Sunday, October 10, 2004

'Discrimination on caste lines a genetic disorder'


MUMBAI: Are reservations in the private sector, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently declared, "an idea whose time has come"? Most corporate bigwigs disagree.

Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto which provides the highest private sector employment in Maharashtra, had threatened to pull out his manufacturing base from Maharashtra when chief minister Sushilkumar Shinde floated the job reservation idea in June this year.

In a trenchant article in this newspaper, Bajaj had argued that reservations were antithetical to a meritocracy.

Bajaj's views are shared by most industrialists. "Job reservation in the private sector will lead to incompetence and increase costs at a time when Indian manufacturing companies are competing internationally with high-quality products," says Gautam Singhania, vice-chairman of Raymonds Ltd, which employs close to 20,000 people.

"Any move to reserve jobs will also be disadvantageous to countries that are eyeing India as a low-cost manufacturing base." Adds Anil Singhi, executive director of Gujarat Ambuja Cements Ltd, "Any employment has to be on merit."

It is statements like these that rile Dalits who have had to struggle every step of the way. "It's a canard that Dalits are lazy and do not have merit," says Dr Rohidas Waghmare, who heads a World Bank health project in Maharashtra and grew up as the son of a poor cobbler in Latur.

"Reservations are only a gate pass—after that, everyone is equal and has to slog to prove himself. I personally faced opposition at every step inmy medical studies from peers and teachers and had to work doubly hard to prove myself. Believe me, most Dalits work with sincerity and commitment."

Waghmare adds poignantly that caste discrimination is a "genetic disorder" most Indians have.

Chandrabhan Prasad, a commentator questioning the no-merit assumption, recently wrote—Is there a scientific study to show that the presence of Dalit engineers, doctors, scientists and managers causes industry to collapse?

Shashikant Daithankar, former principal secretary, government of Maharashtra, points to the example of India's only Fortune 500 company, IOC and other PSUs like HPCL, BPCL and ONGC (recently privatised) which have done better than most private sector companies.

"Their reservation quotas are almost 80 per cent complete (quotas lying unfilled because candidates are not up to scratch is another argument against reservations)," he says. "And they are doing so well."

The fact that PSUs are increasingly being disinvested is another reason why private sector reservations are nothing to baulk at, says Dr Kranti Jejurkar, principal of Siddharth College which was set up 51 years ago for backward caste and economically underprivileged students by B R Ambedkar.

"The opportunities for employment have gone down for those from the reserved sector," she says.

And to those who question why the private sector should carry forward the government's social agenda, the pro-reservation lobby points out that the exchequer subsidises much enterprise substantially—by way of land, electricity, water, loans and so on.

The pro-reservation lobby also states that the backward classes comprise only four per cent of India's organised sector workforce.

Comparing this to the US, the benchmarking Mecca of Indian capitalists, they point out that companies like Boeing, General Motors and Wal-Mart recruit close to 25 per cent of their employees from the minorities—which is more or less their representation in the population.

However, as a recent report by industries' association FICCI is at pains to point out, this affirmative action on the part of US industry is entirely voluntary.

Indian corporates like Bajaj couldn't agree more with the voluntary bit. "One-third of the workforce of Bajaj Auto comprises SCs\STs and OBCs, but it is entirely on merit," says Bajaj.

Agrees Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani, "Reservations per se are not the solution. The focus should be on high-quality education for all." Singhi suggests that corporates divert a part of their taxable amount to providing primary education "for the upliftment of the underprivileged".

However, at least one industrialist accepts job reservations in the private sector unreservedly —Venugopal Dhoot, chairman of Videocon. "While I oppose legislation on the issue—you need a change of mindset, not legislation —industrialists must understand the difficulty of the backward classes," he says.

"They have been exploited for 5,000 years and must be given their due. At Videocon, we have about 20 per cent reservation for SCs\STs in the workers' category, and we have done this on our own. Why can't other industrialists do the same?"

Writer P Sainath, who has written extensively on Dalit issues, sums up the reservations-versus-merit argument by talking about the hothouse-versus-garden brand of reservations.

"The entire Indian private sector is based on 100 per cent reservations for the privileged and always has been," he says.

The 23-year-old-son of a company chief picks up a fifth-rate degree from an unknown business school in Europe and joins the company's board of directors. On what merit other than bloodline does he make it to the board?

Incidentally, elite reservations in the Indian corporate sector are also heavily caste-based. So, what we really ought to be talking about is doing away with reservations based on wealth and entrenched power.

"It's the primitive attitude of the Indian upper middle classes that makes them view reservations in an apocalyptic frame," he adds. "The idea of associating a particular caste or castes with lack of merit is vicious and inhuman—it is, in fact, racist."

( With inputs from Baiju Kalesh and Prashant Hebbar )

Source: The Times of India, October 10, 2004


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