nothing affair. there is a surprising fear of institutional institutional diversity.
It proceeds on the assumption that there diversity on any measure of the term The third advantage of bringing the
is one correct model of affirmative action diversity. We have reduced the idea of diversity of institutional forms into the
policies, and this model should apply more diversity to the idea of recognising different debate is this. One of the weaknesses of
or less to all institutions across the board. identities, but not recognising that they can current affirmative action programmes is
Whether this model is numerical quotas, be accorded recognition in different ways. that institutions simply do not respond to
or numerical quotas minus creamy layer How might bringing this form of diverthepresenceofsociallymarginalisedgroups
or whatever, the assumption is that almost sity into the debate help? For one thing, in the way they should. Even in India’s top
all institutions, other than minority insti it would be a more honest acknowledgeuniversities (or rather one should say
tutions should adopt this model. It is a ment of the standing of all the parties in especially in top universities) there is a
“winner takes all” approach to public the debate as citizens. It will be a truer conspiracy of silence around the problems
policy. So the stakes in the debate are reflection of views in society. It appears of students who arrive through affirmative
extremely high. Perhaps more than argu to me that this would be a more honest way action. Some of them will do well, but in
ments for or against reservation, we need of not only dealing with our genuine dismany cases the system will pass these
to work out mechanisms for lowering the agreements, but will foster more creativity students through. There is a glaring con
stakes in this debate. By lowering stakes and encourage pedagogic honesty. Second, tradiction in the self-image of these insti-
I do not mean minimising the importance it will lower the intensity of the debate, tutions. On the one hand they think they
of the question about how to build socially at least somewhat. It would be possible for are being bastions of social inclusiveness
inclusive educational systems; by lower all kinds of institutions to exist simultajust because they have given access to
ing I mean simply that different sides have neously. If some feel strongly that numerisocially marginalised groups, but whether
space to try out different experiments, and cally mandated quotas are the only way they effectively help these students take
not feel institutionally shut out.
The National Institute of Public Finance and Policy invites applications
It is something of a mystery that the one for a public health expert to assist the Chairman of the Commission on
thing we seem not to acknowledge is that AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. The candidate should be conversant with
a concern for diversity is a concern for a diversity of institutional forms. Diversity need not be limited to a diversity of opinion the research work on social and economic implications of AIDS in the Asia Pacific Region.
where we say to each other, without quite
meaning it, that we respect each others’ The essential qualifications for the position are: (i) Masters’ degree in
views. Surely there is more room to have any Social Sciences; (ii) at least three years’ experience of working in
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forms. What those baseline limits are can and reports, on HIV/AIDS. Preference will be given to candidates with
be a subject of debate. They should not be M.Phil., or Ph.D degree and having work experience in governmental
set so low that serious moral values like non-discrimination are compromised. But agencies, bilateral/multilateral donors, UN agency and International
they should not be set so high either that NGOs in the field of HIV/AIDS. Emoluments will depend on the qualifications
the range of permissible options shrinks and experience. Applications with CV may be sent within 15 days to the
to zero. Why should all institutions adopt exactly the same model of admissions? Director, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, 18/2 Satsang
Why should they all perform exactly the Vihar Marg, Special Institutional Area, New Delhi 110067
same social role? Could we not think of (email:
different institutions as performing

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

full advantage of the opportunity that access gives is another matter.

Relating with StudentsRelating with StudentsRelating with StudentsRelating with StudentsRelating with Students

There are several reasons for this. Most of the pedagogic techniques in Indian universities are not aimed at the specificities of different students. We talk at students rather than talk to them and so are unable to discover or respond to the appropriate level a student requires. There is frankly no way of flexibly responding to the needs of students in ways that are appropriate for them. What goes by the name of remedial programmes and support systems are frankly a joke that often infantilise students who go to them. So we violate the first canon of good teaching namely that you have to start at the point the students are at. The problem is that the greater the disparity of starting points in the classroom, the more likely it is that students are likely to be left out of real teaching. In our debates, while we have recognised the importance of diversity of identities, we underestimate the challenges huge disparities in starting points produce in the classroom. Our answer to this challenge is simply to ignore it; to shuttle people through.

