It is an unequal world – there can be no two opinions about this. However, every civilised society commits itself to provide equal opportunities for all its citizens. The commitment would be reduced to pretentiousness if no effort were made to address the inequities or inequalities that are inherent in this world. Whether you call it reservation or affirmative action, some kind of headstart has to be provided for people who come from a position of disadvantage when compared to their peers. However, we have to be conscious that disadvantages are of various kinds. Besides physical and mental disabilities, there are historical deprivations, geographical, cultural, and material deprivations as well as deprivations for reasons of gender.
When we talk of socially deprived classes of people, the criteria generally used is a person’s caste, race or religion. Increasingly, there is recognition that economic deprivation cuts across social barriers and there could be poor in even the so-called ‘forward’ classes. In addition, those who hail from remote and rural locations are also deprived in many ways. Their exposure to technology and many aspects of modernity – such as use of the English language – could fall short of their more urbanised or mainland counterparts. Cultural capital, acquired by virtue of being born in a particular social milieu, gets compounded over generations. A first-generation learner, thus, could be at a far greater disadvantage than a second generation learner; a child growing up in an academic environment – say on a university campus, would probably be able to take to lectures and books like the proverbial duck to water; a person born into a family of traders may be a natural fit in an MBA programme, and so on.
Having blanket reservations for certain sections of society, hence, may not serve the larger purpose of providing equal opportunities for all. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in a recent Washington Post article Finally getting it right on affirmative action, such reservation has the potential of ‘exacerbating group antagonisms, stimgmatising minority achievement and … damaging promising minority students by turning them disproportionately into failures at institutions for which they are unprepared’.
Under the circumstances, it may be pertinent to re-consider the discussion on the use of a weightage matrix, which has been mooted, off and on, as a potentially more justified attempt to provide equal opportunities for all. The matrix would have several components, with differential weightages that would, when seen in totality, help assess the extent of deprivation in a more holistic and equitable manner.
Socially backward sections of society can be given weightages based on the present classification based on schedules of castes and tribes as well as minority religions. However, there would also be weightage for other components such as extent of economic wellness, educational history of the family, and gender, with greater weightage in each class being given for a first-generation learner. Thus, for instance, a well-off first-generation learner from a scheduled tribe would get a greater weightage than a counterpart who is a second-generation matriculate, but could be on par with an economically backward first-generation general category candidate. The geographical distribution component – educated in rural, semi-urban or urban area, in a backward district or metropolis, in a progressive state or a state lower down on the development index, etc. – would also be an important marker of a candidate’s disadvantaged position vis a vis her peers as would the nature of employment of the candidate’s guardians.
As the number of factors that result in inequalities have multiplied in modern societies, it may be more equitable to invest thought in the creation of a matrix that better reflects the ground realities. Passively continuing with systems that were intended for a different age could result in a skewed kind of equality that leaves individuals better-off, while the opportunities remain as unequal as ever for the larger society.
‘The social harm inherent in discriminating by race’ that Charles Krauthammer warns of is a note of caution we too would benefit from heeding, and using, to work out solutions that would serve our society well, and in the long run, sustainably – that is, do the best for the present generation while at the same time ensuring we do not jeopardise the chances of future generations of our nation’s people and scar the national psyche.