Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Reservations - Can they deliver social justice?

A recent advertisement depicts a yuppie standing behind his son, aged around 10 looking at him use an Intel PC. The copy line says that the father’s gift of a PC to his son will help the child save a year in school. Contrast this picture with the story of Ramesh, an SC student who joined IIT Bombay with the first batch of reserved category students in 1973 with just 8 marks in the JEE. On the recommendation of the Chandy Committee Report, the IITs had selected reserved category students right down to zero mark performance in the JEE.

Although all the SCs and STs admitted with him were very weak, Ramesh was the weakest. He had come from a village in Bihar and was the eldest son of illiterate parents. Ramesh had studied in the only school in his village, which had neither a library nor a laboratory.

Ramesh’s case was typical of some of the SC/ST students who had joined IIT Bombay that year. They came from village schools or small town colleges. They were ill-equipped both academically and financially. Based on their performance in the JEE, Ramesh and his classmates were enrolled for a one-year special coaching in the sciences and English to help them in the First Year of the B.Tech programme. A tailor-made preparatory course was given too. Some of them even failed to clear that course and left. The successful ones were admitted to the First Year in 1974 and faced the severest test of their lives. A year later again one or two students left while the rest continued only to collect backlog courses. Ramesh had a backlog of 32 courses. Three years after joining IIT, Ramesh was asked to leave as per rules. His greatest regret was having come to IIT.

Here arises a serious issue: does the responsibility of a government end with increasing quotas? Do governments have no responsibility towards those SC/ST students who become dropouts? Having increased the quota, the government washes its hands of reserved category students. Adequate financial help is often not given. Institutes like the IITs are residential colleges, so the cost has to be borne by the students. The cut-off parental income where reserved category students could avail themselves of free messing and hostel stay was so low (during my time) that few students were eligible. The others whose parental income exceeded the cut-off even by one rupee had to bear the entire cost.

Increasing the general category seats may seem a master stroke to answer quota opposition but in the IITs, reserved category seats have since the beginning existed in addition to the general category seats. Not one non-SC/ST seat has ever been given to reserved category students. The general category students’ belief that the seats of the merit list holders have been usurped is incorrect.

The real issue therefore is not of increasing seats in the general category or hiking faculty salaries or the retirement age to make more seats for SC/ST/OBCs acceptable but that when the seats are filled up somehow it is the quota students who suffer. This is because institutes like the IITs need students who have a sound conceptual base in their subjects. It is difficult for any student to build that base after he/she has joined the institute.

The struggle begins early because a very large number of school children from deprived backgrounds drop out after Std VIII. The initiative to train students for institutes of excellence needs to begin in Std VIII or even earlier. It is ridiculous to imagine that schools which don’t have teachers to teach, furniture for students, notebooks, or computers to learn IT on, are expected to throw up gems who can survive in the IITs/IIMs.

Going by what Indian Industry has achieved in benchmarking their own businesses to world standards, the corporate can actually transform the country’s government schools if it could adopt them. Companies like Infosys and Wipro can make these very schools give the best education possible to each and every SC/ST/OBC community. The government and Industry may also consider setting up residential schools and colleges of excellence exclusively for SC/ST/OBCs so that they blossom to their full potential without comparison with their so-called elite classmates, since most SC/ST students experience develop an inferiority complex in mixed institutes. Just as exclusively girls’ schools and women’s colleges served an important function in the education of women when our society wasn’t ready for it, so too can such schools and colleges prepare the reserved category students for the best higher education institutes .