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The meritocracy argument – lost in repetition?

The reservation and the quota system have long been a subject of debate in India. With the recent announcement of imminent increases in reservations for IITs and IIMs, the topic is very much in circulation again. Yet somehow, there’s a difference.

Unlike the passionate and vociferous response to the Mandal Commission, the voices this time round seem muted. Dare I even say they seem tired? The arguments of the day seem to be rooted in whether this move is constitutional or otherwise; how this is a move to appease minorities and shore up votes; how could we better serve the interests of the underprivileged community; on whether OBCs are really deprived; yada yada yada. None of these is the point at issue.

What is at issue is simply meritocracy. It’s an argument that we have made passionately, and with great force before. And then, we just lost it. Maybe some of us think the point is so obvious its not worth making more than once. Others think that, since the argument didn’t get across to the policymakers earlier, there’s no point regurgitating it. It’s completely the wrong approach. What we’ve done is let the policymakers hammer our heads with reservation till we’re just willing to lie and take it. What we should be doing is hammering them back with the idea that we want meritocracy and won’t accept anything else. And not all hope is lost, yet. The big powers – the weak and silent turban wearer and the lady from Italy who stands behind him have yet to make statements on the matter; and if you will remember the reservation increase policy is just a proposal. Which means the government is hedging its bets and can recant the moment it feels the voting advantage brought about by reservation will be negated by a backlash from others. Thats playing dirty, but they’re politicians and that’s their job. Our job is to let them know what we think they should be doing.

So here is the old argument that I, at least, still believe in. And I’m not too tired to repeat it. It goes something like this.

  1. Top educational institutions are about growing the nation and generating opportunities, not just about proving quality education.
  2. To maximize this growth, its imperative to let the best opportunities go to the people with most potential.
  3. Increasing reservation quota for specific communities effectively means decreasing the “quota” for merit-based applicants.

The IITs and the IIMs are not just the premier institutions of imparting education in the country. In imparting the best education India can offer, these institutions also impart opportunities for growth. Growth not only of the individual, but of the nation. One expects them to contribute back to the nation – through technological progress, through entrepreneurship and even social work. Hence the outrage when so many IITians go abroad immediately after their education and the demands for a bond to be imposed on them. The point is, studying at an IIT or an IIM is a privilege, not a right. And the privilege should go to those who deserve it most – the those who deserve it most are the people with the greatest potential to contribute.

Consider this – why isn’t there 50% reservation of seats at low fares for SC/STs and OBCs on every Indian Airlines flight? Should they be denied the right to travel just because they’re economically deprived? The answer is quite simple – if they want to get from A to B, they can do so by train. The privilege of efficient and fast travel rests with those who can return value (in this case, money) for it. Similarly, there are hundreds of technological and management institutions in India; and basic free education is guaranteed by the Constitution. Nobody is being deprived of a basic right here. Let those who can return maximum value have the maximum privilege. If we don’t do this, our growth will simply be stunted.

Throughout our childhood, we were urged to put hard work on a pedestal above all else. One percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, we were told. Is this the reality of our society? The proposed reservation quota increase will bring the total reservation to 49%. Thats very, very close to saying that there is a quota of 49% for hard-working students. Is this what has become of our tradition of hard work? Will this motivate students to study and contribute to the nation, or to run abroad at the first opportunity to escape “the system”? What’s even scarier is the fact that the quota is not only increasing, but doubling. Even the strongest proponents of affirmative action agree that it is a measure intended to achieve a level of balance and eventually rescinded. Yet we’re going in exactly the opposite direction, and fast. We argue vehemently that our nation has progressed so far, and yet these policies contradict that very statement. Just one more step in this direction and we have 98% reservation, which means out of three lakh students who give the JEE, 80 will get in on merit. It sounds too crazy to happen, but if you will remember, so did 50% reservation.

