India’s Gujjar mess underlines problem of relying on quotas
There is no doubt that India is a deeply unequal society, that people at the bottom of the pile face discrimination, and struggle for the opportunities they need to raise themselves up. But is the answer caste- or tribe-based quotas in government jobs and universities?
This week, the debate is back in the headlines, as the Gujjar community takes to the streets again, blockading India’s capital to reinforce their demand for more quota-based jobs . Nearly 40 people have been killed in the latest violence, most shot dead by police.
I am not qualified to say whether quotas are right or wrong.
On the one hand, they reinforce caste identity and rivalry and seem to fly in the face of a secular India. On the other, they can be a useful tool in forcing an end to discrimination and giving people a leg up.
But one thing seems clear to me. Relying solely on quotas, or reservations as they are called, as a substitute for real policies to address discrimination and inequality, seems inadequate.
Take the case of the Gujjars.
Already considered a disadvantaged group, the Gujjars want to be reclassified further down the caste and status system so they qualify for more reserved government jobs and university seats. Already classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC), they want Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
What has developed is a race to the bottom.
Once the powerful Jat caste were also given OBC status in 1999, the Gujjars had to share the OBC pie and felt they were not getting enough. But if they are granted ST status, they are bound to take jobs set aside for other ST groups like the Meenas, and a Meena backlash seems inevitable.
At a more fundamental level, the whole issue underlines the inadequacies of India’s education system.
Gujjar youth have enough education to want more opportunity, but not enough education to compete for private sector jobs in the modern Indian economy.
Last year, when the Gujjar agitation began, the chief minister of the western state of Rajasthan promised more investment in education in Gujjar-dominated areas to address that very concern. That offer has been repeated this year, but dismissed by Gujjar leaders as too little, too late.
But what the Gujjar story seems to show is this. Quotas on their own, as a sticking plaster over the wound of discrimination, are not enough.
Real political will, to invest in education for all of India’s one billion people, is absolutely fundamental to address the underlying malady.