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Don’t pity your parents or grudge your kids ! June 11, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india.

This post would not have been made but for an acquaintance of mine. Bhushan wrote in yesterday –

Hey sharath,

I would like your take on the quota policy… have been reading and writing (hte online forums) on this issue for sometime now. that space is completely bipolar.

now asking people i believe to be having a practical and rational outlook. though i dont know you personally, i know a few who do 🙂

i am trying to see if i am missing out something that is leading me to believe that it is a flawed policy that has failed to deliver in teh 60 years it has been effective. in short any point that justifies the quota regime.

( Note : Throughout the post, OSS has been used as an abbreviation for OBC,SC,ST. Note also that I wont write about technical details like differences between OBC and SC/ST or their percentage in population – these are mere distractions in the first stage of analysis. I believe that if you have basic ideas right and you want to do the right thing, these are just that – minor technical, implementation details. )

Firstly, my position on the reservation issue though not dramatically different from many I have read in the blogosphere, has one point that I have not found in any of my readings (maybe rest of them just assumed it 😉 ) . So if you are hard pressed for time, just jump to point no. 6.

To start with, well, yes, we need some kind of large-scale grevience redressal ( call it affirmative action if you will ) because we have to find some way to balance out (or lessen ) inequalities of opportunity that arose due of historical reasons. We need to do this because:

Its morally wrong not to reduce these inequalities. Denying historical wrongs would be tantamount to saying that OSS are genetically inferior – a position that has no scientific basis, that is morally wrong and is politically unsustainable. ( yes, in decreasing order of importance )

If we don’t do this, at some point, these inequalities will cause things to snap and cause widespread civil unrest and we ALL will be losers. Ironically, it is in the best interest of the rich/privileged to ensure this doesn’t happen – because these are the only ones who have anything to lose anyway. The long term benefits of lessening inequalities accrue to both the rich and the poor. The OSS have nothing anyway and so have nothing to lose – and beware of the man who has nothing to lose!!

So whether you are a moral individual or an amoral one, you have a stake !

Now, are quotas the way to go? No, I don’t think so.

Quotas are politically attractive and easy to implement in a country like India– so people go for it. We are an intelligent people maybe, but we Indians in general hate any kind of scientific approach to policymaking and any rigor whatsoever. We do something either because its easy or because it has always been done that way – and often one of these feeds into the other ! Quotas are exactly that – escapism ; an unwillingness and inability to take a rigorous scientific approach to policy. What could we do instead ?


1. Have income criteria

2. If at all, have quotas only for a generation – if u get quota, your kids don’t ever!

3. Provide tools and enablers like scholarships, extra tuition, free schooling for the economically backward but not ready-made facilities like jobs and seats.


4. Deregulate education – We have a serious supply side problem here. Don’t artificially decrease seats by constraining the number of schools/colleges, leave it to the market to decide the number of seats and let the government have some quality control. ( Virtually every system works this way in the US, except, yes, education ! ). Moreover, we know markets exercise their own quality control. If a college sucks people don’t go. If college is too costly people don’t go. The problem is you constrain the number of seats and over and above most seats suck – that is exactly the problem in Karnataka. Of the 100 odd engineering colleges, 75% produce students who, on an average are not unrecruitable – this is something to the effect Narayanmurthy himself says. ( cant find the quote, pls. suggest if you do ). For good or for worse, much of this is not apparent in the current job boom where demand outstrips supply.

So we have a lose-lose situation – colleges have no incentive to get better. Students have no choice but go there. Students join anyway because there are few seats and no choice, and they pay high prices because of fewer seats ( demand > supply ) AND in the end still get poor education !!


5. Nationally important institution out of the quota regime.

Why were institutes like IIT, IIM etc. established ? Was it to promote excellence or was it make them shining examples of equality and egalitarian development ? Consider this – If you knew that you toil morning to evening today and tomorrow someone comes up and destroys it for reasons you are not responsible and this happens to thousands of people, day in and day out, would you have any incentive to work ? That is exactly what you will be doing to these institutions of national importance.

Stuff like IIT…IIM..TIFR reserach labs etc. built out of painstaking work of faceless, nameless people – don’t ruin them. Yes, equality is one goal to achieve, but excellence also is – and this is exactly why these exist – to promote excellence, that is their primary responsibility. Average payoff to society is in my opinion more if we let them thrive on excellence than make equality a goal in itself.

The lack of representation at the IIT, IIM level is not the cause of the problem, its the consequence !! It only reflects the inequality down the chain – lack of good schooling and a host of other socio-economic factors – health, poverty, child labor – these are the causes. Do not confuse the cause and the consequence. We want no symptomatic treatments here. Let that process of the OSS coming into these institutions happen organically, let rest of the education system over time feed good OSS professionals into these institutions. Give them time.


6. Finally and most importantly, don’t obsess over solving this problem in a generation …it just wont happen. Accept it. Previous attempts at instantaneously correcting historical wrongs instantaneously gave the world ideas of communism, socialism, anarchism, Nazism, Fascism and other forms of totalitarianism which invariably ended up making everybody worse off including the intended beneficiaries, whoever they were. Have patience. Keep idealism out of the way. There are far too many people who are backward, far too many who are poor and there has been centuries of neglect. It will take 2-3 generations to change for real. Look at the black community in the US ….after 140 years abolition of slavery, 40 years of civil rights movements, we still a long long way to go. So 1-2 generations will have to go without automatic access to IITs IIMs etc. through quotas …that’s just the way it is.


Is this morally wrong ?


Lets see – parents of virtually all baby boomers in the United States had no education beyond high school, worked odd jobs or worked on the farm. But most of their children earn more today than their parents did in any single year of their life. Equivalently, no call-center worker’s kids in India will ever work in a call-center in conditions his parents did. They will most likely get better education and move up the ladder in terms of every socio-economic indicator. These have been patterns of development throughout history. Poverty was not eliminated by giving money to the poor – poor people rarely become super-rich in their lifetime, they died middle-class, their children though often died rich. I may never become a millionaire, but if I work hard, at least my kids will.


In the end, we all strive so that future generations are better off. It is like saying my grandfather never traveled in a plane or that my great-grand father never enjoyed Indian independence rule or knew the incandescent bulb. He will never know what he missed since he never had it and died without regret.


Don’t pity your parents. Don’t grudge your kids. Now, that definitely would be morally wrong !

P.S : Links to some of my readings on this topic can be found on my other blog –
here, here and here.

Even if you have read enough of the issue and dont want to follow the links above, please dont miss related posts ( here and here ) on inequality in America by Nobel Laureate Economist – Gary Becker and his colleague at the Becker-Posner blog.




1. camelpost - June 13, 2006

One solution which should appeal to both the quota favoring and opposing parties: Let the government sponsor all SC ST OBC students to Kota famous Bansal Coaching to ensure that they get admissions and Bansal makes whoofs of money. The rest will be history.

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