India's lower castes can now go to private schools
A new law reserves more than a fourth of private school seats for the underprivileged.
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Meanwhile, critics, including education and business leaders, decry the move as a political measure that will do little to improve the condition of disadvantaged groups. Many also look at it as a result of the failure of government institutions, which have reserved seats, to provide quality education.Skip to next paragraph
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Government schools are in a sorry state, often with woefully inadequate infrastructure, rampant teacher absenteeism, and high dropout rates. Private schools, in both rural and urban areas, are often in much better shape because they have more resources and pay better salaries to teachers.
P. V. Indiresan, a former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in the southern city of Madras and a member of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, says the government wastes the funds budgeted for education. "But they have never used that discretionary resource to help Dalit and tribal children get good education. On the contrary, they have systematically dismantled government schools."
Given the consistently poor quality of government schools, and the swing in India's economic fortunes following widespread economic reforms introduced after the country's financial crisis of 1991, the demand for private sector reservation has become more strident.
"Unable to stop globalization, reforms, privatizations, Dalit intellectuals thought it prudent to demand rights for the community in the private sector, be it in jobs, education, or the economy," says Dalit journalist Chandrabhan Prasad, who writes India's only English-language column on Dalit issues.
Reservation has always been a contentious issue in India. In 1990, a law that widened the ambit of reservation to include OBCs in the public sector triggered strong upper-caste protests, and helped bolster the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Moreover, reservations have created a what critics call a "creamy layer" of Dalits and OBCs, or those whose families initially benefited from reservation, gained upward mobility, and continue to capture these reserved quotas for their kith and kin. "Reservations have created a middle class among backward castes," says Gurcharan Das, a former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, who frequently writes a pro-liberalization column in a leading national newspaper.
"It is also an infringement on liberty," says Mr. Das, arguing that private institutions must be compensated if they are to reserve seats for Dalits.
"We all believe in providing equality of opportunity, but the principle of reservation is wrong, because you don't want to divide people on the basis of anything other than merit."
In recent months, industry stalwarts have written repeatedly to the government, saying they prefer to promote educational opportunities by providing scholarships to deserving candidates rather than through a blanket reservation policy.
As former IIT director Indiresan says, the private sector wants to follow the American system of affirmative action, and not reservation.
"In affirmative action, the deprived are raised to required levels of competence; in the reservation system, the level of competence is reduced to accommodate what the beneficiary is capable of."