Rebalancing the affirmative action

Reservation row once again threatens to tear into shreds the unity in diversity narrative in this country.
Rebalancing the affirmative action
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Reservation row once again threatens to tear into shreds the unity in diversity narrative in this country. This time Haryana is the place where the battle for sweepstakes is raging.   It has always had the insidious potential to hit where it hurts the most- the sensibilities and the pride of both those who have coveted it and those who have resented it. At the heart of the row are both the real and imagined fears of the deprived and the seeking.

While initially conceived as an affirmative action for those deprived and living at the margins, reservations have later come to represent the classic case of quid pro quo between the political class and the deprived. The deal often has been characterized by the poll time promise of handing out a portion of reservation pie in exchange for the enbloc community backing at the hustings. Nothing has best typified the 'mai bap' nature of the giver and the abject helplessness of the receiver. The intrinsic merits of the receiver have seldom weighed in the calculations.

The complex social pathologies have indeed warranted a differentiated access to education and jobs and there is without doubt a historical context to it of how some communities have been treated and relegated to the fringes of the main discourse. The initial attempts at mainstreaming the fringe discourse post independence doubtless has been the best affirmative action ever seen anywhere in the world.  And that few amongst those whose pie was sought to be divided cringed is a testimony to that.

The detractors of the reservation of which there are many now have progressively started finding faults with the way this pie is being increasingly reduced. Their refrain, though not entirely misplaced, is twofold: one, some of those who are seeking easy access to jobs and education don't deserve them for they are no longer similarly underprivileged and second, the continual recourse to the affirmative action is at the expense of the quality human resource that a nation requires always and everytime; and that alternative ways need to be explored to pull these people out of the abyss of deprivation.

No one solution can remedy the century old malaise. Just as affirmative action is not the only and should not be the only way forward, similarly jettisoning it before a failsafe and effective alternative is in place would be an even greater evil. The complex social and cultural cross currents that are at play in this country do not lend themselves to any easy; one solution to even a common problem.

This has to do with the fact that the multiple strands of local expectations of a society donot so easily mesh with that of those that may be only a few miles away. The cultural attitudes and the social values between the communities may appear to differ in only nuance but in effect have no empathy with each other at all. This makes the job of applying similar sociological and anthropological solutions to these disparate assemblages extremely difficult.

The problem with giving a differentiated access to a few though has its own perils in that it may engender inertia of complacence in them. The thought that we have it easy also breeds cultural complexes of its own. At the inter community level, it feeds attitudinal differences that fosters segmentation grounded in quality. The positional perception of us vs they along the lines of one being better than other is another unintended consequence. Though the idea of carving out a few opportunities (from out of a wider set for the general mass) for those who have an unequal access was to empower and not to create a class consciousness; it has precisely done the latter. It has, therefore, defeated the purpose. It has kept the caste and class consciousness going and unfortunately so.

These abstractions have crept or have been allowed to creep in (and which morphed into policies later) because of the misplaced belief in the hypothesis that the process needs no midcourse correction. The process like any other administrative paradigm needed course correction to better respond to the realities on the ground. However, as in many other cases, since it became a political milch cow over time, it was left as it was. If anything, its scope was widened.

The rage today that the societies express is not because the paradigm has succeeded. It is because they find in it the best recipe of cutting corners to the proverbial el dorado. The reservation pie is not coveted because it has pulled a vast mass out of the abyss of misery, but because they feel that they have an exchange currency in the shape of votes to buy it and a make a political killing. Else, what explains the raising of banner of agitation by the jats and patels, who are relatively prosperous communities? 

No sane voice has ever stood against reservation. Nor should they ever. This is perhaps the best ever affirmative action undertaken for remedying the wrongs that are perceived to have taken place against the underprivileged in the distant past. However, if even those who can do without it start aspiring for it and don't see reason and use violence to seek it out, it would suggest that their designs are sinister. The cries of backwardness are a fig leaf; and the idea is to take a short, less rigorous route to prosperity.

Haryana today grapples with the fire raged by those who use social pathologies to further their ends. The fire that burns in one state can easily travel through the unrelated (and both contiguous and far removed) geographies to assume a fire storm of much bigger dimension. The undercurrents of disaffection with the state remain in many states. If this fireball moves unhindered, it may be difficult to be put out. The messaging in it is very clear. It is time to regulate access to this pie on merits and not extraneous interests.

 The ideology of vague abstractions that fuels the embers of the unfulfilled expectations of the communities leading them to believe that the jobs and the education are theirs for the taking (kindling the misplaced expectation in the process) must give way to a two way realistic interface with them on how they can build a nation with their enterprise and integrity. This can be done by making the nation more equal in terms of providing resources to all to compete; and handholding those who need a step up even after the field has been levelled. Unfortunately, there is no other option on the table.  

(The writer is a former Asian Age correspondent, who occasionally writes for Greater Kashmir )  

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