The Merit Delusion – Caste and Affirmative Action in India

In this article, Satish Chandra questions the accepted definition of “merit” in the caste-based reservations debate in India. 

Editor’s note: SC/ST stands for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes while OBC stands for Other Backwards Castes. These government caste-groupings are determined by the degree of the lack of socio-economic progress as determined and decided by the government. Studies reveal that SC/STs are on average far poorer, are discriminated against, and lack access to opportunity outside of government mandated reservations when compared to the ‘General’ castes. OBCs are on average better off than SC/STs but worse off than ‘General’ castes. Of course, there are genuine concerns over these government classification of castes, which don’t always accurately reflect the socio-economic conditions of those castes. However, that is a different debate for a different time.

Before reading the article, it would be a good idea to watch the following documentary on caste and untouchability, called India Untouched. It dispels the myth that caste-based discrimination is a thing of the past in India, by capturing – on camera – instances of such discrimination taking place to this day. Alternately, please watch this playlist of very short videos by Video Vounteers.

By Satish Chandra, 2nd August, 2013

Reservations for socially and economically backward castes in academic institutions and government jobs (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India, although mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email-forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds on social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood.

The joke – complete with its grammatical errors – is as follows:

“I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the Prime Minister and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century (100 runs). We should influence International Cricket Council and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar (a Pakistani fast bowler) should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.

Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.

There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )

Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)

Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide India forward… Let’s show the world that India is a great country. Let’s be proud of being an Indian..

May the good breed of politicians like Arjun Singh (a former minister who enforced reservations in educational institutions in his domain) long live…”

There is an implied assertion in the “joke” – that a person who avails seats reserved for backward castes lacks merit, whereas a person who doesn’t avail it, has merit. But what is this merit that everyone talks about? It is the idea that traits like intelligence and assiduousness are what that determine how successful one should be in their life. It is the central dogma that people like me grew up with. The argument is that if you lack merit and still find yourself in quality institutions, you are a hack; a parasite on society. Profusion of such unmerited people is the reason why India is backward.

On its own, the idea of merit sounds reasonable. However, what gives rise to absurd “jokes”, such as the one above, and what leads to the delusional beliefs about reservations are two things – (a) What the source of merit is, and (b) Which practices in society are labeled as merit based and which are not.

The Source of Merit

Where does merit come from? Is it inborn?

On an average, groups of humans are capable of the same things even when you account for factors like race or gender. There will always be exceptional individuals, but there is nothing to suggest that such individuals can only come from one particular group. History also shows that particular groups at different times have dominated others in terms of intellectual achievements, but this has been so because of the differences in environment and opportunities.

Merit, thus, is not a function of one group’s inherent superiority over others. It is grossly inaccurate to say that merit is inborn into particular groups. Given the right opportunities, any group of people can go on to achieve remarkable things.

This fact, however, falls on closed eyes on people who continue to spew bigoted jokes on the lower castes. Educated India has not given up on archaic notions of inborn merit. Social prejudices linger in people’s minds, often in the form of casteism itself.

The caste system started out on the backs of the argument that a person’s gunas (abilities) and karma determine their caste. In the absence of a system which constantly adjudicates gunas and karma and reassigns a person’s caste, caste took the only course left – it became based on birth. However, in spite of this, people continued to believe that it is a person’s gunas and karma determines caste, not birth. (Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste touches upon this)

How then, did people reconcile with the ground reality that caste was and is determined by birth? A part of the solution was to make karma count over multiple lives. The belief was that bad karma in the previous lives was making people born into a lower castes. The other part was the belief that upper castes tend to have an inborn inclination for certain gunas and the lower castes towards a lack of those gunas; that the intellectual achievements of the upper castes are due to their knack for it.

Today, unless someone convinces themselves of this idea, there’s no way he or she can sleep at night believing that the caste system is the best way to organize society, and that the lower castes deserve to be in the position they are in.

