June 2006 
Year 12    No.116

Special Report

All things being equal

Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action (MIRAA) – a more effective system for equal opportunity


The Indian government’s intention of introducing caste-based quotas for the "Other Backward Classes"
in centrally funded institutions of higher learning and the prime minister’s suggestion to the private
sector to ‘voluntarily go in for reservation’ has once again sparked off a debate on the merits and demerits of caste-based reservations. Unfortunately, the predictable divide between the votaries of "social justice" on one hand and those advocating "merit" on the other seems to have once again camouflaged the real issues. It is necessary to take a holistic and non-partisan view of the issues involved.

The hue and cry about "sacrificing merit" is untenable, simply because merit is, after all, a social construct and it cannot be determined objectively in a historically unjust and unequal context. The idea of competitive merit will be worthy of serious attention only in a broadly egalitarian context. But then, caste is not the only obstacle in the way of an egalitarian order. After all, economic conditions, educational opportunities and discrimination on the basis of gender also contribute to the denial of opportunity to express one’s true merit and worth. It is interesting to note that in the ongoing debate one side refuses to see the socially constructed nature of the notion of merit while the other side refuses to recognise the multiplicity of the mechanisms of exclusion with equal vehemence.

The idea of caste-based reservations is justified by the logic of social justice. This implies the conscious attempt to restructure a given social order in such a way that individuals belonging to the traditionally and structurally marginalised social groups get adequate opportunities to actualise their potential and realise their due share in the resources available. In any society, particularly in one as diverse and complex as Indian society, this is going to be a gigantic exercise and must not be reduced to just one aspect of state policy. Seen in this light, caste-based reservation has to work in tandem with other policies ensuring the elimination of the structures of social marginalisation and denial of access. It has to be seen as a means of achieving social justice and not an end in itself. By the same logic, it must be assessed and audited from time to time like any other social policy and economic strategy.

Hence it is important to discuss reservation in the holistic context of much required social restructuring and not to convert it into a fetish of ‘political correctness’. Admittedly, caste remains a social reality and a mechanism of oppression in Indian society. But can we say that caste is the only mechanism of oppression? Can we say with absolute certainty that poverty amongst the so-called upper castes has been eradicated? Can we say that the regions of the North-east, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, are on par with the glittering metros of Delhi and Mumbai? Can we say that a pupil from a panchayat school in Bihar is equipped to compete with an alumnus of Doon School on an equal footing even if both of them belong to the same caste group? One of my students once remarked that he was regularly compelled to swim across a rivulet in order to reach his school and the rivulet in question did not distinguish between Brahmins and Dalits. Incidentally, this young man happens to be a Brahmin by birth! Can we also say that gender plays no role in denial of social opportunities? After all, this society discriminates against girls even before they are born. Why talk of access or opportunities, they’re denied birth itself. Such discrimination exists across religious and caste lines.

Moreover, the question is: do we want to eliminate caste as a factor of social relations and political processes or do we want to perpetuate it forever? Is it not true that by treating caste as the only medium of oppression and hence by focusing all remedial measures on caste alone we have only added to the longevity of caste as the determining factor of social identity? Individuals have been virtually turned into epitomes of the caste of their birth – denying the multiple identities that every individual perforce carries. This also helps the powerful amongst the generally disempowered sections to corner most of the benefits of caste-based reservation. Caste, which in reality is only one of the features of identity at the individual level and the manifestation of an abhorrent social order at the social and structural level, has been turned into the essential identity of individual citizens. Such a situation helps only those politicians who are in search of short cuts to power. It is harmful for the cause of a modern social democracy as well as to the cause of individuals in need of social justice and related affirmative action.

There seems to be a deliberate attempt to mislead public opinion by projecting caste-based reservation as the only form of affirmative action. Affirmative action has to "affirm" the social will to rectify unjust structures and practices in existence. Any society has a multiplicity of such structures and practices. Any programme of affirmative action has to tackle all these factors and not elevate any one factor to the level of a political "fetish".

Some of the votaries of caste-based reservation in our country liken it to the American model of affirmative action. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, the spirit of AA is contrary to the stagnant quota system in place in our country. The American system does not have any pre-fixed quota for those belonging to historically disadvantaged ethnicities. Marquita Sykes defines the American model as follows: "Affirmative action, the set of public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate past and present discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin." This model is all about the provision of opportunities to those belonging to historically disadvantaged communities so that they can be integrated into the mainstream. This has helped both the corporate sector and public institutions in America to reflect the diversity of that society to a significant extent. The American model does not focus exclusively on ethnicity; gender and economic factors are taken into account as well.

