Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regards caste-based job reservations in the private sector as an idea whose time has come. He says he will not impose this by law, but seeks a debate on the issue.
Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan want reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in the private sector, as in government services and educational institutions.
They say economic reform has replaced the government with the private sector as the key job-creator, and so reservations must shift to where the jobs are.
Now, I find it disgraceful that the condition of dalits and tribals is so dismal after half a century of independence. But while I too want affirmative action, I think job reservation is the wrong way to do it.
Half a century of job reservation in government services has patently failed to solve the problem. Only a thin creamy layer of dalits and tribals has benefited.
Reservations in the private sector will not achieve anything better. They may aid the children of dalits like Paswan and tribals like Shibu Soren, but will do nothing for the millions without education or skills.
Caste prejudice is unquestionably a barrier to employment. But a bigger barrier by far is lack of education and skills. For centuries dalits and tribals were prevented from acquiring literacy or skills.
The horrific tales of Eklavya in the Mahabharata and Shambuka in the Ramayana depict the vivisection and killing of lower castes as not merely permissible but sanctified by the greatest epics. No wonder caste discrimination has deep roots.
But in a competitive private sector, merit will ultimately triumph over caste. Some upper-caste drones and incompetents may be tolerable in the short run, but in the longer run companies without good staff will go bust.
However, competition and impartial selection will not help dalits and tribals if they lack education.
I have interviewed hundreds of candidates for jobs in journalism. None whom I selected were dalits or tribals. Nor were the hundreds whom I rejected.
Dalits and tribals simply did not apply for jobs in my area: too few had the required English-language or financial skills.
Many corporate managers tell me the same thing. They hire people on merit, but few meritorious dalits apply. Why? Because our hypocritical politicians have systematically neglected education and skill-building for oppressed castes.
Upper caste children go to expensive private schools and get skilled. But government schools are notorious for absentee teachers, for children who cannot write their own names after four years of schooling.
When education provides no skills that will ensure good jobs in later life, poor dalit and tribal families often prefer to pull children out of school and set them to work.
Even the few who manage to enter college typically find that there is little teaching there either, that college degrees are often worthless.
Manmohan Singh wants the private sector to respond to his call. Well, here is one way to do it. The central and state governments spend, very wastefully, around Rs 110,000 crore a year on education.
Let one-tenth of that be channelled, in planned phases, through the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry to create skills among dalits and tribals.
Let these organisations open quality schools in every state capital to begin with, and eventually in every district headquarters. Let them also open polytechnics, vocational training institutes and quality colleges.
These quality institutions must be good enough to attract the best students from all castes.
they must not be schools reserved entirely for dalits and tribals: that will stigmatise them. A quarter to half the seats should be available, on payment of fees, to upper castes. Dalits and tribals should get free education, plus subsidies for hostel accommodation where required.
While such schools will greatly increase opportunities, the bulk of dalits and tribals will remain in government schools. I would like to hope that success in my proposed system will catalyse change in government schools too, but I would not bet on it.
How will CII and FICCI run schools? Possibly through the franchise scheme of Delhi Public School, which has set up a chain of quality schools on behalf of trusts and companies providing the wherewithal.
Corporate members of the two organisations can provide a certain percentage of scholarships needed by the lower castes.
I am sure CII and FICCI will happily take up such a challenge. The real hurdle will be leftist ideologues who oppose private education of any sort.
Political parties linked to trade unions of government teachers will oppose the idea too.
Yet, only this sort of affirmative action will uplift oppressed castes by making them skilled. We do indeed need affirmative action, but not through the failed route of job reservation.