The idea of merit in the “joke” parallels these ideas of gunas. Take, for instance, how SC/ST/OBC doctors are made fun of. The “joke” is that such doctors lack merit and hence don’t have the skill to practice medicine. Politicians are at the receiving end of this joke: since politicians are responsible for the existence of reservations, they should get a taste of their policies by dying at the hands doctors who lack merit. What is ignored, however, is the fact that even though backward castes may have secured places in the medical college via reservations, once they get in, they have to pass the same exams that everyone else has to. It is only then will they get an M.B.B.S. certificate.

And yet, the assumption is that SC/ST/OBCs don’t have the gunas that are necessary for being a good doctor. Once a lower caste without gunas, always a lower caste lacking these gunas. The possibility that people learn given the opportunity doesn’t even enter the picture. Such assumptions about merit is just good old fashioned casteism brought to you in a different bottle.

Of course, such ideas about merit aren’t unique to the caste system. At a lower level, they can be seen as arising from fundamental attribution error, and also from a belief in a just world.

Merit in practice

Often, merit has little to do with how successful one is in their life. Consider these cases:

Buying your way through college: Since independence, the rich, who usually belonged to the upper castes, were able to either buy seats in private colleges in India or send their children to other countries such as the United States (when compared to Indian standards of living, this costs a lot of money, even with scholarships). Even though there are plenty of doctors who bought their way into medical colleges, there is a conspicuous absence of jokes about their competency. Not that there ought to be jokes about this; my argument is that merit is not always inborn: people have the potential to learn given the opportunity.

Hiring practices in the private sector: The gold standard of meritocracy – as opposed to ingrained incompetency of the public sector – is the supposed hiring practices of the private sector. (As an aside, the word “meritocracy” was originally meant to be sarcastic). If merit were paramount, companies would publicly advertise for a position and vet as many candidates as they can to get the best merit. But most companies do such things as a last resort – or if there is a mass hiring taking place. The preferred method of hiring for the most part is by referrals, where they restrict themselves to a smaller pool of talent. Sure, even after a referral the candidate has to go through an interview, but the interview process itself is subjective, and anyone who has conducted them knows that candidates who aren’t the best fit do get through. These are often cases of nepotism, which is rampant in the private sector.

How then, does the private sector manage to produce goods and render services with reasonable efficiency? Again, the answer lies in the fact that people learn. A person might not have sufficient merit at hiring time but given the opportunity, but can learn over time and become better at the jobs.

Business ownership: Businesses are typically inherited. There are no entrance examinations to determine who has the best merit to run a business. Some of the biggest businesses in India are run by people who weren’t chosen on merit, but because their parents started the business. Business deals and partnerships too mostly happen by tapping private networks, and not on the basis of merit.

On the one hand we know that merit – in the form of skill – can be acquired given the right opportunities and on the other we also know that merit in the real world doesn’t work in the ideal way. Despite that, there is a lot vitriol directed towards reservations – the kind that is not seen in the cases we examined above. Indeed, it is common to hear rhetorical questions such as, ‘Would you fly in a plane piloted by a reserved category person?’, but not, ‘Would you fly in a plane piloted by someone who was rich enough to buy a seat in the training school?’

A good part of the scorn originates from caste prejudices in the Indian society and a serious lack of effort to prevent acquisition of such prejudices from early on, such as being taught about them in schools. This has led to a very lopsided discourse on the topic of reservations. Despite there being evidence that they work, they’re portrayed as one of the evils plaguing India, without leaving any room for a nuanced discussion.

Satish Chandra would like to thank Sunil for his input. 

Epilogue by the Editor:

Although this article was not about the nature of reservations, a short note on it is in order: this article doesn’t claim that the current system of reservations is perfect. There is room for improvement or both identification and targeting of the affirmative action.

Additionally, a popular argument by a few is that reservations ought to be based on income or poverty, not caste. However, there are two key reasons why this falls short: one, both identification and targeting by caste (keeping in mind socio-economic conditions) is less inaccurate and more practical than by income. Two, more importantly, caste based discrimination doesn’t just arise from income inequality. Backward castes are socially discriminated, as shown in the documentaries linked above. The poor among the backward castes are less equal than the poor of other castes. This, of course, isn’t an argument against welfare for the poor of other castes: affirmative action isn’t exclusive to any one cohort.

However, as previously stated, this is a different debate, for a different time.


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