A diversity of institutions can help address this huge but unacknowledged problem in our education system. Rather than clubbing all institutions under one rubric, institutions will become more selfconscious of the kinds of institutions they are, the kinds of students that come to them, and the pedagogy appropriate to those student bodies. For instance, in California, the higher end of the state system, the Berekelys, etc, teach in one way; while the Long Beach model, which is required to admit every student with minimal qualifications teaches another way. But both address their students rather than shunt them through.

Is there a danger that this plea for diversity will promote unintentional ghettoisation of students? Not really, at least if some background conditions obtain. Nothing in this plea for diversity should be read as suggesting that the state will not have to provide adequate resources at all levels of education so that no child is deprived of the education she deserves because of financial or social disadvantages. If even a modicum, and not a full measure of those background conditions obtain, you would expect students from different groups being able to make it to different institutions. If these institutions are, within their own premises, well run, they will attract all kinds of students, privileged and not so privileged. Second we would have a more refined concept of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity does not necessarily imply that every student should have access to the same kind of institution; it implies that every student should have access to the institution most appropriate to them. The important thing is that the institution contributes to a substantial enlargement of opportunities and abilities. It does not let the student simply pass through, knowing that there is no accountability at all. Third, nothing in this proposal is prejudging which institutions will be good and successful. It may turn out that institutions with reservations are better if not as good as institutions without; and there is more demand for them, rather than less. Nor is this proposal suggesting that some these institutions should be endowed on the criteria of the kinds of policies they adopt. Indeed, there is something unjust about the current allocations, where a handful of IITs get more than 15 per cent of central allocation on higher education, while institutions that cater to much larger numbers are starved of resources. It need not necessarily follow that institutions of particular types be funded more than others.

Finally, this diversity will help us get around the confused thinking we have on merit. Let us assume that merit is randomly distributed across castes and classes, a baseline assumption no democracy can reject. Given the right institutional conditions this merit can be discovered and nurtured. But both sides in the affirmative action debate have a valid point. Proponents of reservation argue, rightly, that relaxing standards in admission is not necessarily incompatible with merit. Opponents of reservation argue, plausibly, that relaxing standards at admissions leads to inferior outcomes on the output side. Both observations may be true if one condition obtains, namely the institution does not contribute to development but is simply a screening device. So if institutions do not help less qualified students improve their abilities, then they will go out as they came in. What is the evidence of this phenomenon? Frankly, this is an area that does need more empirical investigation. But some studies suggest that institutions do not in fact contribute to improvement; relaxed standards in, relaxed standards out.

‘Output’ Merit‘Output’ Merit‘Output’ Merit‘Output’ Merit‘Output’ Merit

If this is happening then we need to interrogate the pedagogy in our institutions more. But the fundamental point is this: what is the appropriate point at which merit should be measured, assuming it should be. The peculiarity of the Indian debate is that we lay inordinate stress on measuring merit on the input side; whereas the genuinely relevant measure should be on the output side. For society what matters less is what marks someone got it with; what matters more is the competence they graduate with. Unfortunately, in professional schools for instance, output testing is less stringent. The result is that even well-to-do students, from recognised institutions get off scot-free. But if our output licensing requirements were credible, it would matter less what criteria students got in with. The important thing is that institutions be held accountable for the outputs. Unfortunately, if the chain of reservation extends from education to jobs, and reserved students can easily get access to reserved jobs, the chain of accountability on the output side breaks down. This is not to suggest that these students are necessarily inferior in quality; it is simply that there are no credible signalling mechanisms that can validate them. I suspect the advantage of more stringent output testing rather than an obsession with criteria for admission would be a far fairer picking out of potential.

The practical difficulty in a scheme that has the buzzword diversity is that it still leaves us with difficult questions about allocative decisions. How many institutions of what kinds should there be? Are there principled criteria by which we can determine which institutions should have what kinds of policies? This question is particularly acute since most institutions are likely to be state institutions, and the state needs some criteria to allocate funding. But the fact that this question is not easy to answer is no reason to suppose that a onesize-fits-all solution is an honest answer to our problems. Allowing for a diversity of institutional forms, is a better and more honest way of encouraging innovation, creativity and pedagogic appropriateness. I have my views on what kinds of policies will produce better access than numerically mandated quotas. But the pressing call of our democracy at the moment is to remember that honouring diversity may well be the best way to mitigate conflict. Freedom does not always produce perfect social justice, but it can help lower the intensity of conflict, the urgent step required in this debate. But no society that fears freedom and diversity is likely to end up with social justice.



Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

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