Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Reservation policy in India: Long term planning needed to serve justice to all

I am from a small town in eastern India. That government primary school, I studied, hardly had any infrastructure, even without any roof and blackboard. My parents were not rich either. Does anyone think that I got  equal opportunity as compared to St. Xaviers, Calcutta or DPS RK Puram, Delhi or Doon Schools? Then should people like me start demanding that students from villages also should get reservation? The fact remains-even without reservation I reached at the top of my profession and attended some best universities in the world. I can successfully compete with any student, educated all through in Harvard or Stanford or Cambridge or Oxford or so. No one gave me any reservation. For that I can keep my head high and dignity.
Caste is a real social problem. No one knows that better than a person from a village in India. But still I believe that reservation is not the solution. It will only create more division among people and encourage corruption and crime. Govt should set up good schools, make decent education available to all, campaign aggressively against social discriminations (all sorts of discrimination, including caste system, religion, gender etc). Nepotism and corrupt recruitment practices is very high in India which in term favors upper castes as they traditionally occupy most of the high positions, be it govt or private. But people from lower caste are equally corrupt when they get power. We know many examples for that. After all, we all (lower or upper caste) are coming from the same society, product of the same system. That explains why we don’t get gold medal in Olympics or Nobel Prize even when there is no reservation. Upper caste professionals are not necessarily the better one.

Money and power can buy almost anything, starting from education (read, degree), job, and government positions. IIT professionals are not necessarily more brilliant one as compared to that from many other engineering colleges, but surely IIT students are better trained, familiar with latest techniques (which is very different from technology and science) and mostly from affluent background from cities. A student with higher marks does not mean that s/he is more intelligent. An IAS or IPS officer does not guarantee a better job performance as compared to a non-UPSC qualified officer. We severely lack credibility in most of our institutions, starting from education to policy making. It’s a system failure. We need to make our system better, more accountable and credible. To do that, we need to have “good” people in policy making (i.e. in politics) and law enforcement. We need to remember that intelligence, senses of justice and ethics do not come from socio-economic hierarchy or degree or  power. 

This reservation controversy is a wakeup call for all sane Indians. We are facing this situation and years of under-development, extractive economic and political institutions since centuries. In post-independent India, it's supported by utterly corrupt and least efficient bureaucracy in Asia. These people thrive and can successfully impose their wrong policies on all of us because of widespread lack of any sense of justice, ethics, civility, compounded by ignorance and lack of foresightedness. We the middle class, so called intellectual Indians, may not like politics but are no less corrupt. We hate politics and politicians in public but do not have the ethics and courage to oppose them. In fact, we indulge in similar corruption and crime, according to our ability and courage, as and when we get slightest opportunity. Our education does not build character but teaches us only to survive and,  sometimes, flourish even without a much knowledge (leave alone wisdom), backbone and/or dignity. In this whole process caste is irrelevant.

Our government prefer to adopt expensive and mostly non-functional but populist schemes like “gramin rojgar yojona” to ensure 100 days of jobs for rural poor. In theory, it’s so attractive. But our policy makers hardly think about reality and whether it works or not. As if rural people are more interested to get free meal for 100 days and then get starved for the rest of 265 days! Such schemes inherently fail to reduce poverty, as happened many times in the past, like ‘garibi hatao’ by Indira Gandhi. Our government is very reluctant to build infrastructure, opportunities and, most importantly, implement unbiased law and order system that in turn improves employment opportunities for people, reduce caste and religion based hatred, besides increase the rate of development at the macro level. Once economic prosperity sets in with proper law and order implementation, the menace of caste divide surely will be reduced.

