It is sad to see how the quota issue has been put on the national agenda by India's political leaders when the country is facing so many other more pressing problems.
Sam Pitroda was right in suggesting that quota should not be the criterion for selecting students for institutions of higher education. But his suggested strategy of increasing the number of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) is not feasible. Already, the existing IITs are facing the problem of recruiting qualified faculty to replace those who are retiring. They also have the usual old problem of finding financial resources. How are we then going to start 70 more IITs? Thus, Pitroda's strategy is a non-starter.
Well respected IT guru N.R. Narayana Murthy has also suggested that quota should not be the deciding factor for selection of students for higher education institutions. The quota system will not help the students who get admitted under quota, nor of course do those who fail to get admission despite being ''merited'' students for the reasons given below.
One of the significant reasons for IITs being institutions of excellence is the fact that they are able to attract the best and the brightest. Another factor of equal importance is their ability to attract outstanding faculty. If the quality of students suffer as a result of admitting as much as 50 percent (likely to be more in the future years as we have seen in Tamil Nadu) under the quota system, the general standard of students will come down and so the quality of faculty too. Then those institutions slowly will be no different from most of the educational institutions we have in the country today.
In the beginning when IITs started, they were able to get some outstanding faculty. The salary structure the IITs were offering was above average. There were not many opportunities for them to get employment in India. Seeking employment abroad was not that popular; avenues to get employment abroad were not known as we do today. Since IITs were not that well known, the competition to get into IITs was not as fierce as today. After a few years, as IITs became well known and competition became fierce, they attracted outstanding students.
This period with hindsight may be considered as the golden age of IITs. They had three factors in their favor; outstanding students, excellent faculty that had joined in the beginning and the required amount of budget. But, in recent years, IITs have started to lose two of the three factors favoring them. Faculties who joined IITs in the beginning are retiring and they are finding it difficult to replace them. Second, the government has correctly decided to reduce funding to IITs by diverting funds to primary and secondary education. Thus, the only favorable factor for IITs today is their ability to attract good students. If that is diluted under the pressure of quota system, IITs are likely to lose their shine.
Those IIT alumni who were thinking of donating funds may think twice now. Is this the beginning of the end for IITs as has happened for some outstanding educational institutions in Karnataka like Maharaja's and Maharani's colleges of Mysore?
Another question often asked during this debate is why the issue of merit for capitation fee based colleges was not raised. In fact, that was the very reason for questioning the rationale for opening the capitation fee based colleges. Private colleges that gave a majority of the seats based purely on capitation fee failed to flourish. In fact many of them would be closed if the government liberalizes higher education under the free market system. They attracted neither good faculty nor good students. None of them could do any research. Do we want our IITs to be like those failed capitation fee based colleges?
In recent years with increasing frequency the question of assessing ''merit'' is being asked. It is true that just scoring high marks by attending four or six years of coaching classes cannot be considered as merit. We need to develop a better system of assessing the merit even if it is less objective. However, just because we do not have a foolproof system and perhaps we may never have one; we should not commit another blunder of selecting students based on their accident of birth. Let us stop dividing and subdividing society based on caste.
Another relevant issue discussed during the quota debate is the need to solve the social justice problem of helping SCs (Scheduled Castes), STs (Scheduled Tribes) and OBCs (Other Backward Classes). No society can prosper if it does not solve these types of social problems.
In the United States, where blacks and Hispanics are in the minority, they needed affirmative action programmes to help students from those communities. However, because of the constitutional constraints, they have not been able to take recourse to a quota system. Still, they are handling the problem with some sensitivity and have zeroed in on this problem by improving primary and secondary schools.
It is a well-known fact that our government schools, which are educating the children of poor SCs, STs and OBCs, have collapsed. Nearly 40 percent of the children attending these schools are unable to read and write even after being there for two to seven years. About 80 to 90 percent of the students joining these schools are unable to complete high school education and only a minuscule number are able to go to colleges.
This problem should be on the national agenda of all the political parties. They should consider establishing thousands of schools like The George Foundation at Shanti Bhavan near Bangalore to give world class education to SCs, STs and OBCs. Even after 59 years of independence, we have not been able to give primary education and simple learning skills to these strata of society and now we are keen to admit them to higher education. How can we construct a super structure without any foundation?
Finally, who are the real beneficiaries of the quota system? Not many children of poor SCs, STs, and OBCs are able to complete even eighth grade today. It is only the children of the creamy section of SCs, STs and OBCs who are able to complete college. They are also the ones who should be able to compete on an equal footing with students from the so called forward class. In what way can this be considered as correcting the age-old problem of discrimination based on caste? This is just nothing but a cheap trick played by the unimaginative, selfish and unconcerned political class to create a vote bank and help themselves.
(Commentary by Bhamy V. Shenoy, an international oil expert, is a member of the India Development Coalition of America who is involved in several NGO projects in India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)