People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 22

May 28, 2006



Anil Sadgopal


TAKING cue from “Rang De Basanti” film, the anti-reservationist medical students and junior doctors of Delhi’s elite public-funded medical institutions organised candle-light protests around India Gate. They were soon emulated in different metropolitan cities around the country. Both the print and electronic media gave them big coverage and issued editorials in their support. However, the same media essentially ignored much bigger rallies organised by the supporters of reservations. Given the control of India Inc. on the media and the corporate vested interests at stake, this should neither shock nor surprise anyone.  


What did come as shock, however, was the most irrational majority response from the National Knowledge Commission. After holding a one day consultation at Bangalore, the majority members inferred that reservation at the cost of merit shall not be in national interest. It is creditable that the vice-chairperson of the commission and internationally reputed molecular biologist Dr P M Bhargava and the indomitable economist Professor Jayati Ghosh had the courage to reject the ‘meritocracy’ argument. The commission was expected to play a different role from the agitating medical students’ unsubstantiated rhetoric of “Reservation in Education is Equal to a Declining Nation”. Being a Knowledge Commission, it was expected to present data and cite research studies to establish that reservation will lead to decline in the level of merit of the nation. There is no evidence that the commission examined any data or studies before coming to a quick conclusion of this kind. The commission was also expected to have organised public consultations around the country on such a critical matter and presented a scholarly report to the nation. It is also the duty of the commission, being funded by the public resources, to present an alternative agenda of social justice and equality. Such a report would have gone a long way in transforming the anti-reservation shrill into a meaningful and concerned discourse. Nothing of this sort happened. Instead, the commission’s chairperson Dr Sam Pitroda disappointed the nation by going into a campaign mode and rushing to the press and the prime minister without doing his homework. This is indeed a serious breach of propriety and democratic norms. Further, Dr Pitroda made a mockery of himself by announcing that he was not aware of any Constitutional amendment in this regard. A Knowledge Commission without knowledge of the parliament and its legislations needs to be disbanded unless of course the definition of knowledge is limted to what is profitable for the global market!  




No one extending the “meritocracy” argument has ever attempted to explain the fact that the four southern states and Maharashtra having a history of enhanced reservations (in Tamilnadu, reservations in higher education are up to 69 per cent) are far ahead in both the social indicators and modern industrial development than the northern ‘Bimaru’ states lacking such reservations. Why have reservations not led to a decline in the merit level or in the capacity to generate new knowledge in the southern states? Would either the India Inc. or the Knowledge Commission care to explain? Indeed, the anti-reservationist forces have never cared about the issue of merit and its role in national development. Was there ever a candle-light protest against ‘selling’ of the seats at high prices in private professional colleges without reference to any notion of merit? Why did the medical students not organise a protest march when NRI Quota has been operating in higher education for years for admitting such NRI students many of whom would have not been selected on the basis of their scores?  


Talking of the scores, let us also question the validity of scores being considered synonymous with the level of merit. Professor Amartya Sen has already questioned the whole notion of merit by arguing that merit can be defined only in the context of the kind of society one wants to build. The Constitution has already directed that we have to build a democratic, egalitarian, secular and forward-looking society in India. Does the notion of merit used for selection in the elite professional institutions include any of such Constitutional parameters? Or the entire notion of merit is limited to a candidate’s PCM scores in the Plus Two exams or in the competitive tests wherein a candidate excels only by paying an exorbitant fee to the coaching centers in metropolis of the ‘globalised’ India. The spurious arguments based on either inherent intelligence levels or IQ stand rejected even in the west. It is now recognised that IQ was used in the west as a tool of racism and is in fact a function of a person’s economic, socio-cultural and linguistic environment. What we have come to call merit in India defies a philosophical value-framework and violates the principles of educational psychology. At best, it is in tune with behaviourism where the person is tailor-made to serve the interest of the global market, rather than enabled to work for an enlightened and humane society. 


Let me also contend that anyone who has crossed the level of Plus Two exams and aspires to enter higher education institutions already belongs to the privileged sections of society. Look at the data released by the HRD ministry and some computations made on the basis of transition rates (i.e. proportion of students moving from class X to class XI and pass-out percentages at the Plus Two stage). Only about 11-12 per cent of the children of the general category (including SCs and STs) who start out in class I would pass the Plus Two exam and become eligible for admission to higher education institutions (63 per cent drop-out before reaching class X). The comparable figures for SC and ST children will be in the range of 6-7 per cent and 4-5 per cent respectively (72 per cent of SCs and 80 per cent of STs drop-out before reaching class X). In the case of SC and ST girls, these figure shall be still worse and put all talk of India becoming superpower by 2020 to shame.  


The only system of schooling that is accessible to the majority of SCs and STs is the vast government school system – the only alternative to the poor. Studies have shown that the neo-liberal policies since 1991 have led to a steady decline in the quality of government schooling. A host of parallel layers of educational facilities have been established for the poor. This is precisely the strategy adopted by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. A new sociological principle has been institutionalised: each child will get a quality of educational facility that is in consonance with her/his social and economic status. It may be now contended that the government policy is to allow the government school system to deteriorate, thereby forcing the poor children to quit school at an early stage. The parents of such children, if they can afford, would send their children to a local low fee-charging (also a low quality but nominally ‘English medium’) school. This has led to mushrooming of low quality private un-recognised schools in small towns and large villages all over the country. This is what the World Bank and the market forces wanted to happen in India.  




