Sunday, March 9, 2008

Industry can play an important role in reservation policy

Last weekend, as part of a panel discussion at the Annual Day of the Pune Chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about CII Pune having run finishing school sessions in collaboration with a local educational institute for members of the “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes”.

The “reservation policy” – Indian phrase for affirmative action policy for members of certain castes and tribes listed in a schedule to orders passed in terms of Article 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India, and for members of certain other under-privileged castes outside these schedules – has always been viewed with great trepidation by Indian corporates. Some segments of India’s Union Government proposing to impose the reservation policy on private sector corporates, too has led to greater suspicion. Only one leading Indian industry house is known to have voluntarily adopted some form of affirmative action in its recruitment policy.

The constitutional validity of a law imposing state policy on the private sector would have perhaps been successfully challenged for the asking. While it is but natural for the State to use the institutions available under its control to implement social justice measures, and thereby reserve seats and jobs in its educational institutions and organizations, forcing private enterprises to reserve jobs and seats would have raised a very serious constitutional issue. The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom to carry on business or profession, and restrictions on whom to employ, were not likely to be upheld as reasonable restrictions on the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom.

This blog entry is not intended to provoke a debate on the merits of reservation, although, this writer, once a bitter opponent as a student, now feels with the benefit of hindsight, that the policy is not such a bad idea after all.

The finishing school is a great idea. Many beneficiaries of reserved jobs and seats still end up as outcastes for not having the social finesse to blend in with the majority. Holding a prestigious government job or having graduated from a prestigious school does not fully help. The difference in cultural, economic and social background can continue to perpetrate diffidence in social settings (not knowing how to use the fork and knife with finesse, or not knowing to differentiate between different types of alcohol, are classic examples).

“Sarkari Brahmins” as some upper castes derisively call them, being members of a caste listed in the Constitutional schedules, or the very history of having benefitted from the reservation policy, could perpetually dilute the perception of their merits.

The finishing school – where one would get trained in social niceties and formal graces – will work towards obliterating the ability to tell one caste from another in the workplace or in work-related social settings. Whether an individual has been a beneficiary of the reservation policy should become completely irrelevant. Only then would the reservation policy have its intended effect. Indian industry would do well to do all in its power to support such an endeavour, even while it should remain opposed to impostion of any State-imposed interference in its recruitment policies.

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