Mint ST - - POLITICS -

Last Mon­day, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Bjp)-led Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (NDA) an­nounced its de­ci­sion to ex­pand In­dia’s af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion agenda. It pro­posed an ad­di­tional quota of 10% reser­va­tion for the eco­nom­i­cally weaker sec­tions fall­ing in the gen­eral cat­e­gory of the pop­u­la­tion for gov­ern­ment jobs and ad­mis­sion to ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, both in pub­lic and pri­vate.

A few days later, not only did the pro­posal get con­verted into a leg­isla­tive pro­posal, which en­tailed an amend­ment of Ar­ti­cle 15 and 16 of the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia, a rare po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus, mo­ti­vated clearly by the im­pend­ing gen­eral elec­tions, en­sured that it was voted into a law; the Pres­i­dent of In­dia signed off on the bill on Satur­day. In­ter­est­ingly, even be­fore the Pres­i­dent’s nod, the leg­is­la­tion has been chal­lenged in the Supreme Court, which, in a pre­vi­ous rul­ing, had capped quotas at 50%. At present, the af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion de­fined around cen­turies of so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion is re­stricted to Sched­uled Castes (SCS), Sched­uled Tribes (STS) and Other Back­ward Classes (OBCS).

Re­gard­less of how the apex court deals with the le­gal chal­lenge, the events of last week beget a larger ques­tion: Why do peo­ple see quotas as the only means to re­alise their as­pi­ra­tions. Iron­i­cally, this vex­ing ques­tion comes our way in what is the 70th year of In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence; and the equally un­com­fort­able an­swer is that it is the out­come of a col­lec­tive fail­ure in ig­nor­ing ad­e­quate in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion and health. Ask your­self, when did you last see an ag­i­ta­tion for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, un­like, say, the re­cent wave of protests over quotas; and when did politi­cians tar­get each other for this fail­ure, as op­posed to lev­el­ling al­le­ga­tions about in­frac­tions in pub­lic of­fice. This ero­sion of hu­man cap­i­tal is what has com­pounded the prob­lem of job­less growth and, worse, cre­ated the deep so­cial fault lines in the In­dian so­ci­ety.

The con­se­quences of this ne­glect was summed up elo­quently by No­bel lau­re­ate Pro­fes­sor Amartya Sen in an in­ter­view pub­lished in Mint on 7 Jan­uary. “There are poor peo­ple in China. But you don’t have the kind of dif­fi­culty that you have in In­dia where a poor per­son doesn’t have a school to go to, doesn’t have a hos­pi­tal where he can take his child to, which will pro­vide ba­sic di­ag­nos­tic and health­care,” he said, be­fore adding: “The main thing is In­dia has never tried (over the last 70 years) to de­velop on a solid foot­ing ei­ther pri­mary health­care or pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. In the ab­sence of that, you can­not make any­thing else stand.”

The eru­dite pro­fes­sor is spot on. It is a mon­u­men­tal ne­glect that has been in place since the cre­ation of mod­ern In­dia. In con­trast, China, un­leashed a pub­lic pol­icy, which in­vested heav­ily in hu­man cap­i­tal—which, as we see to­day, has con­trib­uted to it be­com­ing the sec­ond largest econ­omy in the world. For­get China, In­dia’s spend­ing on health and ed­u­ca­tion barely stack up against our less well-off South Asian neigh­bours—and this is seven decades after in­de­pen­dence, so we have no one to blame. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est es­ti­mates, as a pro­por­tion of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP), In­dia’s spend­ing on health was 1.4%, while it was 2.5% for Bhutan, 1.6% for Sri Lanka, 1.1% for Nepal and 1% for Bangladesh. Sim­i­larly, pub­lic in­vest­ment on ed­u­ca­tion as a pro­por­tion of GDP was 2.7% for In­dia com­pared to 7.4% for Bhutan, 3.4% for Sri Lanka and 2.5% for Bangladesh.

So then, are we sur­prised that most of those 10 mil­lion peo­ple join­ing the work force ev­ery year are not ad­e­quately equipped to join a for­mal job? As a re­sult, most are con­signed to the bur­geon­ing in­for­mal sec­tor made up of un­der­paid new econ­omy jobs such as de­liv­ery per­son­nel. Fur­ther, given the rapid shift in the dis­ease bur­den to non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, most In­di­ans, thanks to the in­ad­e­quate health in­fra­struc­ture, are just a dis­ease away from em­brac­ing poverty. Log­i­cally then, quotas be­come the pal­lia­tive— un­for­tu­nately hardly a sus­tain­able so­lu­tion—and also the elec­toral cur­rency on the eve of elec­tions.

But ev­ery­thing can’t be about pol­i­tics. It is as Pro­fes­sor Sen, quot­ing Adam Smith, said, ul­ti­mately, eco­nomic ex­pan­sion is de­pen­dent on the qual­ity of hu­man abil­ity.

And this is non-ne­go­tiable.

Anil Padmanabhan is manag­ing ed­i­tor of Mint and writes ev­ery week on the in­ter­sec­tion of pol­i­tics and eco­nomics. His Twit­ter han­dle is @cap­i­tal­cal­cu­lus.


When did In­dia last see an ag­i­ta­tion for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, un­like, say, the re­cent wave of protests over quota?

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