A similar comprehensive model of Affirmative Action was in place in the Jawaharlal Nehru University admissions policy till 1983 and undoubtedly helped JNU to reflect the diversity of Indian society along with maintaining the highest academic standards in the country. Due to administrative expediency, this system was revoked in favour of the easier and politically more suitable system of flat caste-based reservation.

I hereby propose a model of affirmative action that I will call MIRAA – Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action. As the name suggests, this model will take into account several factors when a candidate is considered for admission or employment. In the specific situation of our country, MIRAA will consist of the following indices:

1. Caste/Tribe.

2. Gender.

3. Economic status of family.

4. Kind of schooling received.

5. Region where candidate spent his/her formative years

6. Status as a first generation learner/educational achievement in the family.

Let me explain how this system will work. There will be no pre-fixed quotas. MIRAA will be operative on hundred per cent of the available seats for education or employment. Suppose there is a 100-mark scale for entry to a college/organisation. These 100 marks can be distributed amongst entrance test, interview and academic performance as per the wishes of the institution in question. First and foremost, all candidates would be ranked on this hundred mark scale, depending on their performance in the entrance test, interview, etc. Then MIRAA would be applied and each candidate, irrespective of caste, can potentially benefit from it due to the different indices which make up the system. The maximum points a person can get under MIRAA are 30 and the minimum is zero. Now the candidate’s MIRAA subscore is added to the score s/he achieved in the admission process described above. This will be the total score. The candidates whose total score clears the cut-off for a particular subject/job will then be offered the position.

Hence this system does take into account both the qualification of the individual as well as the demands of social and economic justice. Unlike the quota/percentage system, which confines the social justice mechanism only to a fraction of the available vacancies, MIRAA brings each and every seat under the ambit of social and economic justice.

The following models will further explain the working of MIRAA

1. Let us imagine Ms Rani Kuzur from Jharkhand meets the minimum criterion laid down by a certain college for granting admission. The cut-off for the humanities stream in that particular college is 70.

Now, applying the different indices of MIRAA one by one:

Ø She gets 5 points for being ST.

Ø She gets a further 5 points for being a woman.

Ø Her family is a beneficiary of the NREG scheme and hence she gets 6 points in the economic factors index.

Ø She gets 5 points for belonging to a tribal (Category D) region.

Ø She is awarded a further 5 points for having studied in a panchayat school.

Ø She gets another 4 points for being a first generation learner in her family.

So Ms Rani Kuzur is awarded 30/30 MIRAA points. Now this is added to her qualifying scores, which let us say is 42 (which includes her previous academic performance and performance in the entrance exam). Hence she gets a total score of 72/100 and hence qualifies for admission. The 30 MIRAA points help her to negotiate all the factors of structured social and economic marginalisation working against her as an individual.

2. Now take a contrasting case. There is a Mr Ramesh Yadav, son of a brick kiln owner who also happens to be a politician. He gets only 2 MIRAA points for belonging to the OBC category, since he has spent his formative years in a Category A region, has studied in a public school and both his parents happen to be graduates. But his similarly placed sister will be awarded 7 MIRAA points. Had one of the parents of Mr Ramesh Yadav not been matriculate, he and his sister would have got an additional 3 points.

3. Let us take yet another example. This is Ms Sadhna, daughter of a middle ranking government officer belonging to the OBC category. Her mother happens to be illiterate. Sadhna has studied in a Kendriya Vidyalaya of a small town. How does she fare on the MIRAA scale? She gets 5 gender points, 2 OBC points, 3 points for region, 2 points for schooling and 3 points due to her mother’s lack of education. This brings a total of 15 MIRAA points to Ms Sadhna. Had her father been a lower level functionary in the government, she would get either 3 or 5 MIRAA points for the lower income.

This proposal doesn’t take into account the religion of the applicant, as it is based upon the realisation of the ubiquitous nature of the institution of caste in Indian society. Hence members of marginalised and disempowered communities across the religious spectrum will get due benefits. For example, a Kidwai or Raza Muslim will not be awarded any points under the caste index while an Ansari or a Salmani will get points in accordance with OBC status. The same logic applies to Christians and others as well.

I request readers to think about, consider and react to MIRAA.

(Prof Purushottam Agrawal is a social and political activist and a professor of Hindi Literature at Centre for Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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