June 17, 2006

Manufactured Merit.

This is a brilliant article by Praful Bidwai in Frontline. He brings out an extremely important point which was lost in the euphoria over the reservation debate.

The whole debate was centered on the preeminence of merit and why one shouldn't compromise in that regard. Even the pro-reservation side of the debate accepted this and suggested ways to ensure the continued respect for merit. However, as in all emotionalized slogan-chanting debates, none ever stopped to consider what really is "merit" and what form it took in Indian professional education. It became simply a meaningless word devoid of any significance to the situation on the ground.

Praful Bidwai has done a great service by bringing some relevance to this debate by analyzing the meaning of "merit". Aptly, he talks about "manufactured merit".
It is a pity that we have allowed our higher education institutions, located as they are in a situation of scarcity, to be filled by those who possess ... manufactured merit.

He gives two important reasons for his diagnosis.

One, more intrinsic to the structure of professional courses, is that competitive exams do not ensure a proper understanding of the principles involved in any particular science, and neither are they a reliable predictor of the prospects for future excellence. At the most basic level, they establish nothing more than a "hierarchical Brahminical notion" of merit. He insists that education has more to it this confined vision suggests.
Education is as much about understanding social processes and life in all its complexity, about respecting diversity and difference, understanding and practising citizenship collectively, and about building a learner-teacher community based on free inquiry. Such values are indispensable for all universities, not just liberal education colleges.
For instance, he says,
...for recruitment in the civil service, an understanding of India's social structure, familiarity with the agrarian situation, comprehension of the links between deprivation and crime, and above all, a public service orientation are at least as relevant as performance in entrance tests. For doctors being recruited in government hospitals, clinical ability and empathy for patients should count higher than quantitative grades.

I think this is a profoundly relevant point which must be understood before embarking on any appraisal of Indian education.

Two, and more important, is that the merit is "manufactured" in ways that suit privileged classes. It is common knowledge that medical seats are, in most instances, "bought" for ridiculous amount of money, running into tens of lakhs of rupees. It is ludicrous to suppose that such a system produces meritorious doctors and it needs to be preserved. It is also fairly common to see engineering seats bought like this in the numerous private colleges that are doing lucrative business.
According to an informed estimate, the delay [in implementing the reservation] would bring an annual windfall of nearly Rs.800 crores to non-medical private unaided institutions. If the intake of 18,000 medical seats is added, the profits would rise by between Rs.135 crores and a huge Rs.1,350 crores (depending on the capitation fee).

Another aspect is that privilege plays its role in indirect ways.
...how are most "meritorious" youth trained to develop and "demonstrate" this attribute? Why, through high-quality parental attention (available only to a few), and of course, coaching classes such as those at Kota which cost up to Rs.2 lakhs, including accommodation and food. Up to a third of all Indian Institutes of Technology seats are reportedly filled by candidates who take such tuition. For medical colleges, the proportion is probably higher.

In such an atmosphere of fragrant denial and misrepresentation of scientific notions of merit and societal values, any debate is only going to touch on peripherals and not address the substance of the issues. That is why, I think this article by Bidwai is very important.


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