THE ALTERNATIVE proposed here is rooted in the recognition that we need to go beyond a simple-minded reduction of `merit' and `social justice' to singular and mutually exclusive categories. In reality, both merit and social justice are multi-dimensional, and the pursuit of one does not require us to abandon the other. The proposal seeks to identify the viable common ground that permits simultaneous commitment to both social justice and excellence. It seeks to operationalise a policy that is morally justified, intellectually sound, politically defensible, and administratively viable.
Let us present the basic principles that underlie this proposal before getting into operational details. First of all, this proposal is based on a firm commitment to policies of affirmative action flowing both from the constitutional obligation to realise social justice and also from the overall success of the experience of reservations in the last 50 years. Secondly, we recognise the moral imperative to extend affirmative action to educational opportunities, for a lack of these opportunities results in the inter-generational reproduction of inequalities and severely restricts the positive effects of job reservations. Thirdly, it needs to be remembered that the end of affirmative action can be served by various means including reservation. The state's basic commitment is to the end, not any particular means. Finally, flowing from the experience of reservations for socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), we need to recognise that there are multiple, cross-cutting, and overlapping sources of inequality of educational opportunities, all of which need redress. This is what our proposal seeks to do.
The proposal involves computing scores for `academic merit' and for `social disadvantage' and then combining the two for admission to higher educational institutions. Since the academic evaluation is less controversial, we concentrate here on the evaluation of comparative social disadvantage. We suggest that the social disadvantage score should be divided into its group and individual components. For the group component, we consider disadvantages based on caste and community, gender, and region. These scores must not be decided arbitrarily or merely on the basis of impressions. We suggest that these disadvantages should be calibrated on the basis of available statistics on representation in higher education of different castes/communities and regions, each of these being considered separately for males and females. The required data could come from the National Sample Survey or other available sources. It would be best, of course, if a special national survey were commissioned for this purpose.
Besides group disadvantages, this scheme also takes individual disadvantages into consideration. While a large number of factors determine individual disadvantages (family history, generational depth of literacy, sibling education, economic resources, etc.), we believe there are two robust indicators of individual disadvantage that can be operationally used in the system of admission to public institutions: parental occupation and the type of school where a person passed the high school examination. These two variables allow us to capture the effect of most of the individual disadvantages, including the family's educational history and economic circumstances.
In the accompanying tables, we illustrate how this scheme could be operationalised. It needs to be underlined that the weightages proposed here are tentative, based on our limited information, and meant only to illustrate the scheme. The exact weights could be decided after examining more evidence. We suggest that weightage for academic merit and social disadvantage be distributed in the ratio of 80:20. The academic score could be converted to a standardised score on a scale of 0-80, while the social disadvantage score would range from 0 to a maximum of 20.
Awarding social disadvantage points
Table A shows how the group disadvantage points can be awarded. There are three axes of group disadvantage considered here: the relative backwardness of the region one comes from; one's caste and community (only non-SC-ST groups are considered here); and one's gender. The zones in the top row refer to a classification of regions — this can be at State or even sub-State region level — based on indicators of backwardness that are commonly used and can be agreed upon. Thus Zone I is the most backward region while Zone IV is the most developed region. The disadvantage points would thus decrease from left to right for each caste group and gender.
The castes and communities identified here are clubbed according to broadly similar levels of poverty and education indicators (once again the details of this can be agreed upon). The lower OBCs and Most Backward Castes along with OBC Muslims are considered most disadvantaged or least-represented among the educated, affluent, etc., while upper caste Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis, etc., are considered to be the most `forward' communities.
Disadvantage points thus decrease from top to bottom. Gender is built into this matrix, with women being given disadvantage points depending on their other attributes, that is, caste and region. Thus the hypothetical numbers in this table indicate different degrees of relative disadvantage based on all three criteria, and most importantly, also on the interaction effects among the three. Thus, a woman from the most backward region who belongs to the lower OBC, MBC, or Muslim OBC groups gets the maximum score of 12, while a male from the forward communities from the most developed region gets no disadvantage points at all.
