"of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe"
- William Shakespeare, Othello, V.2
There's an episode in Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, where Bessie, the middle-aged widow, decides to buy a new Ford automobile as a means of winning the affection of young Dude Lester, as well as to celebrate her own (relative) wealth. The Lester family is desparately poor, literally on the brink of starvation, so buying a new car seems more than a little frivolous, but neither Dude nor Bessie really care about the rest of the family much anyway. The car is duly bought, in what Dude and Bessie see as a glorious gesture of self-affirmation (though in fact the car dealer is laughing at them), but neither of them has any real competence when it comes to driving the car, and repairs are clearly out of the question, so that all it takes is a couple of days and a few serious accidents and their joint cluelessness has reduced a spanking new car to a shambling wreck. In the end, buying the car does no one any good - the Lester's remain piss-poor, Dude and Bessie's relationship (founded, on his side at least, purely on interest in the car) starts to sour, and the only effect of this whole fiasco is that one perfectly good automobile has been ruined beyond redemption.
Every time I think about the proposal to introduce reservations for Backward Classes in the IITs / IIMs, that's the story that comes to mind. Because that's what it amounts to - a pointlessly escapist gesture that sidesteps the real issues and leads only to the destruction of a perfectly functioning machine for the sake of winning short-term favour. Comments to my rant about this issue yesterday suggested that this was a serious issue and as such required serious discussion. I agree - except I would have thought the reasons the proposal was flawed were fairly obvious to any reasonable, right-thinking person. Just in case, though, here's my non-ranting, serious take on the issue (warning: This is a LONG post, even by my usual standards):
PART I: How do I protest thee? Let me count the ways
My biggest issue with the reservation proposal is that reservations for graduate and post-graduate courses are about treating the symptom, not the cause. Reserving 50% of all seats in the IIMs for backward classes has about as much chance of solving issues of social inequality as liberal quantities of make up have of solving measles. If BCs are underrepresented in our premier institutions, it's not because these institutions are keeping them out - the problem lies much, much earlier in the system, in the real limitations of public education at the primary level that deny children from low income households a fair shot at getting into our top schools. Giving away seats in these institutes to undeserving candidates won't solve the problem (in fact, it's questionable that the people who will get these seats are the ones who've suffered from structural constraints at all - if you made it this far, how much is being from a BC really hampering you?). So focussing efforts for affirmative action on these institutes is barking up the wrong tree.
What these reservations will achieve is the destruction of the institutions they target. That's certainly one way of achieving equality, but it's an equality of poverty, not of wealth - a clear case of pyrrhic victory if there ever was one. Remember the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs? This new reservation policy is the equivalent of killing the goose so that a few hungry people have more to eat. The people who get 49.5% of the goose will eat well for a day or two, but the loss of value to the system will be much greater than any benefit they derive.
Before we go jumping into the negative effects of the policy, let's spend a few minutes thinking about how it will help the people it's purported to benefit - the Backward Classes. First, a policy that refocuses attention on caste, and effectively makes it a real issue in our top institutes is not doing the Backward Classes any favours. In the two years I was at WIMWI, it never occured to me to question the caste of any of my team mates, nor was it, to the best of my knowledge, a question any recruiter was concerned about. But if 50% of candidates are getting in based not on merit but on caste, what do you want to bet that it will rapidly become an issue. That kind of divisiveness is only going to harm the BCs more. In particular, as a comment on my last post pointed out, it's going to lay genuinely deserving BC candidates open to suspicion, because they'll end up getting clubbed with those who didn't deserve to make it.
But there's a more pernicious effect of these reservations on BC interests - the policy provides a convenient red herring for the government, an excuse that will allow them to do little or nothing to address the real problems of social inequality. With reservations in the IITs to point to, who's going to care about fixing primary education, for instance? From the BC perspective, accepting the sop of reservations in elite institutions is effectively like letting the government off the hook. There are real problems to be solved here, problems with the government system that the government needs to take action on - this new reservation policy is just a sly attempt to take advantage of other people's work to hide the government's own apathy.
