An ancient Hindu tradition, the caste system used to divide people according to their occupation. Its modern form allocates people a social status that they carry for life. The Dalits (untouchables) and low and other middle classes (officially referred to as Other Backward Classes, OBCs) make up 50% of India's population; they still suffer discrimination on a daily basis.
One of the major issues they face is lack of access to education. The problem is two-fold: education expenditure as a percentage of GDP has never risen above 4.3%, despite a target of 6% in 1968. On top of this under-funding issue, Dalits and OBCs have traditionally struggled to access primary, let alone secondary education. To address this imbalance, the government recently decided to set quotas in favour of the disadvantaged in federally run universities.
The initiative has generated anger from students from higher castes and the business elite. Affirmative action, they argue, runs counter to that sacrosanct principle in India: merit. But proponents of the measure maintain that redressing a system in which 15% of the population occupy the vast majority of positions of power in politics, education and business will take much more than just merit.
There is no doubt that some form of action is required to push aside centuries of discrimination and ingrained cultural bias. What is not clear, however, is whether such actions will effectively relieve the skills shortage blighting India. Significant investment in education infrastructure will be key. But caste discrimination is an issue to be addressed in its own right if the country is to sustain its pace of economic growth.
Source: Affirmative action and human resources in India
CSR-Asia Weekly, Vol 2 Week 23
Review by Emilie Filou