From where I sit - Negative on affirmative action

November 6, 2008

Divisions over positive discrimination, which has long been a bone of contention in Indian higher education, were again highlighted by a recent petition that questioned the expulsion of 12 students from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, for "academic failure".

The 12 are from the "untouchable" caste and tribal groups that are now known officially as "scheduled communities".

Support for the government policy of affirmative action for students and faculty from these groups has gained political momentum. But increasingly, other sections of society are demanding that the policy also be applied to them.

In some states, up to 70 per cent of places in higher education, especially in technology and medicine, are "reserved" for disadvantaged caste and tribal groups. Decisions and initiatives related to the extension and expansion of the policy has led to public violence between those who support affirmative action and the rights of groups with a history of discrimination against them, and those who reject its constitutional validity. The latter believe that positive discrimination violates the fundamental rights of citizens.

Implementation of the policy has been poor and lackadaisical. With faculty and management typically drawn from upper castes, resentment against such "constitutional compulsions" arises in part because most institutions do not have special programmes to address the multiple disadvantages faced by these students.

"Scheduled community" students are often subjected to various forms of ill-treatment by staff and by their more privileged peers. Assumptions about inherited intellectual and cultural deficits are widespread.

Some specialised institutions are understood to have deliberately kept their reserved seats vacant while claiming a lack of availability of eligible candidates. High dropout rates and suicides are common among this pool of students, and opponents of affirmative action claim that the poor academic performance of the group is the prime reason for the declining quality of higher education in India - although there is no substantial data to support their argument.

In rebuttal, supporters of the policy have challenged a construction of academic "merit" that does not recognise social context.

Increased access has not always translated into benefits for disadvantaged communities. A large proportion of students taking undergraduate degrees in science, arts and humanities find that the reservation policy fails to provide them with any leverage.

They enter higher education with a low level of academic capability, primarily due to their lack of access to a quality early-years education. They receive poor training at university, and many have gained little by the time they graduate. When they enter the job market after graduating, they receive derogatory treatment, attracting labels such as "government Brahmins". Many remain unemployed or underemployed.

The Government's ambitions for expansion and internationalisation of higher education are not addressing these entrenched problems.

The conflict between individual rights and attempts to redress historical disadvantage is likely to continue for some time.

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