One Size Does Not Fit All!

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born and thus, no one should be responsible for the consequences that follow. The lottery of how, when, and where we are born, is so profoundly random, yet so overpoweringly unequal, that inequalities come to shape the lives of individuals in a manner that is non-random. Strikingly, it is most often the disadvantaged and uneducated, who are the most enthusiastic about lotteries, but are also the most likely to get them wrong. The lucky ones (read: advantaged) must acknowledge the life and privileges they are born into.

Despite humanity having come so far in history in terms of human development; abuse and discrimination continue to plague the lives of countless numbers of individuals, and continues to do so, creating a never-ending vicious cycle of disappointment.

Thus, the transition towards a fair and just society should hopefully, be the aim of policy-makers within the realm of the welfare-state. But what do we mean when we talk about fairness or justice? In this light, we invoke John Rawls, an American political philosopher, who outlines two (or three) principles of justice in an ideal society – Equality of Liberty, Equality of Opportunity, and the Difference Principle – stated respectively, as follows:

“Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties; which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”

According to these principles, modern society as we know it – where historically marginalized groups lack both equal rights and opportunities- violates this very Rawlsian idea of justice. As such, it seems reasonable that political rather than metaphysical measures, should be taken, to bring the non-ideal society as we know it, closer to its ideal Rawlsian counterpart.

Such measures might be construed as violating formal-equality, or equality in the eyes of the law. But they do provide ‘unequal’ means to reaching an end i.e., substantive-equality, or equality in fact, guaranteeing equitable outcomes and opportunities. As a matter of fact, this is the very idea of equality that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had in mind, when drafting the Constitution of India – one which also guaranteed dignity and justice. Therefore, Affirmative Action (AA) , can be seen as the political manifestation of the Difference Principle, allowing marginalized groups to compete for positions that are set aside for them, while others compete for open positions.

There is currently no issue in the world, that is more controversial, more divisive, or more sensitive, than AA. Whether in India, or any other country in the world, debates surrounding AA echo the same rhetoric – opponents argue that it destroys the idea of meritocracy; while supporters argue that it is the only remedy to the historical discrimination that `socially incapacitated’ groups have been put through, at the hands of dominant groups. AA prescribes policies that are targeted at promoting the education and employment of individuals that belong to these groups.

As a beneficiary of AA, I entered college with no knowledge of the discipline I was going to major in, and no understanding of Hindi, beyond what was taught to me in school as a third-language. But as much as I struggled to make sense of the flood of new information around me, I was able to graduate and make it to the Delhi School of Economics. I admit, I was quite intimidated when I arrived at the Delhi School. Everywhere I turned, I could see brilliance – everyone was a genius, and all I wanted was to fit in, which is easier said than done for a student coming from the North-Eastern region of the country – physically and emotionally disconnected, uninformed and neglected, for being (or looking) ‘different’. Critics of AA would have jumped with joy in their seats, using me as a classic example of mismatching – the negative effect that AA has when it places individuals into positions that are too difficult for them to manage.

But even though it was through the intervention of AA that the trajectory of my life was permanently altered, it is the indirect impact of AA which makes it so important- AA allows individuals, coming from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, to set precedents for their community, ensuring diversity in the process, rippling down for generations beyond one’s lifetime. It opens doors of opportunities which one can only ever dream of, and creates role model and mentor effects for generations to come, inducing a substantial flow of undiscovered talent that would otherwise be overlooked. But at the same time, I can also say that the experience has been bittersweet- one cannot be a beneficiary of AA, without having to experience someone express their strict disapproval of it.

The move by the Government of India, to introduce 10% reservation for the predominantly backorward caste, Economically Weaker Section (EWS), has reignited intense debates on this prickly matter. The justification for such an attempt is to open up avenues of admission into educational institutions and public employment, to those individuals who are ‘financially incapacitated’.

(c) BBC

What makes such a policy problematic, is that it ignores the fundamental rationale of AA, and instead targets poverty alleviation. Moreover, we consider for perspective, the 68th Round of the National Sample Survey Organisation, which finds that more than 29% and 43% of the population of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively, fall below the Tendulkar poverty line. The corresponding figure for the Unreserved category is 12.5%. If poverty is the underlying justification for such a quota, then such a justification exposes the double standards of the proponents and supporters of the act, whose opposition is clearly not against reservation, but against the empowerment of disadvantaged groups.

Another problem with the policy, is its definition of EWS. Quite intriguingly, the household income criterion of Rs. 8 lakhs, which has been frequently quoted by the media, is arbitrary and has not found mention in the act which has been passed by Parliament. Moreover, state governments have been given the freedom to set this income criteria, as they see fit, making it a random exercise with no statistical foundation.

By questioning the validity of The Constitution (124th Amendment) Act, 2019 (or 10% Quota, as popularly known), I am not saying that I do not believe in AA, nor am I insinuating that protective, inclusive or remedial measures targeted towards the poor should not be considered. Instead, I am saying that AA, is a policy meant to desegregate the elite capacity, by ensuring that decision making power, is concentrated not only in the hands of a few, but rather is dispersed so as to make it representative of the underlying demographic distribution.

By extending AA to groups that are already well represented, the government is only weakening the underlying foundations of the instrument itself. AA is being used as a cheap magic trick – an excuse to divert attention away from actual developmental objectives, while simultaneously, it has served the twin-purpose of superficially meeting “social-welfare” goals, and guaranteeing victory in the elections.

There is currently, a strong need for investment in social capital, as well as policies that are targeted at providing equality of opportunity in early-life, to ensure not only high rates of growth, but equitable growth. If the government is truly interested in alleviating poverty and improving livelihoods, it should start by translating economic growth into sustainable development, and creating a variety of stable public-sector jobs, instead of reserving a slice of an already shrinking pie. Measures such as the creation of employment and livelihood opportunities, rural development programmes, affordable housing, easy access to credit, etc. would do a better job at attaining such goals, rather than AA.

 

Author: Daniel Challam

Daniel Challam is a freelance writer and researcher, currently based in Delhi. He is a Postgrad from the Delhi School of Economics, and an Undergrad from Ramjas College, Delhi. A New Institutionalist by training, he loves taking models to the real world (and secretly enjoys proving them wrong, as long as they’re not his). His current interests lie in Political and Institutional Economics, Public Economics, and the Economics of Discrimination.

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