That's even more true when you consider that structural, rule-based interventions that are imposed on people have, historically, a fairly poor record of success. The problem is two-fold. First, forcing people to do things that they're not bought in to is a losing strategy in general - it's always a mistake to underestimate the human ability to do the least possible work that will keep us out of trouble. If the students and faculty of these institutes are opposed to these reservations, if they see them as an attack on their integrity and insult to the meritocratic principles they stand for, then what are the odds that just forcing IITs and IIMs to admit people who they believe are undeserving will work?  . Second, even if these students meet with little or no resistance, integration into a program that they're fundamentally not competent for is not as easy as just putting them in there. If these candidates couldn't even make it in to the program, how are they going to cope with the pressure once they're inside. Who are these reservations going to benefit if they turn out a bunch of job candidates who don't match the standards of the institute? Is the government going to force top recruiters to recruit candidates based on BC status as well? Also, how will these candidates get integrated into the system? If I were a student trying to form a team to do group work (knowing how much of my grade depended on the team doing well, knowing how much grades mattered) would I want someone who didn't get in on merit on my team? If I were a recruiter who knew that the candidate who was applying to me got into the school on a quota, would I even bother interviewing him / her? .
My other big objection to the reservation proposal is the question of who reservations (or affirmative action) should be designed to benefit, even if we're going to take affirmative action at all. Why is caste / class the relevant basis for support anyway? Aside from the fact that a division based on caste perpetuates the very prejudices it's trying to do away with - what earthly justification can there be for providing special treatment to someone who comes from a well-to-do socio-economic background, simply because, in some long ago age, his / her ancestor was discriminated against? Supporters of such intertemporal justice may argue that we're trying to redress the wrongs of the past - but that's a cycle without end. Certainly there is a high correlation between BC status and poverty, but that's no reason to target the BCs rather than targetting the poor. Why work on an approximate indicator (especially when the benefit you're providing is so small, numerically, compared to the overall population) when you can focus your efforts on the real issue?
Finally, of course, there's the issue of the effect these reservations will have on the IITs / IIMs themselves. My contention is that they a policy of reservations will do immeasurable damage to these institutions, for the simple reason that a high quality of students is the cornerstone on which the overall value of these institutions is built. It's not just that some seats will go to less deserving candidates. Having less meritorious candidates affects all three key stakeholders in the process: faculty (would you want to teach in an institute where half of your class got in based on their caste?), recruiters (again, would you hire candidates who got in on a quota, not on merit) and students themselves (if you believe, as I do, that a big part of the learning at an IIM comes from the interaction you have with your batchmates, from the give and take of healthy competition, then how does having less competent students change that dynamic). In effect, by reserving 50% of seats in the IIMs for students from BCs, the government is setting the stage for a meteoric rise in the popularity of ISB, and the rise of other high quality private institutions to take up, over time, the mantle of the IIMs. If the IIMs have the strength and reputation they have today, it's because the best students go there. Take that away, and over time the value will flow elsewhere. One shouldn't exaggerate the economy wide effects of this shift - over time, private business schools will deliver quality every bit as good as the IIMs, but it seems a needless waste to destroy a perfectly good institution for the sake of some bogus political expedient. , 
There's also, of course, the effect on reputation. Let's face it - much of India's reputation as a nation of knowledge workers is built on the exceptional quality of people that the IIMs and IITs have churned out (even if I do say so myself). Pick a top recruiter in the US today and you'll find a bunch of IIT / IIM graduates working there. Pick a top business school and I'll show you faculty who are from one of the IITs / IIMs. The point is - these institutes have (or are beginning to have) a reputation. They're among the biggest, most successful brands that India has in the global marketplace. Dammit, the IITs are on Dilbert!! What's going to happen when we start churning out a bunch of students from these institutes who don't meet the standards expected of them? When they can't handle the analytics, can't do the math? That's not just going to hurt the reputation of the IITs, it's going to hurt India's reputation as a source of talent (and probably) as an investment destination. And that's something we can ill afford. You can argue that it's not like the candidates from the BCs are going to be complete losers. By all reasonable standards, they'll probably be good enough. And that's probably true. But the point is that reputations are not built on good enough - reputations are built on being smarter and quicker than anyone else, on being, in a word, outstanding. That's why it's important that we get the extreme right end of the tail - that's why whether you're in the top 1% or the top 5% matters. It's not about elitism, it's about how competitive the global marketplace truly is.
