The `merit' fallacy

Print edition : June 16, 2006

IN DEFENCE of "merit", in Bhopal. - A.M. FARUQUI

India's `merit'-obsessed discourse about affirmative action is an apology for hierarchy and privilege; it devalues competence, diversity and fairness.

HOW does one analyse the agitation against reservation in Central educational institutes, and its continuation even after the Cabinet announced its decision to implement quotas for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) beginning mid-2007? In the absence of overt support from political parties, two factors alone can explain the agitation's strength and persistence. It received a great deal of external non-student support. Second, it was driven by obsessive self-interest to defend privilege - regardless of the merits or demerits of OBC quotas.

The external backers included upper caste-dominated guilds like the Indian Medical Association and traders' associations, chambers of commerce, industry lobbies, anti-poor upper middle class Residents Welfare Associations (RWAs) in many cities, students' parents, business executives and, above all, owners of private (that is, commercial) professional colleges which annually admit over 530,000 students.

The agitation, preceded by the United Progressive Alliance's own vacillation on quotas, delayed their implementation by a year. According to an informed estimate, the delay would bring an annual windfall of nearly Rs.800 crores to non-medical private unaided institutions. If the intake of 18,000 medical seats is added, the profits would rise by between Rs.135 crores and a huge Rs.1,350 crores (depending on the capitation fee). Given that many such private colleges are run by politicians, it appears - and stands to reason - that they played the catalyst in organising the agitation, even in recruiting "event management" specialists.

Clearly, some of the students were not motivated by idealism. They prolonged the agitation after the government announced a please-all formula of increasing the total number of seats so the "open category" would not shrink. In evidence was the arrogant, condescending attitude of the student leaders towards underprivileged groups and opposition to the very principle of affirmative action (AA).

To put it bluntly, these are the Babas and Babys of yesterday's Baba Log - children of the middle class elite that has burgeoned under the neo-liberal policies of the past one-and-a-half decades. This is a brash, aggressive group of people who have seen their families move steeply upwards and their life-chances improve dramatically. They are supremely unaware - and unconcerned - that their prosperity is the result not of their subjective virtues or initiatives, as of objective processes, including domestic macroeconomic factors and policy regimes, and globalisation, which have created new opportunities in certain sectors. They are also blind to the skewed nature of GDP (gross domestic product) growth, whose maldistribution underlies their rising incomes.

Even less are they concerned that their private affluence is the other side of public squalor - the economic servitude and disempowerment of vast numbers of Indians. This second-generation brigade of Babalog Bahadurs celebrates selfishness and greed as virtues, worships privilege and power, and singularly lacks compassion. It has grown up with a totally instrumentalist view of "achievement" - high marks at school-leaving examinations, no matter what the means. For many of them, paying sky-high fees to private tutors or capitation charges (for example, Rs.35 lakhs) for a medical seat comes as naturally as admission to the expensive schools their parents attended. Education is not about learning. It's about scoring, and expanding your career choices and incomes.

Yet, this very self-serving, avaricious and misanthropic class uses "merit" as a cover for privilege and hubris. "Achievement", "competence", "proficiency", "academic accomplishment" and "excellence" are not the chosen terms of this discourse. "Merit" is. It has acquired a near-mystical halo as if it were some innate, indefinable, subtle quality uniquely possessed by a few geniuses, gifted in universal, perfect and unchangeable ways - virtual Supermen and women.

If the elite's "merit" is "established" through open competitive examinations, it becomes indisputable. Once you have such "merit", you have access to everything - a seat in a prestigious college, a professional course, a bright career, the upper segment of the marriage market, to "progress".

This notion of "merit" is specious, indeed obnoxious. "Merit" makes little sense in a society based on the inheritance of private property, and privilege related to birth. Logically, merit is at best a measure of an individual's movement from a given starting-point to an end-point within a definite trajectory. Property inheritance and generations-long privilege mean that the powerful are at a vastly different starting-point from the socially disadvantaged on many trajectories. They cannot claim merit by virtue of that.

A person born in a highly educated savarna family will have a totally different universe of knowledge, social contacts and acceptability in the elite - and wholly different access to information about the availability of study courses, tutorial institutions, career options, professional advice, etc.

There is no universal, omnipresent entity called merit which is a hold-all substitute for such disparate things as mental agility, depth of comprehension, mathematical talent, analytical abilities, or flair for noticing connections between apparently dissimilar things. This notion of merit is as vacuous and as driven by prejudice as the discredited "Intelligence Quotient" idea whose application to rate different social, ethnic or national groups hierarchically has not only been proved unscientific, but downright racist.

Real merit cannot be measured by one-day competitive examinations, however open and fair. What these grade is speed, ability to anticipate limited kinds of questions (for example, objective questions), and familiarity with the techniques of answering them, besides doing rapid calculations. This is not the same thing as comprehension of principles, or ability to engage in non-linear thinking, to innovate, or be original. Some of these qualities are desirable in varying ways in different professions. They are specific and discrete, not earthly manifestations of some semi-divine essence called merit, which is present everywhere, like Ether in 19th century science.

