Affirmative action at the college level is not as straightforward for the simple reason that admission requires passing high school. Reservations for colleges, to be successful and/or have any meaning, mean that the school system has to have provided equal opportunities earlier.
How should one provide equal opportunity at the college level? What we know about capitalism is that it makes people go to extraordinary lengths to make money. So the walls of discrimination can easily be broken down, not through quotas, but more effectively through the greed of owners of colleges: education vouchers for the needy. In the quota system, public universities like the IITs can set up discriminatory rules in the form of ability or minimum standards. In the present quota system, all quota individuals cannot get into most good colleges. But in a voucher system, where effectively the state guarantees equal opportunity, the non-able SC/ST will be able to enter some private sector colleges. Because she has the ability to pay the capitation and other fees (via government-provided education vouchers) to any university that admits her—and some college will be willing, no matter how unmeritorious the candidate. Note that this means a level playing field for the lesser students from both rich and poor families.
There is another reason why the Congress party legislation for quotas for OBCs is not warranted. It is that the system, whatever it is, is already working reasonably well. The purpose of quotas, affirmative action, is to provide equal opportunity for all. No one, not even the CPM coffee shop revolutionary leaders, is arguing for quotas or justice in the form that at every university there should be the same representation, as the general population.
The table above documents the state of education in India. The proportion of SC/STs and OBCs graduating from high school is close to 43 per cent. The SC/STs share of high school graduates (16.7 per cent) is 68 per cent of their share in the population (24.4 per cent), the OBCs are only 1.5 percentage points below their proposed representation (26 per cent of high school graduates vs 27.5 per cent quota in colleges).
These simple statistics should make us sit up and take notice. The one group that needs government support the most is Muslims. Only 7.4 per cent of children graduating from high school are Muslims, whereas their share in the population (Census 2001) is 13.4 per cent, i.e. their shortfall is 45 per cent (ratio of 7.4 and 13.4 is 55 per cent). In contrast, the shortfall for SC/STs is 32 per cent. For the OBCs, the shortfall is a minuscule 4 per cent. Very few people, and no one from the politically conscious and politically correct Congress party, are pushing through policies to help those who need it the most—the Muslims.
The high school statistics also put in perspective how much the state can achieve by affirmative action at the college level. The shortfall for both Muslims and SC/STs at the high school level cannot, and should not, be addressed at the college level. It is equivalent to asking colleges to admit students who have failed high school, something not desirable in democratic societies, no matter what the perceived social injustices visited upon these castes (and religions) by events that happened more than five generations ago.
Students passing out of schools choose one of three alternatives, roughly in order of ability: the least able do not go to college or enter diploma courses; the somewhat able enter diploma courses since they do not get admission into colleges, and the most able obtain college admission. The "ability" ratios (the proportion of high school graduates entering college) across castes and religions are approximately the same. Again, the major deviation from "equality" is observed for Muslims—they comprise 5.8 per cent of the college-going population, and 7.4 per cent of high school graduates.The final two columns of the table compute the probability of entering college for each high school graduate who chooses (or has the minimum ability) to go to college. Today, the SC/STs have a 117 per cent chance of entering college, the rest of the population only 74 per cent. Since some states already have some reservation policy for OBCs, the chance for an OBC to today enter college is somewhat higher than the probability for Muslims and upper-caste Hindus, and Sikhs, and Christians, etc. With the implementation of the Congress party law on reservations, the chance for an OBC would increase substantially to 93 per cent, and that for non-OBC and non-SC/ST Hindus and Muslims would decrease to 65 per cent, i.e. an able SC/ST will have double the chance of entering college, and an able OBC 50 per cent more chance of entering college, than an able upper caste Hindu or Muslim.
Given this reality, it is quite unfair of Mr Advani or the BJP to accuse Congress of "appeasing" the Muslims. If anything, they have consistently acted, and are now acting, against the interests of the minorities, especially the Muslims.
Surjit Bhalla is president, Oxus Investments, and the author of Imagine There’s No Country. This article first appeared in Business Standard, and is reproduced here with the author's permission.