Part II: The Case for Affirmative Action
None of the above changes the fact that socio-economic inequality exists, and something has to be done about it. But if reservations are not the way to go about it, what is? Let's talk about that.
Let me start by saying that I'm going to frame the inequality issue as an education issue - there are obviously other ways in which inequality can be tackled, and perhaps a more community focussed approach would be better, but it seems to me that any discussion of what might conceivably replace the IIT / IIM reservation policy needs to focus on education. More specifically, it needs to ask the question - what will it take to ensure that candidates from BCs get appropriate representation in these elite institutions.
Let me also say at the outset that I'm going to focus on the economically backward only. Retribution for past wrongs doesn't interest me. Only equality of opportunity in the present.
Right then. The first step to getting kids from economically backward households into elite institutions is fixing the primary school system. If memory serves, some 50% of all kids who enter the municipal school system in Bombay drop out before the age of 14. Those who remain are stuck in schools whose quality (generally speaking) is abysmal - in my work with municipal schools  I repeatedly came up on students in Class IV or V in English Medium schools who effectively couldn't speak a word of English (that is, they could read it off a blackboard by rote, but had no ability to manage even the most basic conversations in the language). Compare that to the command of English that a kid at one of the top schools in the city has by the time he's in Class V and you begin to see why children from less privileged backgrounds almost never make it to the elite institutions. (Obviously, this is not entirely the fault of the school - the fact that many of these kids live in appaling conditions and have parents who are poorly educated, if not illiterate, means that they have no external support either).
What can we do to fix the primary school system? First, we need greater accountability of government schools. That will mean having some sort of a standardised testing service that will allow us to draw meaningful comparisons between school results and also enable us to track the performance of children over time. The Board exams obviously don't cut it because a) they're too late in the system and b) they're fairly noisy measures anyway. Having better performance scores will mean two things. First, it will give parents a good measure of their children's relative performance and will allow us to encourage the kind of community engagement that is going to be critical to making public schools more accountable. It will also lay the groundwork for a more rigorous system of reward and punishment. It's not simply that the government system lacks resources. It's also that there are really no incentive systems in place - or those that exist exist to stifle innovation and change. 
Second, we need to find ways to encourage greater private sector participation in primary education for less priviliged children. Private-public collaboration could play a big role in helping to upgrade the system - if it doesn't today, at least part of the blame lies with the lack of government effort to foster and support such initiative. Sure, there are 'adoption' schemes. But these tend to focus on infrastructural inputs (painting of buildings, book / stationery donations, water coolers), whereas the real lacunae are usually elsewhere - in student teacher ratios, in the lack of teaching aids, in an outdated syllabus taught by arcane methods. A number of NGOs have tried to intervene more directly into the quality of education:Pratham's Balsakhi program; Akanksha works with municipal schools in Bombay and Pune, Aseema in Bombay, Akshara and the Azim Premji Foundation in Bangalore . But most of them, from what I know, have had to spend time and effort in convincing the government to let them help, and more time and more effort managing the interaction with the local officials. There's a lot the government could do to enable greater participation by the private sector in these areas: more explicit collaboration policies and process, a cleaner chain of command, greater willingness to talk about changes in teaching methods, support for volunteerism by private groups in schools. In the US, Teach for America puts over 3,000 volunteers in over a 1,000 needy schools today. Obviously much of the initiative for projects like that must come from the private sector. But there's a lot the government could do to simplify and encourage such efforts. The US is hardly the world's benchmark for formative education (unless you're one of those people who believe that having your child run the constant risk of getting shot will help build character), but you have to wonder how many of the initiatives discussed on sites like the NEA could be applicable (with appropriate changes) to India. What, for instance, are the pros and cons of charter schools? What would it take to make them work in India?
