India Intelligence Report

   Anti-Quota Struggle Expands, Students Threaten Suicide


Students and doctors protesting the quota-based reservation system expanded their protests to other cities and intensified them in New Delhi and Mumbai even as a group of students wrote to the President Abdul Kalam seeking permission to commit suicide.

The Congress-led Government is in a fire-fighting crisis mode trying to please everyone. A Group of Minister (GoM) led by Congress Parliamentary Leader Pranab Mukherjee and included many senior Ministers including the protagonist of this episode, Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh, has submitted a report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The report is supposed to recommend a massive increase in seats in premier institutions so that the number of seats available in the general quota does not come below the present levels. It was also supposed to propose the actual implementation of the reservation plan.

By one estimate, this would mean that the Government is committing to spend another USD 1.5 billion unplanned expense to finance this extravaganza. This planned investment is twice the existing education spend. Meanwhile, many Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Directors have said that they do not have the capacity to increase the seat levels or the infrastructure—IIT-Kharagpur and IIM-Kolkata have said they can expand but those were in plan created some time ago. Some of the colleges are short-staffed by 20%-30%. The National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) President Kiran Karnik said that while increasing seats may be a good political move, he wondered, “Where is the faculty in institutions like IITs and IIMs?”

More importantly, even if such largesse is funded, existing programs are not functioning because of a lack of adequate qualified teachers. To overcome this limitation, the HRD Ministry is planning to lower the standards of recruitment of lectures  to infuse more bodies into the system unmindful of several reports pointing to unemployable condition of graduates from Government colleges. The GoM report also proposes the extension of retirement age for teachers in premier institutions to deflect the shortage of lecturers. To overcome the limitation of such unemployable labor, Arjun Singh and his peers such as Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath say that there should be reservation in private sector. Analysts are also castigating the Government for populist programs when basic education suffers in Government colleges, which make up 80% of institutions in India.

Meanwhile, there are rumors that the report may also recommend that through a Model Right to Education Bill, the Government may exempt private colleges that do not take any financial aid from the reservation norms but this need to be confirmed. Analysts are also questioning the Government’s desire to implement only the reservation aspect of the Mandal Report when there are many other long-term and long-standing requirements that are not even being addressed. The insinuation here is two-fold. One is that the political parties do not want to apply their mind and make tough decisions and investments necessary to uplift largely undeveloped groups. Second, by promising an entitled scheme, the political parties can reap a vote-bank harvest that can guarantee an electoral victory.

Health conditions of students and doctors who have been on an indefinite fast have deteriorated as they entered the 8th day. A group of IIT-Delhi students have written to Kalam to commit suicide as the country was abandoning their future in light of the sons and daughters of the rich from the Other Backward Classes. In the previous version of reservation, when self-serving Prime Minister V.P. Singh tried to institute reservation, many students committed suicide publicly by burning themselves. The deaths of several students melted whatever support V.P. Singh had for his divisive designs and brought down his Government.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramdoss had demanded the return of striking doctors back to work and vainly threatened to dismiss them if they don’t. Papers carried advertisements calling for doctors to be recruited in Government hospitals. However, this seems like an empty threat as the country has a severe shortage of doctors and firing qualified ones on rolls is not really going to be possible. Doctors on strike said that they will ignore administrative notices from the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) demanding that they show up for work. Representatives of doctors who met Health Ministry officials said that they were basically pressurized to return to work with an assurance that the interests of the forward class will not be compromised.

The doctors also rejected an appeal by the Prime Minister as meaningless as he had not looked at any of their demands. The doctors have softened their stand asking for a committee of experts from the non-government organizations to study the process of how they will provide reservation without losing quality.

As an amusement aside, several politicians have been on their own trip on what quota is. Communist Politburo member Brinda Karat, wife of the Government-dominating Prakash Karat, said that it was capitation fees charged by professional colleges that are stifling quality not quotas. But she did want the removal of creamy layer from the reservation regime. Junior Commerce and Industry Minister Jairam Ramesh and long-time Gandhi family acolyte called the argument that say reservation compromises quality “bogus” and accused the “media for fanning a summer of discontent in the country.” He cited example of Tamil Nadu where reservation is at 70% and being able to adapt to any hi-tech changes. Ramesh carefully failed to point out that Tamil Nadu has slipped from the 2nd spot of industrialization to 9th, slipped from 1st information technology to 4th, and 1st in medical sciences to below 5. He also carefully ducked questions on why the Federal Government was not announcing newer IITs. Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said that he has asked his staff to create a reservation of positions in technology for candidates from the rural areas but did not reveal how he will map quality of the candidates with their area of domicile.

Arjun Singh put up a grad defense for his moves and displayed remarkable sycophancy. He claimed that he was not alone in wanting to bring reservation through and that the Prime Minister was with him on the issue. He refused to accept the charge that he was attacking the Prime Minister to covet that position. Asked if he was “jealous” of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh said “Only that person who does not know the kind of respect and regard I hold for Sonia Gandhi could say. She is the leader and whatever she says is acceptable to me.” While a detail of discussions in the Congress Working Committee meeting is not known, reports indicate that Arjun Singh had to face some inconvenient questions on his handling of this issue.

Analysts reject Arjun Singh’s claims of innocence saying that if the Government really wanted to “logically” extend the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution in December 2005 to include the OBC to premier institutions, it would have done that in consultations with allies. Other reports say that Sonia Gandhi was unhappy with Arjun Singh’s performance as HRD Minister and once he secured his seat in the Rajya Sabha, he preempted any moves to remove him as Minister by delivering a fait accompli that the Congress cannot seem to reject and appear anti-OBC. Unnamed sources in Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) say that the 93rd Amendment was not meant to logically extend reservation but to undo a Supreme Court verdict that disallowed reservation in private unaided colleges.

The sad conclusion for this whole episode is that there is never going to be a suitable answer to the issue and is going to divide the country even further.