Tables B and C work in a similar manner for determining individual disadvantage. For these tables, all group variables are excluded. Table B looks at the type of school the person passed his or her secondary examination from, and the size of the village, town, or city where this school was located. Anyone going to an ordinary government school in a village or small town gets the maximum of 5 points in this matrix. The gradation of schools is done according to observed quality of education and implied family resources, and this could also be refined. A student from an exclusive English medium public school in a large metro gets no disadvantage points.
Table C looks at parental occupation as a proxy for family resources (that is, income wealth, etc., which are notoriously difficult to ascertain directly). Since this variable is vulnerable to falsification and would need some efforts at verification, we have limited the maximum points awarded here to three. Children of parents who are outside the organised sector and are below the taxable level of income get the maximum points, and the occupation of both parents is considered. Those with either parent in Class I or II jobs of the government, or in managerial or professional jobs get no points at all. Intermediate jobs in the organised sector, including Class III and IV jobs in the government, are reckoned to be better placed than those in the unorganised, low pay sector.
Combining the scores in the three matrices will give the total disadvantage score, which can then be added to the standardised academic merit score to give each candidate's final score. Admissions for all non-SC-ST candidates, that is, for 77.5 per cent of all seats, can then be based on this total score.
Differences and advantages
While our proposal shares with the proposal mooted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) the commitment to affirmative action and the desire to extend it to educational opportunities, the scheme we propose differs from the Ministry's proposal in many ways. The Ministry's proposal seeks to create a bloc of `reserved' seats. Our proposal applies to all the seats not covered by the existing reservation for the SC, ST, and other categories. The MHRD proposal recognises only group disadvantages and uses caste as the sole criterion of group disadvantage in educational inequalities. We too acknowledge the significance of group disadvantages and that of caste as the single most important predictor of educational inequalities. But our scheme seeks to fine-tune the identification by recognising other group disadvantages such as region and gender. Moreover, our scheme is also able to address the interaction effects between different axes of disadvantage (such as region, caste, and gender, or type of school and type of location, etc.).
While recognising group disadvantages, our scheme provides some weightage to individual disadvantages relating to family background and type of schooling. Our scheme also recognises that people of all castes may suffer from individual disadvantages, and offers redress for such disadvantages to the upper castes as well. While the MHRD proposal is based on an all-or-nothing approach to recognising disadvantages (either you are an OBC or you are not), our proposal allows for flexibility in dealing with variations in degrees of disadvantage.
The scheme we propose here is a modified version of one that was designed for the selection process of a well-known international fellowship programme for higher education, where it was successful for some years. Thousands of applications have already been screened using this scheme. A similar scheme has been used for admissions to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The working of this scheme does not seem to offer any insurmountable operational difficulties, despite the vast expansion in scale that some contexts might involve.
In the final analysis, the most critical advantage of a scheme such as the one we are proposing is that it helps to push thinking on social justice along constructive and rational lines. One of the inescapable dilemmas of caste-based affirmative action policies is that they cannot help intensifying caste identities. The debate then gets vitiated because it concentrates on the identities rather than on the valid social reasons why those identities are used as indicators of disadvantage. Our scheme clearly links caste identities to measurable empirical indicators of disadvantage. It thus helps to de-essentialise caste and to focus attention on the relative progress made by these communities.
Thus groups such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc., occupy particular positions in this scheme purely by virtue of the levels of educational advantage or disadvantage. The scheme allows policies to be calibrated according to the changing relative positions of different groups, and takes care of such issues as poor upper castes, `creamy layer,' etc. It reminds us, in short, that caste or community matter not in themselves, but because they continue to be important indicators of tangible disadvantages in our unequal and unjust society.
(This proposal has been developed in consultation with many social scientists.)