Many of us have reservations against (ignore the SMS lingo and the typos there) the very idea of reservation, while there are some who believe that it is the only way to undo the historic injustices which many sections of the Indian society had to undergo. During the Mandal agitation, I was just a kid, more interested in my after-school games than what percentage of seats would be available to me when I walk out of the huge wrought iron gates of Bhajanlal Kamakhyalal Bajoria School. But the image of Rajeev Goswami burning on the cover of India Today and the following inflammation of VP Singh effigies changed the simple games that we played. Effigy burning could not hold our juvenile interests for long. What lasted was that we identified and differentiated, for the very first time, which amongst us were from the ‘reserved class.’ Many years later someone happily announced that the caste that I was born in was scheduled as an ‘Other Backward Class’ in a different state. Only to learn little later that the impatient government withdrew the notification before anyone could reap any benefit.

When I prematurely ejected out of a postgraduation course that I was disinterestedly pursuing, a classmate said, “Your quitting also signifies that someone who might have done more justice to the course was devoid of admission because you chose to enroll, only to leave a vacant seat midway,” inciting guilt in my heart. I had almost lost that sense of guilt but the ongoing reservation brouhaha reignited that.

The HRD minister says that it was due and the Prime Minister takes it a step further suggesting ‘affirmative action‘ by the industry (does the term reflect the PM’s American leanings, using ‘affirmative action’ over the more Brit and closer home – ‘positive discrimination?’). Wasn’t 56 years enough, or the undoing the doing of centuries will take equivalent time?

Reservation right or wrong? The debate continues and will. But one thing is for certain – for a short-sighted and unimaginative administration the words ‘reservations’ and ‘quota’ are the keywords which they believe would bring forth the desired results. The problem here is that the negative connotations also weigh heavy. Giving someone extra leverage at the cost of another well deserving one is not the idea of equality that I envisage. Worse is that, it is not a genuine urge for upliftment but the politics of votes which is at play here. Ingratiation in India has historically worked; the present ponderings of the government are no different. No political parties coming out against it only goes to prove the point.

I’m not against the idea of giving the less privileged some benefits in this unequal race. Instead of using the segregating policies of reservation and quota, a ‘headstart,’ policy should be implemented. By ‘headstart’ I mean that someone from a less privileged background (this should include the economically backward classes irrespective of religion or caste and exclude anyone who is economically better off) would get a benefit of 5-10 per cent in entrance tests backed by ample scholarship backup exclusively for the economically backward. This headstart should be limited only to entrance tests and entry level employment (in the public sector), beyond that only merit would help in upward mobility. In cases of ‘other things being equal’ the lesser privileged can be given the benefit. This will help in curbing the encouragement of mediocrity which reservations in their present form do and will also reduce the numbers of failures and dropouts. Though something similar is in practice nowadays, but it is only an element of the whole ‘reservation package.’

With the focus on the politics of caste, what everyone prefers to be blissfully neglect is the pathetic shape of government funded school education in the country. If that part which forms the base is taken proper care of, there might not even be the need for positive discrimination at the tertiary level. Getting the basics right matter and the PM and the HRD Minister are very much aware. But why isn’t anything being done? Simply because it would be too much of an effort, passing directives is so much easier.

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