While the prime minister's statement on quota abolition in public services has prevented a volcano from erupting, many are shedding crocodile tears to keep the unfair quota system with some temporary treatments; and so the call for reform continues. The PM showed her extraordinary farsightedness by saying that this faulty system will be dismantled which means that there are bound to be debates over determining the optimal numbers on how much to keep for which group.
Keeping any sort of quota at this moment would be a disastrous move. The PM she should stick to the historic decision of eliminating the unjust quota system from a society which is currently suffering from a high rate of unemployment; it would be an exemplary step in upholding meritocracy and ensuring fairness in all public-sector recruitment.
As history suggests, quotas, if allowed to survive, will spread insidiously like germs, gradually eclipsing the free space for merit-based competition. This tendency is inevitable no matter the minimum number of the quota that stays in the name of reform. The categories and numbers will expand progressively often beyond our notice. It takes decades to form a protest against a type of injustice that sneaks in slowly over time. Did our lawmakers ever think about the wellbeing of the jobless youth who finally ignited a near revolution at a time when all of their job prospects are almost choked up? How much time has the parliament spent discussing the problem of massive unemployment? Some critics have now received information that the parliamentary committee has recommended reform instead of a full-scale removal of quotas.
In fact, the members of the parliamentary committee are basically political leaders who are likely to put short-term political interests first. It wasn't too long ago when we saw a parliamentary committee recommending more family members to be directors of a bank and their much longer terms at all private banks—defying the potential damage of corporate culture and bad banking governance. Why? Because it is politically lucrative in the short run.
The government should ensure a good marriage between political interests and long-term economic benefits. Her announcement on quota elimination was a testimony of visualising a future which will be sustainable and fair for the growing number of young jobseekers and a stronger public administration.
The same thing happened when the Congress government of India dismantled the faulty “License Raj” in the early 1990s. No sensible person recommended for its reform although some privileged business quarters, which benefited from this unjust system since the mid-1950s, sought to protect the quota-type licenses in the name of “reform”. But dismantling the license system later came to define the booming India we see today. Recently, the country demolished the state-level taxes and replaced them with GST (Goods and Services Tax) to make transactions and transport more transparent and viable in the long run. Simplification has no alternative. It adds both power and fairness to the economy.
Some critics are worried about the welfare of ethnic minorities, physically challenged jobseekers and women. If we look at the statistics, the number of government jobs secured by candidates from these three categories is the highest than any other time. Various global accolades laurelled the PM for uplifting people from these groups. And the PM didn't forget about them when delivering her speech on quota elimination. She promised to give them public jobs through special arrangements. Any modern recruitment system avoids the faulty and contentious quota system. Rather it supports disadvantaged groups through affirmative action (AA). This value-based guideline can further be advocated as corporate responsibility once the government practises the norm by itself first. Thus, quota elimination will be a boon for developing a modern recruitment system through AA.
Some critics are now claiming that students didn't ask for complete elimination of quotas. Why? Because the students thought that it would be too much at that moment to ask for its total elimination. The essence of their movement was to ensure fairness in merit-based recruitment. And the PM honoured the core purpose of the movement. She understood that this problematic quota system has to go today or tomorrow anyway. Then why not today? Some students proposed to bring the quotas down to 10 percent. Is there any guarantee that 10 percent is the ultimate magic number to address the grievances of the unemployed for good? Is there any guarantee that this 10 percent won't turn into 56 percent over time if history repeats itself? And in that case, there's no point of this temporary troubleshooting. We live in an emerging economy where institutions must be fixed with long-term goals of sustainability and fairness.
The quota-related references in the Constitution—which some critics are using to justify quotas—have been wrongly interpreted. The Constitution never says that we have to set aside a specific percentage of quotas for minorities. There are no numbers. Rather it gives the government the authority to use quotas if needed in order to protect the welfare of socially disadvantaged people. If history is any guide, the PM has done it in the past and has also committed to continue her efforts to support jobseekers in the future under different arrangements. Quota is a tool that the government has the right to use—it is not a mandatory exercise. Unlike religious superscripts, the Constitution is subject to change based on the need and realities of the time.
As economist Nicholas Kaldor argues, no change can make everyone better off. But the change is welcome if the gainers can more than compensate the losers in terms of welfare. If there was a referendum right now on “abolishing quotas” versus “reforming quota,” the former would win in a landslide. It would be a win-win situation if the government remains considerate towards disadvantaged groups through affirmative action and eliminates unfair quotas entirely, as committed to by the PM.
Biru Paksha Paul is associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland.