Unmeritocratic India undermines democratic India

A crisis of selection

The eleven who make it to the Indian cricket team are not eleven of India’s best cricketers. India’s top civil servants are not its best civil servants. Actors, models and singers did not get there simply because they had the talent. It is no surprise that India looks miserable every four years, at the Olympics, because those sportsmen and women who did make it to the squad are not quite the best. The one place that should value real talent, the private sector, suffers from scionitis at the top and is threatened by state-enforced affirmative action everywhere else.

The social and political fabric of India does not value talent — instead, it prefers a system of entitlements and preferences. The debate is no longer about the desirability of entitlements, but their applicability. And with the Indian government’s recent decision to allocate places to Pakistani students in India’s elite engineering schools, the government outdid itself. Given India’s acceptance of a culture of entitlements, there was hardly any protest when it appeared that a new ‘quota’ — for Pakistani students — is on the verge of being created. Never mind the fact that every year hundreds of thousands of bright Indian teenagers literally kill themselves to get into the IITs and IIMs, and this education is highly subsidised by the Indian taxpayer.

The decision to allow Pakistani students to study in India and experience Indian society first hand is unquestionably sound. But why start with the IITs? And why resort to quotas? There are plenty of good universities all over the country — why not help raise the standards of India’s own universities by getting good Pakistani students to provide competition? And if the IITs have to be thrown open to Pakistani students, they must qualify under the same system as everyone else. But it will be hard to resist the calls of political correctness and soon enough, the entitlement culture will cause a ‘quota’ of sorts to come into place. Has the government thought this through?

These questions would have been meaningful if Indian society valued merit as a basis of selection. But in India’s prevailing culture of entitlement, they find very little traction.

But what is most wonderful is that year after year, faced with shameful results in international contests of talent (like sports), Indians ask why a country of over a billion people cannot produce enough winners. Equipment, funding and career-perceptions matter — but what brings the house down is India’s overwhelming, universal crisis of selection. Without a meritocratic system, India cannot fully realise the productive capacity of its citizens in any sphere of life.

This post was on the cards after Jagadish’s wrap-up & a subsequent lunch with Huvishka (who has recently started a new blog); Secular-Right’s post on the dumbing down of IITs was the immediate inspiration

Update: Quo vadis?

The Beijing Olympic Games may be three years away, but (Uttar Pradesh state) Sports Minister R K Chowdhary’s gameplan is ready: make Indian sports caste and community-based and set up caste hostels to nurture this talent.

The need of the hour, he says, is not building stadia in rural areas but providing ‘‘special opportunities to children based on their caste” [IE]

14 thoughts on “Unmeritocratic India undermines democratic India”

  1. Jagadish,

    Good post.

    I’m not over-emphasising sporting achievement, just using it as another example that highlights a poor selection process.

    From your post, I was shocked to see that the entire sports budget of the Indian government is Rs 102 crore over three years — that works out to about US$8 million per year. A pittance.

    Yes, there is a case for the government to totally exit this space. If all it can spend is $8 million/year, why spend it at all. For that paltry sum it gets to control all those sports federations which could arguably do a better job if they were privately run (membership based) organisations.

    Essentially, this is just a way to have a meritocratic system in sports.

  2. You are spot on, on the fact that india tends to do things more with its heart than its mind. Emotion play a larger roll in decision making than logic. Emotional judgments are usually the poorer once. I am talking in a larger sense.

    With regards to the update (from IE) where sports talent based on caste system. Something i thought about a long time ago. I believe that the current incarnation of the caste system is more detrimental to india, but the idea behind was pretty useful when it was applicable in the years of kings. i believe that the current day caste system is derived from different segregations people had under the rule of indian kings. Now that social order does not apply, but the skills on which various caste’s were based on during kings rule do apply. i am not saying that a barbers son/daughter would/should always be a barber but they do have an advantage since they are exposed to that profession from early on. This could also lead them not to choose the father profession on various conditions.

    i think the idea to invest in caste based skill (lack of proper wording) is not a bad one provided necessary precautions are taken to make sure skill is of prime importance than the caste. The skill i am talking about is not just applicable to sports.

    enough ramblin.

  3. Pavan,

    There is a difference between children taking their parents’ profession on their own and the institutionalisation of such a practice by the state. It should not be the government’s business to tell a nuclear physicist’s daughter to opt for the science stream.

  4. Nitin,
    Thats precisely my point. If things are done logically then the children will have their choice, if things are done emotionally, there would be no choice. this is the sad state of caste system today in india. Govt being only part of the larger equation & society being the major part.

  5. Just an aside:
    IITs have been having some seats reserved for foreigners (usually sons/daughters of NRIs, usually from US, Middle East). We had a category called DAFN (Direct Admission of Foreign Nationals) & then DASA (Direct Admission SA- I dont remember). I dont know what is the current flavor for non JEE entrants.
    These candidates usually qualified through the SAT and almost all of them had high SAT scores. There were Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans apart from the NRIs. However, almost everyone I knew struggled with the courses, not due to a lack of effort but just that the curriculum was tougher than they had anticipated, in addition to coping with a different culture from home. It took considerable effort from the students themselves as well as their classmates to help them through. I know of one classmate who couldn’t fit into the IITM schedule who dropped out of IITM and joined Cornell and apparently did very well in that school!!
    The point I try to make is that if there is an entry to foreigners there should be an effort to get their best students, either through the JEE or something similarly rigorous. The advantage is their best brains would come in and enrich themselves as well as their peers and build informal networks that does a great lot of good. In case mediocre students come in, it would only cause heartburn, self-esteem issues for themselves, etc.
    IIT-IIM-IISc alongwith other such institutes are a just cause for pride with the current clamor for setting up overseas institutes. The brand equity should not be diluted. Here is something that we can compete with the best of the world. In the current atmosphere of bonhomie, all this should not be forgotten.

  6. That was very balanced opinion expressed by Huvishka.

    Talking about the others, there are issues with letting the Pakis compete with Indian students for seats in the IITs. It could so happen that none of them would get through, or more than a proportionate number would get through. Even otherwise if the Indian and Paki students take the same test, there will be constant comparisons (by all and sundry), saying that either the Paki students are so much better or so much worse. That has to be avoided to keep away the acrimony and vitiation of atmosphere.

  7. Hi,

    I almost read the title as “Meritocratic India undermines democratic India”. I almost jumped “Eureka!!!”, cos in this one statement I found a summary of all my thoughts about what is happening in India right here, right now.

    But then I woke up and realised the error in my reading abilities. Maybe its because I was too keenly wound up in my conviction of the reservation system being not just legitmate but also incomplete.

    There are tons of issues I want to talk about, but doing that here would be too difficult to manage. Anyway, let me just address one issue over here. The issue of IITs.

    I think India should throw open IITs to more people apart from just brahmins and the educated upper caste. As a nation we should aim at providing education as a viable means of livelyhood to those untouched by formal educational systems for thousands of years. To say that 50 years is enough to correct all the social wrongs comitted in the past and that social equality is reached would be premature.

    IIT system of education should be disbanded with in the following ways.

    1) Create IITs not in every state, but in every district.
    2) take away the prestiege (read as unlimited budget and opportunities) away from the few who operate as judges of other people’s desire to study.
    3) There should be so many engineering seats in India that every student who wants to study engineering should be allowed that opportunity.
    4) IITs have done very little for India. Droves and droves of them have utilised public funded subsidised education systems to further their career in the US, benifiting US organisations. Back here in India the premise in which these institutions were patronised like have been subverted. They hardly contributed to India.
    5) IITs should exist just as any engineering college is, and should be thrown open to the full breath of reservation as in every other college. The legislations should drafted appropriately and a re-orientation of the original goals with which these institutions where formed and state funded should be achieved asap.

    I know, I dont have much to say as of now in terms of why and the rationale. But would soon look to post a blog on the same.

    Meanwhile, let me leave away with this thought ? What is so great about merit ? Is it more important than humanity and human progress ? Is it more important than the democratic values that every citizen has the right to pursue his educational aspirations ? I dont understand this blind obsession with merit by the upper class ? What merit ?

    An examination like class 12 where each correcting teacher evaluates close to 200 answer sheets a day, which each student has taken 3 hours to write is called merit.. How absurd can it get ? Is that basis enough ? I think sometimes we overworship merit. Much more than amitabh or rajinikanth. Why so merit obsessed ? and why not have other critieria ?

    thanks

    vasu

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