Most of the anti-reservation writings in recent weeks show a mock concern about the lack of quality schooling for the SCs, STs and OBCs (and also minorities). These are mock concerns for three reasons. First, if these were genuine concerns, the anti-reservationists would not have waited to show this concern until the recent announcement of the enhanced level of reservations and for extending reservations to private unaided institutions of higher learning. They should have been supporting the Right to Education movement for the past several years. Or they should have been working for elimination of child labour (conservative estimates place their numbers at 5 crore), most whom belong to the backward sections of society. Only now after the government proposal on new reservation scheme has become known that there is a hue and cry about the so-called misplaced priority of the government to target higher education rather than improving schooling. 


Second, there is no doubt that the government has failed to fulfill its Constitutional obligation to provide education of equitable quality to all children. There is clear evidence that the government is rapidly abdicating its Constitutional obligation with full support (if not collusion) of the India Inc. and global market forces. However, the answer to this collossal crisis is not promotion of private schooling or the rhetoric of private-public partnership, as is the usual refrain these days of the chambers of commerce and industry and corporate leaders. Instead of resisting abdication by the government, the corporate leaders are confusing the issue by offering the lollipop of ‘afternoon schools’ in elite schools or opening a handful of private schools for the poor (for which they claim cheap land, tax exemption and other hidden subsidies from the government). These corporate forces are careful in not building up pressure on the government to increase its expenditure on government schools and take all the necessary measures to improve access and quality of schooling for the vast masses of our children. This is not done as it will mean mobilising additional resources out of the national economy and that can be done only by changing the economic priorities in favour of the poor (and implicitly against the privileged). Let the anti-reservation forces note that, as percentage of GDP spent on education, the government expenditure has been steadily declining in the decade of 1990s and during the current decade as well. Consequently, the public expenditure on education (including school, higher and professional), as percentage of GDP, is lower in 2005-06 than what it was in 1985-86 – before the 1986 policy was formulated. Would medical students demand that a greater priority is given to allocating resources for the education of the poor even if it would imply reducing allocations for the education of the elite or changing the tax-GDP ratio in order to reduce conspicuous consumption by the privileged sections? No, they would not think of such a thing. Inspiration from “Rang De Basanti” ends here.  


The third reason for arguing that the concern of the anti-reservationists and the India Inc. for provision of better schooling for the backward sections of society is less than genuine – may be even a diversionary tactic – emerges out of the Right to Education debate. Under the 86th Constitutional Amendment (2002), the central government is under obligation under Article 21A to enact a Right to Education Bill. A draft bill, prepared by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in July 2005 was sent to the prime minister’s office for being placed before the parliament. It is now publicly know that this draft bill was a highly diluted and distorted version of the notion of Right to Education and violated the Constitution in a number of critical ways. Even this weak version has been held up by the prime minister’s office since August 2005 on the misleading contention that the necessary resources for implementation of the bill are not available. Only a few days ago, it has been announced that the draft bill shall not be sent to the parliament at all! Instead, the states/UTs are being asked to modify their respective education bills in order to make elementary education a fundamental right. The central government’s tactic is clearly to abdicate itself of the Constitutional requirement of allocating the necessary resources for implementing the bill by passing on the burden to the states/UTs. This has happened while the anti-reservation shrill is being raised to a higher pitch than ever before.  




Let us turn the tables. We appeal to the protesting students to shift their agenda in the wider national interest and rally together with the masses to demand that the Right to Education Bill is brought by the central government to the Parliament immediately with a resolve to allocate all the necessary resources out of the national economy for the education of the backward sections of society who constitute at least 75 per cent of the population. The new agenda must also call for establishing a genuine Common School System, as resolved by the 1986 policy, for all children including the children of the privileged sections of society. No developed country, including USA, European countries and Japan, have reached where they are without evolving a Common School System where all children, irrespective of their class, caste, religion and location study together. The Kothari Education Commission (1964-66) contended with unusual foresight that the quality of education in government schools shall be sustained and improved only when the influential sections of society keep sending their children to neighbourhood schools as part of a Common School System.  


One of the placards in the hands of the agitating students declared that “Caste Divide and Rule, It Is Not Cool”. Agreed. That is why the social division based on caste and class as promoted by the expensive private schools is not only in violation of the Constitution but also against social harmony and national unity. If the students believe in a casteless society (like I do and the only caste I have is being an Indian) based on the principles of social justice and equality, let us adopt the agenda of a Common School System that will ensure education of equitable quality for all, including SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities, particularly the girls in each of these deprived social segments. And for this purpose, let us agitate together to force the central government to bring a pro-people Right to Education Bill in the parliament without any further delay. Only then a day will come when the young people of the backward sections of society will compete against the privileged upper caste ones on a level playing field. You would not have to then hold a placard, as did a woman medical student of Bhopal a couple of days ago, announcing “Disowned By My Country” since even the 75 per cent of our children disowned by India since independence shall grow up to be proud citizens of a democratic, egalitarian, secular and forward-looking society. Are you ready?