The proponents of the reservation policy, including those for SC-ST, are hardly interested in logical debate. They are more enthusiastic about shouting and continuing the policy whatever may be the outcome and impact on our society. They are not at all interested to set a defined target or a time frame. None of the policy makers know when can they say the policy has fulfilled its target and stop such reservation, as initially intended by people like BR Ambedkar who introduced such policy in Indian constitution and recommended it to be reviewed within ten years. Our policy makers also do not know how long will it take to achieve that target. Such people are reluctant to understand how population growth, mainly among the communities targeted by reservation, and overall progress of the nation are taken into consideration to determine what benefit this policy is making to the target community and the nation. This policy is like a project without any specific, tangible objective and a deadline. Supreme Court asked some of these questions but never got any reply from Indian Govt or proponents of such caste based reservation. But who cares about Supreme Court when these politicians can make any rule and force judiciary to follow those.

Unproductive schemes like “gramin rojgar yojona” (officially known as National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, (A) and useless subsidies in many other govt departments suck up a huge portion of our national wealth and leave hardly anything for proper developmental projects like building schools in rural areas, improving infrastructure in primary and high school education (2). The relative prosperity of the “backward class” is not due to reservation policy but due to overall growth in India. Govt of India admitted, “the ST population accounts for 8.6% of the total population in the country. The condition of tribal people have no doubt improved over the years but their situation vis-a-vis the rest of the population in the country has worsened on all counts of development” (1).

Politicians do not like the idea to examine the whole reservation policy, particularly, what and how much justice and prosperity does this 60 years old policy brought to the target population. Initially it was suggested to be reviewed after 10 years. Now politicians dare not to touch their 'backward' vote bank, and address questions regarding population growth, availability and sustainability of quality primary and high school education, transparency in all recruitments etc. Policies like reservation doesn’t encourage the backward people to think why majority of them are still backward even after about 60 years of reservation. In the meantime, a race has started among many upper caste communities to become lower caste- only to avail caste based reservation. 

If we addressed caste related violence and hatred mainly as law and order problem, we could have a better grip over it. Cheating, beating and ignoring a lower caste person by any upper caste people can be successfully addressed if we have an impartial and accessible law and order and police. We never tried to reform our colonial police or antique legal system or British raj bureaucracy. In the meantime, some ambitious people from lower caste took this golden opportunity to promote their political agenda. But the irony is, once they achieve the status of a typical powerful person in India, they hate to consider themselves as “backward” and try their best to distance themselves from that community during any time but election time. They try their best to imitate the same upper-caste people they were fighting so hard. In the process they did not work for the real backward people but try their best to ensure special privileges for subsequent generations. It’s same trend in almost every profession. It creates more division, more hatred in the society and the problem continues.

It seems that caste based reservation policy is no more an issue towards establishing social justice or developing deprived people but a way to take revenge and get some extra benefits at the expense of others and the country. It is an attempt to hide the inabilities of our politicians at the expanse of the prosperity of the nation and also real backward people in the country. Any civilized society must not have any divisive system based on caste or religion or any such parameter. This policy is strengthening that caste based hatred rather than solving it. The caste problem took such a huge proportion mainly due to utter failure of law and order machinery and judiciary, since independence. It's time to change all that. 

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Research career in academics and other options: Think after you have leaped

Some people who come to pursue research careers come mainly to satisfy their innovative thinking and love for doing something challenging. This is the motive for young people after finishing their school days and early part of their university lives, when their worldly needs are taken care of by their parents (at least in most of the Asian countries, which supply the majority of scientific workforce worldwide).

At the beginning of our formal education in schools, most of the intelligent students get attracted towards physics and mathematics, simply because they can do the experiments and get the results soon. That time they perform known experiments and become delighted when they observe the expected results that are taught in their classes. If they do not get the expected result, they start thinking and try to solve that. It motivates them and excites them to think novel. This lot of students should matter for research career, for the betterment of the society. At later life, these students find themselves at a disadvantageous position because their curiosity and intelligence. Their thoughtful nature dent to their academic results. A fraction of them become successful to adjust to the system and score higher marks while most of them get lost. Naturally, in higher education and research, mainly the students with mechanical thinking, mostly unable and sometimes scared to question existing knowledge and/or authority, are the overwhelming majority. Our Education system favours the rule of mediocrity by replacing genuine talents with private tuition and coaching enabled students with great mugging up ability.

