On reservations, a wake-up call

Industry needs to step out of its cocoon and take on its responsibilities


Indian industry is resisting the UPA government?s proposal to initiate a debate on introducing reservations in the private sector. One of their main contentions is that if reservations are introduced, competitiveness will suffer. The argument is flawed because it is assumes that Indian industry is presently very efficient and globally competitive, which is clearly not so.

There?s nothing new about such reasoning. It was around even during the days of the British raj, when the suggestion that reservations be extended to the scheduled castes was first mooted. Mahatma Gandhi had to mediate between the anti-reservationists and the Ambedkarites, who had championed the cause of SC/ST reservations in education, employment and the electoral system.

The second major debate took place when the V.P. Singh government dusted down the Mandal Commission report in 1989. Once again the argument that reservations affected the efficacy of the administrative, military and scientific services, was put forth, leading to self-immolations and street clashes. It was a clash of cultures. India witnesses not only communal confrontations. Whenever the lower castes ask for equality and a share in the economy, a clash of cultures between the Dalit Bahujan intellectual social forces and the upper caste intelligentsia comes into play.

The UPA government ? since it is an alliance of many OBC, Dalit and tribal political formations, apart from the Congress and Left ? opened up the debate on the question of reservations in the private sector once again. Industry reacted sharply against the suggestion. The upper caste middle classes are also getting restless with the provision for quotas increasing, day by day. A section in the press has started calling the Indian state the ?Quota Raj?.

But what those who oppose reservations in the private sector do not realise is that at no point was Indian industry socially responsible. Yet, both industry and industrial production are social products and the market is a mechanism of the social circulation of goods and commodities. SCs/STs/OBCs are themselves a major source of industrial profit since they, too, are consumers. But their share in the ownership or in the management of industry, is negligible. Unlike feudalism, capitalist industry should be progressive and take seriously the responsibility of ensuring the development of all.

One of the key areas where the owners of industry contributed enormously in the Euro-American context is education. In the West, much before the state took educating people at the school and college levels, industrial groups initiated a process of opening up educational institutions. Famous universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia, and so on, were aided and expanded by Euro-American industries. Most of these universities were actually begun as theological centres and when industrial houses stepped in and financed them, they helped diversify the content of education.

It was the big companies that promoted the pursuit of science and social science on the campuses. Many started schools for the children of poorest of the poor. In the US, philanthropic industrialists began schools for Blacks in the face of resistance from a civil society that was still predominantly White and racist. The IBM company, for example, reserved jobs for blacks in the ?30s, even while the state was opposed to such preferential treatment. The famous example of a philanthropic white industrialist starting an exclusive medical school for Blacks at Memphis, Mississippi, is seen as an important marker in the history of education.

In contrast, Indian industry remained not only conservative but casteist. We have the historical case of Dalits in pre-Independence India being denied jobs in textile factories because industrialists believed their presence would pollute their units. B.R. Ambedkar had to berate S.A. Dange, the veteran communist leader, for not opposing such practices in Bombay?s mills.

Why is it that Dalits, tribals and OBCs could not, on their own, make it to executive positions in Indian industry in any significant number, even after 56 years of Independence? The reason is simple: they have been kept out of native education for centuries. After education was liberated from the clutches of casteism, the ruling castes/classes established a dual system. The rich got a private education in English medium. The poor and lower castes were relegated to government schools teaching in regional languages.

Industry knows that for people to make it to executive and managerial slots in a high-profile company, a Dalit or a tribal or an OBC has to have an education comparable to the best in the world, which can only be acquired in English. If industry was socially responsible, it would have opened at least a few English medium schools for SC/ST /OBC children. Even now, if industry spares 2 per cent of its profits and invests the money in school and college education, millions of rupees would have gone into a socially transformative project through which thousands of Dalit-Bahujans youth would eventually compete with the upper caste-English educated youth on an equal basis.

There are thousands of lower caste youngsters today who are struggling to acquire the required qualification to enter high-profile professions. To get an executive or managerial job requires not just a technical qualification but a training in linguistic and cultural skills. One way to address this is for industry to recruit SC/ST/ OBC youngsters, with basic qualifications, through separate channels of competition and train them in linguistic, managerial and cultural skills.

Since the ruling coalition has indicated that it is positive towards preferential treatment in the industrial sector, industry should join in the effort in a positive spirit. It must realise that it has to be socially responsive and make its own structural adjustments in order to do this. Structural adjustment is a process of social readjustment in each unit, industry, shop, hospital, newspaper office. Only then can the nation move on to the path of growth.

As of now, Indian industrialists are leading caste-feudal lives of pomp and luxury that is good neither for themselves nor for the nation. They must now consider ways to come out of their own self-imposed exile and help in India?s evolution. Reservations in industry will make it more humane and that alone guarantees competitiveness. Indian industrialists must realise that the greater presence of Blacks in American industry has not made it any the less productive. They must realise that keeping Dalits out has not made Indian industry any the more productive.

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