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India angered, split by university affirmative action plan

(AFP) / 21 May 2006

NEW DELHI - An affirmative action plan by India’s government to force top universities to select half their students from disadvantaged groups has stirred a storm of protest and polarised the nation.

Reservation protestsThe government announced last month it would more than double ”reservation quotas” in professional medical, engineering and management colleges to nearly 50 per cent to fulfil its election manifesto to help the poor.

But the declaration has triggered massive protests that have crippled state-run medical services and revived memories of a similar bitter row 16 years ago that led to violence, student suicides and the fall of a government.

The protesters, under the banner of “Youth for Equality,” are calling for a total “rollback” of the plan.

“How can you reserve half of these (places) for one section? What happens to the others who may be more deserving? That is why we are insisting on seats being awarded on merit,” says New Delhi student doctor Aniruddh Bhatia.

Under a constitutional measure to bring victims of the most severe discrimination into the mainstream, India already sets aside 22.5 per cent of university places and jobs for “scheduled” tribes and castes such as the Dalits, once known as untouchables.

The government now plans to lift the quota for universities to 49.5 per cent to embrace the “other backward castes” or OBCs who are one rung up on India’s social ladder.

Analysts say the huge electoral clout of the scheduled tribes and low castes who make up around two-thirds of India’s one-billion-plus population means no politician can afford to speak out against quota proposals.

“This is an issue which is very deeply political. None of the political parties has the courage to openly oppose it,” says Professor Yogendra Singh, emeritus professor of sociology at Jawarharlal Nehru University.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been silent on the plan, which was sprung on the cabinet by Human Development Minister Arjun Singh -- one of India’s wiliest politicians.

Self interest

Analysts say the 75-year-old minister could be bidding for a bigger political role by building his own power base among the lower castes.

Champions of the plan say it is needed to give lower castes a better chance at quality education and ensure India’s eight per cent economic growth is “inclusive.” They compare it to US affirmative action programmes.

“It is neither just nor fair to ask the sons and daughters of those who have been traditionally doing only manual jobs to compete with those who have a centuries-old background of academic and literary skills,” says K. Veeramani, head of the Dravidar Kazhagam, a regional party in southern Tamil Nadu state.

But critics say the move could lower academic standards and it would be better for the government to give a decent basic education to the legions of students who have poor schools or no schools rather than increasing quotas.

“Reservation is a very slow process of empowerment,” says Professor Singh. “The real avenue is primary education. Why aren’t they educating primary students?”

Extending quotas in places like the elite Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Management will “dilute the level of excellence,” saysAsian Development Bank chief economist Ifzal Ali, who told journalists last month the move “sounds more like a political decision than a social concern.”

Students from the backward classes have demonstrated in favour of the plan but the protests against it have been far bigger.

The government says it is committed to going ahead and is seeing how it can defuse the controversy by increasing the overall number of university places so the young don’t struggle to secure already hard-to-get further education.

“These agitating are also our children and we will ensure everyone’s interest is looked after,” says Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

The government wants to avoid a rerun of the confrontation in 1990 when then National Front premier V.P. Singh doubled the per centage of reserved university places and jobs overnight.

He triggered a violent backlash from upper-caste students. A number committed suicide by drinking poison and hanging themselves during weeks of uproar. The premier was forced to quit, the government fell and the plan was shelved.


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