But will fixing the basic school system be enough? Perhaps if we're talking about getting kids from these communities into college (though that would be a big step right now). But to make it to an IIT / IIM you're probably going to need more. After all, how many mid-quality private schools manage to send students to these institutes. Then what chance do government schools have?
The answer then, has to include some institutional means of providing children from less priviliged backgrounds the support they need to make it to the top schools. Institutions like the Prep for Prep program in the US. Prep for Prep provides intensive support for high potential children from backward communities - giving them the opportunities they need to make it to top colleges in the country. Does it work? Go look here. That's over 200 students currently enrolled in Ivy League schools. There are no reservations for these kids, no free tickets because they happen to belong to a certain community. These kids came from the most backward of communities (in some cases literally from ghettoes) and made it to the top colleges in the world on their own steam. That's development.
In 2004, Akanksha started a similar program with a selection of their own students, in an attempt to give truly high potential kids the opportunities they would never get otherwise. The program (called Learning to Lead) helps integrate them into better quality private schools, provides extensive tuition support as well as intensive personal development sessions during the summer months to work on other elements of their personality. It's a really small program, and the jury's still out on whether it's going to work, but the point is that it is possible to intervene in the quest for social equality by building capabilities and helping children from economically backward communities to earn their place at the top.
I'm not saying for a minute that the Prep for Prep model is the right one for India (though it might be). I'm saying that if the goverment wants to intervene and help the children of the backward classes get into top institutes then they need to focus on balancing out the sources of the inequalities, not their consequences. By spending time discussing newspapers and current affairs with the Learning to Lead children, by reading Wizard of Oz with them, we're trying to replicate through the program what these kids are missing in their home lives. And that's how the government needs to think about it. Maybe the answer is to provide financial support for candidates from BCs to attend training classes for IIT and other entrance exams. How that's to be managed is a knotty issue, and whether it's a good use of taxpayer money is debatable. But it's certainly better than force-fitting them into institutions they don't belong in.
These are complex issues, and no blog post I could conceive off would answer all of them. The point is: Real development comes from building new institutions, not hijacking old ones. If we really want to make a difference to social inequality, we need to find institutional solutions and processes that are focussed on that problem, and attempt to attack it at its roots. Obviously, those kind of initiatives are a lot harder to design and implement than the parasitic option of reservations. Which is why the government is always going to try to fob us off with more seats for a handful of people in a small fraction of the country's schools. That's exactly what we mustn't let them get away with.
Part III: The Problem of Human Costs
One last section. There's obviously more to the debate here than plain logic. There's also emotion. There's all this talk about justice, about what's fair and what isn't. I could argue that you have to be excessively naive to be an adult and still believe that the world is fair. I could argue that whoever the current system may or may not be unfair to, reservations almost certainly are unfair to those who get left out of the top schools despite being better qualified for them.
I'm not going to. Instead I'm going to tell you a story. In the summer of 2004, I had the unenviable task of being one of 5 people who sat on a panel and decided which kids would get to be part of the Akanksha Learning to Lead program. We had a shortlist of some 40 odd kids to choose from - kids carefully selected from among Akanksha's overall population, representing the cream of our children. That meant that these were all kids who had done exceedingly well in their formal schools, plus they were seen as stars in their Akanksha centres (meaning that they were confident, outgoing, intelligent, etc.), plus many of them had shown signs of other talents - they were dancers and actresses and painters and singers. They were all also from economically backward homes, of course, their parents (who we also met as part of the interview process) were housemaids, drivers, pavement vendors, magazine sellers on intersections, or just plain unemployed. In the course of two days we had to narrow that list down to the 10 kids who would make it to the program, because that's all we had the resources to handle.
