The Paradox of Reservations

doc1.jpgAffirmative action submits to policies intended to promote access to education or employment, aimed at a historically socio-politically non-dominant group (typically, minorities or women). The aim of the Affirmative action policies is to redress the effects of the past and current wrongful discrimination and to encourage public institutions such as universities, hospitals and police forces to be more representative of the population.

This is commonly achieved through targeted recruitment programs, by preferential treatment given to applicants from socio-politically disadvantaged groups and, in some cases, by implementation of quotas.

Discussion on affirmative action is often fraught with high emotion content, perhaps because of an in-built paradox in the argument. Something unequal is being done to create equality. On one hand, Constitution states that we must treat all people equally, Yet affirmative action aims to treat some people more equally, something which has created unrest in the society at several junctures in history.

Any special treatment or a particular label given to a set of people smacks of condescending approach and not only alienates that section of society but, worst still, attributes a stigma to the recipient of this treatment. This undermines the true spirit of achievement by crediting success to affirmative action rather than hard work and ability of the individual.

Affirmative action, or reservations as referred to in the Indian context, is a device for compensating for unequal starting positions. To this extent they are justified in areas like admission and recruitment. However, once a reserved category candidate has been recruited at a particular level in the civil service, it becomes disputable as to how much more advantage should they enjoy compared to a general category recruit at the same level. Are the starting positions now not broadly similar? In the case of admissions and recruitment, unequal is made equal by compensatory measures. However, in the case of promotions, once made equal, preferential treatment will mean treating equals unequally. This leads to anomalies, where the gap between the chances of promotion of general category officers and reserved category officials rises almost to the point of making equality of opportunity within the service a problematic concept.

Using reservations to remove discrimination is counterproductive, both because it requires the very discrimination it is seeking to eliminate in order to work and because it promotes prejudice by increasing resentment towards the beneficiaries from those who have been adversely affected by the policy.

Since economic or educational disadvantage does not necessarily correlate with or restrict itself to those of a particular racial/ethnic/gender status, using race, gender or ethnicity to determine disadvantage is inappropriate.

In an interview, George Iype Verma, a 1982 graduate of IIT Kharagpur and post-graduate IIM Bangalore was questioned about his ‘Youth For Equality’ organization. He was told that the government said that reservation enforces equality and provides justice to the under-privileged and poorer sections of the society. Since his organization was also called ‘Youth For Equality’, what should then, in his opinion, equality be? He responded, “The government is hopelessly wrong in its assertion. If under-privileged and poorer sections of the society were to be the beneficiaries of a government policy there would be hardly any person against it.”

Typically, those who suffer on account of affirmative action (that is those who don’t get the job or who don’t get admitted to a particular university) should not be held accountable for crimes they did not commit. Most people of the present were not a part of the system that oppressed such minorities. Furthermore, since all people have equal rights, no individual’s rights should be sacrificed to compensate for another person’s rights previously taken away.

Additionally, affirmative action sometimes represses the qualified in favor of the not-so-qualified. This can result in serious loss for a nation not working at its full capacity and can also result in undesired effects previously felt by those who were discriminated against. For example, one may be very qualified for a certain job, but may be turned down in favor of a person who is less qualified but is targeted for AA in that certain job. If occurring on a grand scale, the country will lose speed in its advances. Each of those individuals turned down will be repressed and their example might dampen the spirits of those like them. This is a very serious issue and needs to be addressed in a very balanced manner.

Kaveri Trehan

[image by :]