India Uncut

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's the thought that counts, right?

Once when I was a kid I went to a friend's birthday party and handed over a gift. She opened the wrapping and told me that she already had a copy of the book I'd painstakingly picked, but hell, it was the thought that counted and all that. Have some cake and suchlike, she said. I did.

Unfortunately, for too many of our policy-makers, it's only the thought that counts. If certain policies are meant to counter poverty, it hardly matters if they don't work in practice, as long as the gents pushing them can, on the basis of their intentions, project themselves as wise and compassionate. (I'd once written about this disconnect between intention and outcome here.) Most poverty alleviation schemes in India fall in this category: they rely on redistribution, which inevitably fails, and anyone who opposes the policies on the grounds that they do not work is attacked as not caring for the poor.

Ditto for social inequities. No one disputes that there is a serious problem of caste discrimination in India, and that this is not something that happened in the past, but continues to this day. But are reservations the right way to counter this? If so, are reservations in higher education the way forward? Too often, people who raise these questions are shouted down and accused of having a vested interest, especially if they happen to be, for no fault of their own, from a higher caste. Ask what reservations have achieved in the 50 years we've had them, and you'll be given a dose of self-righteous contempt, as if you are the one discriminating between castes. But these questions need to be raised, no?

One also sees too many ludicrous arguments raised defending the reservations recently proposed by Arjun Singh, some of which Dhoomketu takes on here (Update: Also see his post here). Falstaff also has excellent posts on the subject here and here, while Naveen gets tongue-in-cheek here. I thought I'd try to write a sarcy post arguing for 49% reservations in the Indian cricket team and in all domestic flights in India, which would hopefully illustrate the long-term effects of such pernicious policies, but I'm too jaded to argue on this subject, and don't want to get into silly little blog wars in which my motives will be questioned and I'll be subjected to personal abuse and so on, as inevitably happens on such issues.

But where do I stand? Very briefly, I agree with those who say that by focussing on reservations in higher education, the government is treating the symptoms and not the disease. Focussing on strengthening primary education would make much more sense, and we need to empower the poorer people in our country instead of throwing them crumbs they can't use. For that, we need more reforms, mostly to policies that claim to benefit the poor but do not. Sadly, with the primacy that is given to intentions over outcome in our country, change seems a long, long way away.

And ah, haven't you yet read the government ruling that 49% of all blogs read by Indians must be written by 'previously disadvantaged' bloggers? If you don't read your quota today, they'll redistribute my traffic tomorrow, so as to end this elite-blogger hegemony. Rush, rush...

Update: Neha has a nice post here, Rashmi expresses herself here, and Bhavya has some things to say here. Evenstar is collating anti-reservation posts here. If you're so inclined, you can also sign a petition against the reservations here.

Update 2: Here's another fine post by Falstaff.

Update 3 (April 13): Do read all the comments on Dhoomketu's post: priceless.
amit varma, 4:55 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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