Affirmative action, often dubbed as positive discrimination and referred to as reservations in India are necessary initiatives worthy enough of being lauded if they are not assessed through the prism of political philosophy. In order to understand affirmative action policies we need to trace its origins.
The term ‘affirmative action’ was used for the very first time by late American President John F Kennedy in an executive order. The order was issued to all employers and urged them to undertake affirmative action in order to ensure that no person is discriminated against on the basis of his colour, caste, creed or sex during the appointment process. What began as an attempt to ensure non-discrimination soon began to be construed as a policy with wider implications. I have vocally opposed all such affirmative action policies in the past but yesterday my opinion changed after a comprehensive brainstorming session which forced me to rethink.
Reservations, as we call it in India lead to a mismatch. A person who gets lesser marks or is of slightly low calibre gets a college or a job which doesn’t suit him. His peers are far more efficient than him and over time this person is overshadowed and starts suffering from an inferiority complex. People belonging to reserved categories get such preferential treatment because of their pitiable status or because of past discrimination or historical oppression but the way in which they acquire benefits sponsored by the Government, leads to reverse discrimination and repetition of unfortunate history but this time it’s the other way round because the reserved category people are now in the driving seat and are depriving genuine people of an opportunity which they surely deserve. People who lose out on jobs and seats because of affirmative action policies start hating people belonging to the reserved groups and it leads to their radicalization. Moreover, it also leads to serious undervaluing of the achievements of the people of the reserved group as all their accolades and achievements are brushed aside and assumed to have happened solely because of preferential treatment.
People have alleged that affirmative action policies are enacted to drum up electoral support and they clearly ignore meritocracy. But the bigger side of the story is that how else do you bring out a group from the vicious circle of social and economic backwardness and also give an underrepresented faction its due representation? It can only happen when you educate them and give them job opportunities. Ensure that they are not victimized or discriminated against because of their origin. People say that this can be done by giving them scholarships and fee concessions, the Government does do that but the bottom line is that we can give them these benefits only when they get a chance to study or work and for this the Government is bound to take certain protectionist measures.
Such reserved category people are certainly not in the position to compete with the other established sections of the society and so you create favourable conditions and lesser eligibility criteria’s for them but what needs to be ensured is that a certain benchmark has to be maintained and seats along with jobs should be given only to those who actually deserve it. Affirmative action doesn’t mean that you throwaway educational seats and jobs to people belonging to the reserved category, it means that you give a chance to talented people belonging to the reserved groups and not facilitate the entry of rowdy elements in educational institutes and PSUs.
However, if the Government wants to give reservations to a certain community then it needs to create additional seats and jobs for them instead of reserving a certain percentage of seats for them out of the available ones. For example if the number of seats in a college are 70 and the Government intends to reserve 10% seats for some backward groups then it shouldn’t take away 7 seats out of the available 70, instead it should create 7 additional seats for them and let the existing number of seats (ie 70) be filled via open competition. Similar actions need to be taken while giving such people jobs. What it’ll do is that it’ll ensure that deserving individuals do not suffer because of affirmative action and if they’ll not lose out on seats then the question of open category people beginning to hate reserved category people won’t arise. Affirmative action policies need to be time bound. The Government should enact it for a fixed period of time and it should be re-looked at after the expiry of the given period. Its past performance should then be taken into account to determine its fate. If the policy has made no difference to the group for which it was framed then it should be abolished, if it has worked wonders for them then too it should be scrapped because now this community is capable of competing. The policy should be continued only if it manages to improve the plight of the concerned group marginally and if it is felt that the continuation of this policy would help in improving their situation even more but no affirmative action policy should be enacted without time-bound restrictions.
The Government does need to walk the extra mile to bail out these disadvantaged groups. We must remember that terrorism began because of a dangerous but true feeling which began to arouse among underrepresented and backward groups and that feeling was of getting marginalized. However, affirmative action policies cannot be seen as legitimate if they are enacted during elections to woo a particular section of society. Such policies shouldn’t be used for the purpose of populism but unfortunately they are. I would like to sign off by saying that India isn’t an exception, all countries in the world undertake affirmative action or positive discrimination policies.