It’s not very surprising that the quality of Indian research is going down day by day despite of much better monetary support from Government these days (1, 2, 3). Even the highly hyped Indian institutes and research organizations are nothing more than teaching institutes. They enjoy special status mainly due to their ability to send students to manpower starved Western countries, not for their ability to innovate or invent. No wonder India is among the least innovative countries in the world.

The only research organization that went public scrutiny is DRDO, the much hyped organization for its many high profile projects. DRDO failed miserably so far accountability is concerned (1, 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 2, 3, 4).

If some of the innovative/novel thinkers still manage to get a PhD, they realized that life, as a “researcher”, is a pathetic journey ahead. The dream they once had, lost since long. Now they are forced to think as “others” think, they are forced to do as “others” do. Most of the time they are simply the extension of hands for their bosses, particularly as postdoc and PhD candidates. Their “independent thinking” is welcome so long it matches with that of the authorities/boss. Then they realize that this was not their dream when they decided to join research. They also realize that they are deviating from their dream day by day! The worldly matter also does not look good for them. Parents are long gone. Now they need to support themselves and their families and also face the consequences to satisfy their curiosity, which drove them to take research as their career in the first place. Research is no more the "search for truth” but only to publish and get grants. Most of the time it’s to generate data for data sake, without having a long-term goal and without asking what the society will get for such an “academic research” (mainly for government funded research institutes).

Salary is at its minimum as compared to other “equivalent” professions. Mentoring good students or, in other words, managerial skills are almost absent in the field of academic research. Quality of life is at its lowest. The demand (responsibilities) of the profession is too high while accountability is at its lowest (this also explains why salary is low). They hardly can devote time and also money for family duties, hobbies etc. Most of such people are forced to work for more than 10-12 hours a day on a regular basis, even without proper weekends, besides the fact that many also cannot go their home (country) for several years (while doing postdoc, PhD abroad). This picture is more or less true for USA and majority of Asian countries that follow the American model or crowded by US trained “scientists”. Picture in west European research labs are a bit different, but still have many of the foresaid problems.

In this backdrop we need to think does it worth to continue the path of “research” and if not, what options do we have. The answer varies from person to person depending on their history, ability and ambition (both research and quality of life wise). If a person got some good publications and good “pedigree” at an early stage of his/her career, then s/he has an advantage to continue to pursue academics or institutional research career. Even then some facts argue against that. To me, it seems that to pursue research career in academics is not worth it, if you are not highly motivated (not in terms of time spent in the lab, as meant by majority of US advertisements for postsocs, but productivity and own satisfaction-wise).

The best and ideal way to change the situation is to join politics to enter in policy making. A couple of good scientists hardly matter for the society or the country or even for the research community. Until or unless we can make a system that reward novel thinking in both education and research, we cannot utilize our able manpower and other resources to the fraction of its potential.

In more practical term, we can shift to other professions that are related to science (at least to have an entry). If we cannot change the system now, we can compromise our dreams for the time being. After all these experiences, we are no more the ideal thinker as we used to be in our teens. We can successfully use our skills in many other professions.

The most evident is to join industrial research. Though you cannot expect groundbreaking research there, but at least you will be better paid to have a decent life. 

Once you have some experience about practical problems in a real world, you are ready to venture out for jobs, e.g consultancy. Academic degrees are mere decorative in almost every field in real sense. There are too many venture capitalists to invest good amount of money if you have a sound plan and product/service to offer. To evaluate your plan and the quality of your intended product/service, you need some experience in market/business, I think.

If you have some alternative skills, like photography, debating ability etc, then there are many more options open. But you need to have a stable flow of money from some other source, at least initially.

Novel thinkers joined research mainly to satisfy their intellectual ego and love for doing something challenging. Policy makers should ensure that. Else many able candidates will leave education and research while whole society will suffer due to reign of mediocrity and dishonesty in the long run. At the personal level, the consequences for not trying are far greater than the risk for trying. “I cannot do much” also must not be the excuse for not trying at all.