And how are most "meritorious" youth trained to develop and "demonstrate" this attribute? Why, through high-quality parental attention (available only to a few), and of course, coaching classes such as those at Kota which cost up to Rs.2 lakhs, including accommodation and food. Up to a third of all Indian Institutes of Technology seats are reportedly filled by candidates who take such tuition. For medical colleges, the proportion is probably higher.

It is a pity that we have allowed our higher education institutions, located as they are in a situation of scarcity, to be filled by those who possess such manufactured merit. Even assuming competitive tests measure a more rational set of qualities, we must ask what we are rating in a candidate: is it comprehension in the abstract, past performance, likely future achievement, or suitability for particular disciplines (which would depend on their content). A student who scores 85 per cent in a single examination is not necessarily superior to or more suitable than one who scores 75 or 80 per cent. It does not follow that the examining institution should only admit the topmost scorers.

This raises questions about our educational institutions' functions and responsibilities. Should the best of them only concentrate on top scorers? Is it fair to judge them solely by their academic performance on a "building-on-the-best" basis? Is such performance the best measure of excellence and contribution to the larger social good? Going by John Rawls' criteria, it is not the most advantaged or fortunate, or even those of average standing, but the most disadvantaged who ought to get the top preference and greatest weight in any scale of social desirability.

I don't know anyone in the world who even tries to rate colleges and universities by academic performance alone. Usually, the index, itself somewhat subjective, is a composite of many factors, including teachers' performance, subjects and inter-disciplinary choices offered, research output, gender equality, inclusiveness, and pluralism in campus life.

It speaks poorly of our dominant understanding of education that we define it in egregiously narrow, usually vocation-oriented, terms. Education, surely, is not just about being cleverer or faster than others - itself a hierarchical Brahminical notion: the one who can recite all four Vedas is inherently superior to him that knows only two! Education is as much about understanding social processes and life in all its complexity, about respecting diversity and difference, understanding and practising citizenship collectively, and about building a learner-teacher community based on free inquiry. Such values are indispensable for all universities, not just liberal education colleges.

Similarly, we need to interrogate links between education and recruitment in government jobs. Surely, for recruitment in the civil service, an understanding of India's social structure, familiarity with the agrarian situation, comprehension of the links between deprivation and crime, and above all, a public service orientation are at least as relevant as performance in entrance tests. For doctors being recruited in government hospitals, clinical ability and empathy for patients should count higher than quantitative grades.

It bears recalling that perhaps no senior Indian health official, including the Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, is appointed solely or largely on "merit". In a recent instance, a decisive factor was the intervention of a Shankaracharya! In our self-appointing higher judiciary, seniority is supreme, but only distantly related to "merit".

We must relate university admissions and job recruitment to larger social objectives: if we want to build a genuinely non-hierarchical, relatively cohesive, compassionate, caring-and-sharing society which has inclusive education and equal opportunity, we must promote the humane values of the Constitution and incorporate them in our selection criteria, not the Brahminical notion of "merit".

It is noteworthy that many universities that are globally rated highly - and only two Indian institutions rank among the world's top 500, according to a Shanghai University survey - consciously promote a diverse mix of cultures, languages and social and ethnic backgrounds through aggressive AA. They admit students not because they are "bright", but because they are "interesting" and can contribute to diversity. Diversity has not lowered the ranks of Harvard, Oxford, the Sorbonne or London School of Economics. Thirty-seven per cent of Harvard's students are people of colour.

The OBC-quota proposal offered a good opportunity for a productive debate on many issues, including the historical burden of disadvantage in this deeply hierarchical society which has for generations denied social opportunity to its million, and ways of overcoming it. Regrettably, many, including the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), squandered away the chance by falling for "merit" and shibboleths like "knowledge society". Some (for example, Surjit S. Bhalla) resorted to outright denial of the need for AA by contending that OBCs, and even SCs and STs, already have nearly the same level of representation as their population shares in numerous professions, including in the private sector. They cite a 1999 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimate.

However, the NSSO is simply not equipped to identify hundreds of local caste groups accurately. Caste identification is the job of highly specialised anthropologists, sociologists and demographers familiar with caste configurations which vary from district to district. Neither self-ascription nor crude State government caste lists are a substitute. The pertinent NSSO data seems be of poor integrity: it estimates the SC/ST population at 28.3 per cent of India's total - when the highest credible estimate is 23 per cent. Besides, there has been an 83 per cent increase in the number of Centrally notified OBCs since 1993!

There were a couple of attempts (by Purushottam Agrawal and Satish Deshpande-Yogendra Yadav) to propose alternatives to quotas. They came too late. While worthy of discussion, they are flawed - primarily because they remain on the terrain of "merit". Agrawal's proposal reopens the issue of SC/ST reservations at a time of aggressive elite opposition to AA itself. The second will probably create too little room to accommodate a sizable chunk of OBCs. However, the worst (non)-proposal comes from the NKC itself. Two of its members have nothing more to offer than increasing the supply of seats. This "supply side" approach ducks the entire AA issue and must be rejected as unworthy.