From Business World of 24 October 2004. Blatant discrimination against untouchables - renamed scheduled castes after they came to be listed in the Constitution in 1950, and later called Dalits (oppressed) - is very old. After independence, the government reserved a certain proportion of government jobs for them. In 2004, it decided to extend the reservation to jobs in the private sector. I suggested that the private sector should introduce reservations voluntarily, but should at the same time introduce entirely merit-based entry for both Dalits and Non-Dalits.
Removing job injustice
The UPA government wants to make the private sector reserve a certain proportion of jobs for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SCATs).
Anyone who believes this is right would argue that the private sector does not give SCATs the jobs it would have to if it recruited people by open and fair competition, and would point to the prevalence of jobbery and sifarish in the private sector; where recommendations matter, classes of people who do not have connections will suffer. Alternatively, he must think in terms of classes rather than individuals. He must believe that SCATs have been historically oppressed and discriminated against in India, and that it is good justice if, in compensation for the suffering of one SCAT individual, another who had nothing to do with the first was rewarded with a job.
Many sociological generalizations are partially right; just how right they are can be found out. For instance, SCAT applicants could be made to apply for jobs in their own names and alternatively assuming high-caste names, and the difference it makes to their employability could be found out. In fact, discrimination based on caste, and even more on religion, could be abolished if every citizen on birth was given a neutral state-approved name. It would be possible to give names consisting of a three-syllable first name and a two-syllable surname to the entire world’s population such that no two persons will have the same name. If people are attached to the currently favoured names like Jack and Jill for sentimental reasons, they can continue to use them as nicknames within family and friends.
But societies do not usually like rational solutions, and a more roundabout solution must be found. It must lie in enabling private employers to recruit entirely on the basis of merit, and if they do not do so, in revealing how far they have departed from merit. For this, it is necessary to measure everybody’s merit accurately. Merit is contextual; it must depend on the job people are supposed to do. But skill requirements must be defined as objectively as possible for every class of job, and examinations devised that would measure the skill as accurately as possible. Schools and colleges do the latter routinely; what is needed is to review examination and selection techniques and find the one that fits employers’ requirements as accurately as possible. The government can supplement this process by setting up objective nation-wide examinations for standard subjects – as closely tailored to the needs of the job market as possible – to be taken at fixed stages in a student’s life – in effect, a national equivalent of Senior Cambridge for middle school, high school and college graduation.
Once this is done, it would be possible to measure for each employer what proportion of jobs he gave to the best qualified person. It may be that most private sector jobs do not go to the best candidates; but we can know only if selection is carried out by objective agencies other than the employer on the basis of objective examinations. Employers may have reasons to depart from selection of best candidates; often they may also want candidates that fit into an organization. But at least the influence of such subjective factors would be quantified. If it is to withstand the pressure for SCAT reservations, the private sector has to adopt unassailable recruitment practices.
If it does so, it will also expose how far the underrepresentation of minorities – whether they are SCATs, Muslims or north-easterners – is due to lack of deserving candidates. It will thereby show the government what it has to do: improve the education of minorities to give them an equal chance in competition with the long-nosed, big-eyed, brown-skinned caste Hindu majority. And the way to do so would be, not to pour more money into government schools, but to give scholarships to the brightest minority students for a certain proportion of seats – say, a quarter – in the best schools and colleges so that they can live just like their richer upper caste co-students without financial stress. That is the way to annihilate the caste and religious biases that shame India. It will not abolish the curse of poverty, but at least it will divorce it from caste and religion.