Those two days were among the worst, most traumatic days of my life. On the second day, after the discussions were over and the final list had been drawn out, I went home and sat in a darkened room and cried thinking about what I'd done. Then I went out and got very drunk.
How do you pick between children? How do you decide, based on a twenty minute interaction with a 13 year old which of them has 'enough' potential and which of them doesn't? I had no illusions about what I was doing. In making the call to exclude a child from the program, I was robbing him or her of the one decent chance he or she would ever have to make a quantum leap into a different world. These were really, really smart children - many of them smarter than the kids I knew back in school when I was their age, the kids who ended up in good colleges and good jobs because they were going to the right schools, had the support of their families. The Akanksha children we ended up rejecting deserved every chance the world could give them and then some. It frustrated me that I didn't have that chance to give, and it hurt me that I was the one who had to help make that decision.
Could we have not made that decision, though? Could we have simply put all the kids we wanted into the program, on the logic that they were victims of social injustice and therefore deserved it? No, we couldn't. The reality was that we had limited resources - one teacher, one small room to run the program in, limited funding. The reality was we were starting a new project and didn't know how it was going to work out. The reality was that what we needed most of all was for the project to work, because if that failed then no one would get any opportunities in the future, and even the kids we put through the program wouldn't really benefit from it. We picked the 10 kids we thought were most deserving because that was the only way we could make the project deliver anything to anyone. It was hard, it was unfair, but it was the best we could do.
The point is that we live in a society, in a nation, where resources are constrained, where opportunities are limited. It's tempting (and easy) to put too much weight on the system, to try to get it to do too much. But that kind of sentimentality helps no one - it serves only to destroy what opportunities there are. The best we can do is to try not to increase the unfairness further, to give everyone the best shot we can but play no favourites, and to hope that if the opportunites we currently have deliver, we'll be in a better position to do more down the line. We're never going to be able to fix everything that's wrong. Let's at least try not to ruin what's right.
 I don't actually know how this works, btw. What do you mean by reserving seats? How does that tie in to the interview process? Do I need 50% of all candidates I interview to be from BCs. Or do I actually have to admit them?
 Another interesting question - can recruiters and place com insist that admission status (merit / quota) be provided on your CV during placement?
 I should say that I'm focussing this post mostly on the IIMs because that's an environment I understand. I suspect the fall out for the IITs may be somewhat different, if for no other reason than the infrastructure needed to have a top-notch engineering college vs. a business school.
 Obviously, there's an element of personal stake / nostalgia here. Even if the nation as a whole isn't harmed because private institutions take over from the IIMs, I would hate to see the IIMs go down, if only for sentimental reasons.
 Throughout the rest of this post, I'm going to be drawing heavily on my work with the Akanksha Foundation, which I worked with for 8 months in 2004. That's not because I think Akanksha's is the only, or even the best way to go about dealing with these issues (this is not a plug for Akanksha - though it's an organisation I personally support), but only because that's the bit I'm most familiar with.
 A lot of people talk about how teachers in the public school system are apathetic and disinterested. But if you think about it, given how little incentive the system gives them to do anything, it's actually quite a testament to their intrinsic motivation and commitment that anything gets taught in government schools at all. In my experience, most government staff members in the school system are, in fact, fairly sincere about what they do. It's just that the system requires them to do more than just their jobs to make a difference, it requires them to show special iniative - and that's usually asking for too much. (Obviously, I'm generalising hugely here)
 These projects all have very different scope and objectives, but the basic idea behind them is the same - the best place to make an impact on the problem of education for less priviliged children, other things being equal is within the government school system itself.
Categories: CurrentAffairs, Life, Personal