The Wilson Quarterly

No nation has embraced affirmative action more fervently or for a longer period of time than India. When the British pulled out in 1947, India’s new constitution “reserved” jobs for untouchables and other disadvantaged groups that had suffered centuries of oppression. Twenty-three percent of government jobs were set aside for members of “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes.” Now a controversial new law calls for reserving another 27 percent of public-sector jobs and slots at the nation’s top universities for members of “other backward classes.”

The change comes as India is struggling to meet the booming economy’s demand for educated workers. Vani Borooah, Amaresh Dubey, and Sriya Iyer, economists at the University of Ulster, North-Eastern Hill University in India, and St. Catherine’s College, Cam­bridge, argue that since 1947, the reservations policy has resulted in the “scheduled” groups getting only about five percent more good ­jobs—­defined as salaried or wage paying positions, rather than casual ­work—­than they would have secured otherwise. They reached their conclusion by comparing the status of men in various “scheduled castes” to similarly educated and trained Muslim men, who got no help from affirmative action.

The new affirmative action policy, which would expand the number of workers covered and university positions reserved from 23 to 50 percent, will not help the “back­ward” groups the new legislation is intended to benefit, the authors say. Most of the beneficiaries will be the ­well-­off groups within each ­caste—­known as the “creamy layer.” These are skilled workers who would likely have been hired anyway. And India’s rural poor, for most of whom higher education is beyond reach, won’t benefit at ­all.

The group most in need of help is made up of Muslims, the authors write. Widely discriminated against and excluded from the reservation ­set-­asides, they make up 14.7 percent of the nation’s population, but only a tiny fraction of the Indian workforce. Many Muslim parents believe that discrimination is so severe that their sons will never be hired for salaried or ­wage-­paying jobs under any circumstances, the authors note. This leads parents to “devalue the importance of education as an instrument of upward economic mobility.” More than a third of Muslim men are illiterate, compared with only 10 percent of ­Hindus.

Instead of increasing the number of reserved jobs and university places, the better plan would be to tackle the dysfunctional primary and secondary schools of India that serve all castes and religions. Many lack learning materials and even teachers. Before the deprived children of India can succeed in the country’s fabled Indian Institutes of Technology and Management, they need a solid grounding in the three R’s.

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The Source: "The Effectiveness of Jobs Reservation: Caste, Religion, and Economic Status in India" by Vani K. Borooah, Amaresh Dubey, and Sryia Iyer, in Development and Change, May 2007. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/DJ SINGH

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