Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Reservations on reservations

I've so far kept mum on reservations, but since that is the hottest topic of the season, I feel I need to add my 2 paise worth of opinion.

First off, I'm neither pro-reservation nor anti-reservation. The fact of the matter is there is socio-economic discrimination prevalent in the country, and we must do whatever is needed to achieve equality provided the following principles are kept in mind:

a) The beneficiary cannot have ever-lasting benefits
The biggest problem of a caste-based reservation is, since the caste doesn't change (not in normal sense), a beneficiary of the reservation would be entitled to perpetual benefits, regardless of how he/she has benefited from that. So, there is no end in sight - the reservations would continue as long as the caste exists, not caste discrimination. Thus it would not reflect on the sociological context of the future. On the other hand, if you have economic status based reservations, once a person has crossed over to say, lower middle class, he is now more equal to the others in terms of opportunities. Thus, he doesn't need reservations as much as someone else who might now require.
This is why the "creamy layer" issue is such a vital one. Also, caste discrimination is almost always absent if a person is rich (that's my cynical view), since everybody respects money ... therefore, a rich person doesn't have need for affirmative action.
This isn't unknown to the politicians - India has long argued for a time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons and the discrimination of NPT etc. I don't see how the issues are different.

b) Need for equality not more caste consciousness
Another biggest worry about caste-based reservations is it would undo the whatever little progress we have achieved (if at all) in the past so many years about bringing equality. Really, do I care which caste my colleague belongs to ? Do I care which caste my classmate belongs to ? Absolutely not.
The reservation policy tries to undo all of this by increasing caste identity in the subconscious. In the name of bringing in equality, you are bringing in reverse discrimination.

c) Reservation of opportunities not benefits
There is interesting concept in behavioural finance and especially in insurance called "moral hazard". An example would be, someone buying life insurance, if he knows he is not going to live for a long time (and thus doesn't have to pay full premium). Another is called "morale hazard" where the behavior of a person is influenced by the safety net of insurance - like not having fire-safety measures just because it is covered by fire insurance, etc.
The proposed scheme encourages people to declare themselves as backward, as the Supreme Court observed, and probably go beyond it into faking caste certificates, a manifestation of moral hazard. It would also cause demotivation, because now you can get the same benefits as the general pool, without as much effort.
In the quest for level playing field and true equality for all people, one should ensure that people make use of the benefits as much as they are supposed to. I mean, you must not just get into an IIT, and not do justice to the course. So, one solution is to address the supply side, and not the demand side: ensure free education, free participation in exams, but level-playing field in the evaluation/selection. This would filter off people who are not properly interested in undertaking the course.

I'm not in a position to pass judgment on the appropriateness of the reservations per se, but unless the above three points are considered, they would be counter-productive. But, a far subtler point is about why this has become an issue at all: we don't have enough IITs/IIMs and institutions of higher education. We don't have good huge private universities that can rival IITs and IIMs. That is the greatest tragedy.

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