This week saw the Gujarat government announce a Rs 1,000-crore financial assistance package for low-income and meritorious students across all castes, even as Rajasthan introduced 14 per cent reservation in education and employment specifically targeting the poor among the upper castes. Both initiatives were a clear response to the unrest among communities dissatisfied with the current system of quotas. The BJP, in power in both these states, is particularly wary that the expression of disquiet by Patidars in Gujarat may spread to the upper castes — the party’s core constituency — in other states, especially poll-bound Bihar. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a non-political committee to decide who gets the benefits of reservation and for how long, also fits the same pattern of reaching out. Clearly, the attempt is to prevent a disaggregation of the Hindu vote over quotas.
Offering financial help to needy students, irrespective of caste, is a step in the right direction. The state must ensure that no meritorious student is deprived of quality education due to lack of funds. However, the onus of balancing merit and opportunity should not lie with the government alone. The private sector has emerged as a major stakeholder in education, and its role in addressing supply constraints will be crucial. It has been pointed out that one of the factors that triggered the ongoing Patidar agitation in Gujarat is the absence of educational opportunities. The private sector led the expansion of education in Gujarat, and professional courses had become prohibitively expensive. While there has to be a check on profiteering, private management must explore options other than capitation and course fees to fund the running and expansion of their institutions. Endowments and grants from alumni and industry, supplemented by conditional direct benefit transfers from government, could help reduce excessive dependence on fees and facilitate the entry of students from a broader class-spectrum into campuses. Quotas are not the sole solution to meet the aspirations of a burgeoning youth population.
Affirmative action ought to be understood as an instrument to address social and educational backwardness in a broad framework of deprivation, with caste as the most important marker of discrimination. However, categories such as income disparity, religion, gender, locational disadvantages etc may also impact capabilities and need to be factored in while designing affirmative action policies. Moreover, structural changes in the political system and economy are unleashing new forces and reconfiguring power relations. Public policy needs to be alert and sensitive to these changes.
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