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Reservation in the private sector

Gail Omvedt

With quotas declared for Jats in Rajasthan and with controversy about some recent Supreme Court decisions, the issue of reservation has again come to the forefront. Probably, though, nothing is as controversial as the whole question of private sector reservation. Here, on the one hand many Dalit leaders have been led to oppose "liberalisation and privatisation" in the belief that the public sector is their main road to economic and political empowerment. And, on the other, those who recognise change as inevitable are now demanding, as Maharashtra's RPI leader and MP, Mr. Ramdas Athavale, recently did at a large rally, "reservation in the private sector". The issue, however, is not a simple one.

There are, in fact, four rather different ways that oppressed communities - such as blacks (African-Americans) in the U.S. and Dalits in India - have organised against the exploitation they have endured for centuries. One is as political communities demanding "compensatory discrimination" programmes from the State which in this respect is taken as representing the ``whole people''. (Reservation in India, "affirmative action" programmes in the U.S. and special subsidies and grants in both countries are the important examples). The second is as political communities, mobilising to achieve political power directly through the force of their votes and the alliances they are able to make. (The BSP in India and the large number of black large city mayors in the U.S. provide noteworthy examples). The third is as cultural communities seeking to confront and change the internalised "cultural" characteristics that result from their centuries of oppression but hamper their movement forward in the present. (The best example here was the "million man march" organised some years ago in Washington D.C. by the black Muslim leader, Mr. Louis Farakhan, which was aimed at restoring the dignity and the family and community position of black men). And the fourth is as economic communities exerting pressure on companies or institutions, both to employ more of their community and to produce the kind of products suitable to their needs.

The question of "reservation in the private sector" has to do not only with the first method - pressure on Central Governments - but also with the fourth method - direct economic pressure on corporations and institutions. This has to be understood in order for the whole issue to be seriously debated. While some believe that "reservation in the private sector is impossible", this is simply wrong. Most "affirmative action" programmes in the U.S. in fact work in the private sector. One basic reason is that there is no simplified division between public and private. Any sector that is regulated and/ or funded by the Government is open to Government directives. In the U.S., to take a specific example, colleges and universities are all by Indian standards "private" since they are not directly controlled by the Government; they raise their own budgets, charge student fees, make their own decisions, appoint their own teachers, and so on. Yet, because they get some Government aid and are subject to Government regulation, "affirmative action" programmes can operate: if they do not fulfil the criteria, the Government aid will be withdrawn.

This, however, takes place in a much more flexible and less rigid situation than in India. There would be no question, for example, of automatic promotion for holders of reserved posts in the U.S. - there are no specific posts earmarked for minorities, and there is no such thing as automatic promotion.

Instead, "affirmative action" means that a certain proportion of black (or other minority) people are supposed to be there. Since people who have grown up with the Indian system find it hard to believe that such a system can work, it might be suggested here that the American Government fund some specific studies by a combined Indian-American team of largely Dalits and blacks, to genuinely compare reservation systems. What comparative work has been done so far has been either by American scholars or upper-caste Indian scholars.

The second factor is that the growth of minority (in this case Dalit or black) representation in private sector institutions can be compelled not simply by Government action but by direct economic or political pressure. Some examples easily come to mind. Why does the U.S. Supreme Court now have black judges? Not because it has "reserved posts" of any kind, but simply because the President has found it politically necessary or expedient to appoint at least some minorities. This is political pressure similar to that which produces Ministries in India through an informal "quota system" that has to accommodate not only representatives of all political parties and of all regions or States, but also of different castes and communities!

Why is it that media in the U.S. has, in contrast to India today, so many black faces? The difference at this point seems, at least to me, to be dramatic. Today it is a black woman, Oprah Winfrey, who is the highest earning TV personality, with $1 million a hour being her most recently reported rate. It is not simply a matter of a new "stars" either. There are many prime-time serials in the U.S. which focus on blacks or other minorities, or even working class families (Indians may find this hard to believe because those serials shown here are normally the upper-class ones such as Dynasty and Santa Barbara; but neither has been as long-lasting in the U.S. itself as the Bill Cosby show). In contrast, serials especially on Hindi channels almost invariably focus on upper class families living in double-storey houses which hardly one per cent of the Indian population can afford, not to mention the light-skinned stars. In the U.S. newscasters (formerly called "anchormen") now include women and minorities in a way dramatically different from 10 to 20 years earlier; in India while women are quite decently represented, both women and men are obviously overwhelming upper-caste.

What is the reason for the difference? How has the black media presence increased in the U.S.? Not through demands for "reserved posts" for stars of talk shows or newscasters, but largely through community-based economic pressure. Blacks and other minorities now constitute not only a large proportion of the U.S. population, but minorities that have become conscious of their economic needs. It is not only "Buy American" that has been a slogan in the U.S.; there have also been decades of promotion of what is sometimes called "black capitalism". Blacks, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Hispanic Americans and others are by now quite conscious of their own rights, needs, and specific culture. They will watch television shows to which they can relate, and they will buy the products advertised on those shows. They will also tend to buy from companies which they know employ their own people, and produce products that they see as relevant to them.

So far little of this has happened in India. Dalits are not an insignificant minority, and while poor, with an increasing employed section that has some economic clout - which would be even more if they were united and conscious. With Bahujans they constitute a majority. Yet this majority still seems willing to accept upper caste standards, including light skins, and upper caste dominance on the media. Or have the Indian companies and media producers as yet simply not found a way to tap this market?

In any case, Dalit leaders such as Mr. Ramdas Athavale would do well to consider how community pressures can be built up to act upon the private sector, and not simply make rhetorical and politically ineffective demands for reservation. And conversely, those who feel that the whole reservation system is "lumpenising government" or fear that it may "tear India's polity apart" should direct their energies towards reforming the system, rather than simply denying just demands. Because, whatever way it comes, the demand for empowerment of previously suppressed majorities will not be halted.

[Courtesy: Ambedkar.org]

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