City City Bang Bang, Columns

Promoting equality unequally?

There are some familiar and very vocal arguments that have been put forward against the proposed legislation to make reservations in promotions. That it sacrifices merit and severely hampers the quality of output generated by the organisation in question, that it perpetuates social divisions, by deepening the fault lines that already exist between castes and that it is yet another example of the type of cynical political transfer payments aimed at building vote banks. The argument for this move comes in the form of a reiteration of the deep-seated nature of prejudice and discrimination, reflected in the abysmal representation of Dalits as one moves up the hierarchy, and draws sustenance from the belief that the vocal middle-class speaks from a perch that is deeply ahistorical and narrowly self-serving.

By correcting the access to opportunity that the historically marginalised have been denied, the hope has been to create conditions for equality over a period of time. The process begins with education, which is seen to be the prime engine that creates conditions for both social and economic mobility and continues on to reserving jobs; the underlying assumption in both cases is that without such affirmative action, the bias against the marginalised whether overt or embedded in the vast difference in social capital between the two groups, would continue unabated.

Strong as this argument is, it makes some assumptions that need examination. The whole point of affirmative action is to enable the marginalised to use the same system that everyone else does to better their lives by helping them overcome constraints. The key strategy is to use a mechanism that has been proven to provide a vehicle for self-betterment, but to tweak it so that it does not discriminate between its participants. The system itself is not altered, for an attempt to do that suggests that the desire is to create an alternative universe rather than make the disadvantaged better able to participate in this one. At the risk of trivialising the argument, a cricketing metaphor might be useful. Getting the so-called minnows into the mainstream involves including them in championships and making them compete with historically advantaged teams, precisely because the process of competing pushes the teams to do better. Teams from the sub-continent, seen earlier as pushovers are proof that this system works. To see competition as intrinsically discriminatory, and to seek refuge from it is to forego a principal advantage of the system.

When promotions get reserved, what is being argued is that the job is primarily a social designation, rather than a name given to a task. Change is envisaged not through the actions of the official but through his identity. By arguing this, we are negating other notions of fairness as well jettisoning our belief in systems that we have designed for our own progress. The process of competition has intrinsic value, for it creates a set of positive effects for its participants. Implicit in the idea of competition is a self-reinforcing mechanism that animates the desire of individuals to push themselves and find avenues of personal growth. The focus needs to be on enhancing the ability to compete rather than on assuring participants of an outcome. In its extreme form, a system based purely on competition can reek of a form of Social Darwinism, by ignoring the vast differences in the starting out positions of its participants. Which is why the emphasis needs to be on the system to work better, and for everyone to have equal access to opportunity, not to compromise it, so that one of our objectives from it is better served. For what is being proposed currently are measures that will end up seeking guaranteed outcomes for social groups rather than guaranteed participation in universal processes. By rigging the game, what might seem like a short term advantage is a long term admission of the fact that the two groups can never be equal, and must forever operate in different universes.

Particularly when the idea of reservations gets extended to large chunks of the population as is currently the case, and will in all likelihood become the case even in the case of promotions, then the underlying idea that we are moving towards is a world where the present gets determined increasingly by the past. As long as the proportion of beneficiaries is small, the idea of affirmative and enabling action is easy to justify. The moment more than half the population gets a handicap, then it is no longer a compensating incentive, but a new definition of the game itself.

The problem with being charged with the responsibility of change, is that even with the best intentions, the temptation to seek a total reversal in one go is simply too great to resist. When the demand of social justice, dismantles a mechanism that reconciles the need for self-betterment with that of fairness, then it creates anew kind of asymmetry, one that strikes at the very roots of a society based around the individual and the actions he takes in the present. Legislation of this kind, is at its heart, an aerial intensification of intention that rails against the tediousness of bringing about change at the ground level. It re-arranges social configurations but does not responsibility for the many effects that it sets in motion. Social justice is too complex an objective to come about overnight through a few dramatic gestures, however well meaning its proponents might be. And eventually, the idea of social justice extends to the entire populace and not just to a section, however historically disadvantaged it might be. What is currently being sought is a statistical form of equality rather than a deeper more real form of change and for the long-term benefit of those it is intended for, the current proposal needs to be resisted.