If we resort to killing meritocracy, we’re not only wasting resources and talent of good students in India. We’re rubbishing their talents, their skills and their efforts. And we’re drastically decreasing the opportunities of growth and progress. Maybe all the government wants is to win the next election by hook or by crook, and couldn’t care less about India’s progress. If this is the case, it’s time to remind them that there are people who do.

[edit: It has come to my attention that there is an online petition against the reservation policy. Please add your signature if you believe in meritocracy]


  1. AC wrote:

    People will fight when they see some results. It’s not exactly worth a protest if the governement (and the puppet mistress) keep ignoring the masses to cater to the vote bank.

    Monday, April 10, 2006 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  2. J wrote:

    I strongly believe that the quota system has no place in higher education. In India, there are enough colleges that almost anyone who desires higher education can get it.
    One thing which the proponents of quota system fail to recognize is that if the student cannot get into higher education on basis of merit then he will most likely not be able to cope with the pressure once he is inside the institution. Another point to note here is that due to the same quota system which led to the selection of an unworthy candidate who ended up viling away his time in university some other candidate could not get into the institution which he deserved.
    I am all for the unjustices done in the past n stuff… but I dont think that having a quota system even after more than 50 years is the way to do it. The only thing that the quota system achieves is just increasing the segmentation in the social structure of the nation rather than unifying it. A person should not be discriminated against or given priviliedges just because of his region, religion or gender. Both are equally bad n serve no purpose.

    Monday, April 10, 2006 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Sherene wrote:

    I think another key point to note is that the really capable people from SC/ST & OBC backgrounds do NOT want any such reservations and they prefer to climb their way to the top on the basis of merit rather than some certificate bestowing special rights upon them. I had a bunch of friends who chose not to mention their SC/ST & OBC certification when registering for board exams because they had faith in their own ability. So what it boils down to is…these reservations are not meant to promote the best and the most able of SC/STs & OBCs, but it is an act to promote mediocrity masked under the veil of righteousness.
    Moreover, this whole reservation crap works on the assumption that all SC/STs & OBCs go through severely deprived lives. But what about all those who have had relatively comfortable lives and access to the same resources as their non-SC/ST/OBC counterparts; why whould they be given extra privileges?
    Lastly, implementing lax standards for ST/SC/OBC at such a massive scale would mean effectively encouraging them to stay at a lower level of competence and to not aspire to go beyond such limited expectations.

    Tuesday, April 11, 2006 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  4. antrix wrote:

    That’s the tragedy AC – the failure to form a vote bank by the non-beneficiaries.

    J> I don’t think the student will have problems coping with the higher standards since the standards will certainly drop! After all, no institute likes to have bad pass/fail ratios.

    Sherene> While I appreciate the choice your friends made by competing with the general mainstream without benefit of reservation, in practical terms it does more harm than good.
    1. They take more seats away from those competing for the regular seats.
    2. If I’ve to live with the devil, I’d rather have smart people come through reservations than those who wouldn’t make the cut based on merit alone.

    Tuesday, April 11, 2006 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Rony wrote:

    Anshul I think this is a great article. I really think you have done a great job from Singapore. I would request you submit a copy of this at It is a new website I have come across which is based on participatory journalism. It lets everyone to express their views on the website. Apart from submitting articles you can read and comment on other’s articles. Even I have also started contributing in merinews. It helps in reaching out to a greater number of audience. I strongly feel the country needs the might of pens to stir it to the right direction. So please dont stop writing and let as many people read your thoughts as possible.

    Monday, May 15, 2006 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Anshul wrote:

    Rony – thanks. I did try and go to the site but it always shows up as a blank page.

    Thursday, May 18, 2006 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. the brook » Reservations - Nothing logical about it on Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    […] The bottom line is simple – logic has become a minority consideration, and reasonably arguments are things that nobody cares about, as I had complained earlier. I can only empathize with all the students whose hard work this measure will inevitably crush beneath its illogical, crazy but politican heavy feet. May 24th 2006 Posted to india, politics […]

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