Friday, July 12, 2013

Merit and what it really stands for in the Indian context

At the beginning of each academic year viz., May - July, students trying to get into colleges after completing their 12th examinations, get embroiled into heated debates about the system of giving caste based reservations. Those coming from the traditional 'upper' castes in Hindu hierarchical religious system shout hoarse about how 'merit' is endangered due to the policy of reservations. But, of course, their concept of merit is narrowly defined as securing just a few marks higher than their SC / ST / OBC class-mates. They are in complete denial of the privileges enjoyed by them due to the mere accident of their births. This issue of Reservations becomes an emotional one and all sense of reasoning and logic is lost when one is discussing it. Here is an excellent article in Nirmukta (an Freethought Blog @ FTB) that raises very important questions and concerns. The article is reproduced from the link given below. Please visit Nirmukta blog to see the original article.

The Merit Delusion

Reservations (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India but mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds in social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood even amongst atheists who consider themselves as better informed than the average Indian:
I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.
Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.
There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )
Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)
Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward…
Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN..
May the good breed of politicians like ARJUN SINGH long live…

That is just one amongst the myriad jokes about the lower castes that are popular among the upper castes.

There is an implied assertion in the “joke” – that a person who avails reservation, which means a lower bar of entry, lacks merit. Whereas a person who doesn’t avail it has merit. So what is this merit that the upper castes are so hung up on? It is the idea that traits like intelligence and assiduousness are what that determine how successful one should be in their life. It is the central dogma that people like me grew up with. So if you lack merit, you are a hack; a parasite on society. Profusion of such unmerited people is the reason why India is backward.

On its own, the idea of merit isn’t bad. But what gives rise to absurd “jokes”, like the one above, and what leads to the delusional beliefs about reservations are two things – (a) What is the source of merit, and (b) Which practices in society are labeled as merit based and which aren’t.

The Source of Merit


Where does merit come from? Is it inborn?
On an average humans are capable of the same things even when you account for factors like race or gender. There are always exceptional individuals, but there is nothing to suggest that such individuals can only come from one particular group. Also history shows that some particular groups at different times have dominated others in terms of intellectual achievements. In light of that, it can be concluded that merit is largely a function of the environment rather than of one group’s inherent superiority.

So no, it is inaccurate to say that merit is inborn. Given the right opportunities, any group of people can go on to achieve remarkable things.

Then why is it that we see such bigoted jokes on the lower castes? Surely educated India has given up such archaic notions of inborn merit, and atheists even more so? I think the answer to that lies in how social prejudices linger in people’s minds. So what could be the source of the prejudice here? I think it is the caste system.

The way the caste system started out is that a person’s gunas and karma determine their caste. But in the absence of a system which constantly adjudicates gunas and karma and reassigns a person’s caste, caste took the only course left – it became birth based. (Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste touches upon this). But people still believed that it is a person’s gunas and karma that determined caste. How that can be reconciled with the ground reality that caste is determined by birth? Part of the solution was to make karma count over multiple lives. Bad karma in the previous lives would make you born into a lower caste. The other part is the belief that upper caste people tend to have an inborn inclination for certain gunas and the lower castes towards a lack of those gunas. The intellectual achievements of the upper castes are due to their knack for it. The lack of such among lower castes is due to the lack of such knack. Unless one convinces themselves of that, there’s no way they can sleep at night believing that the caste system is the best way to organize society and also believing that the lower castes are justified in being low.

The idea of merit in the “joke” parallels the idea of gunas. Take how SC/ST/OBC doctors are made fun of. Though they have reserved seats in medical college, once they get in, they have to pass the same exams that everyone else has to. Only then will they get an M.B.B.S. certificate. And yet the “joke” believes that those doctors lack merit and hence are bad in practicing medicine. Hence the the dig at politicians in the “joke”. Politicians are responsible for the existence of reservations, so they should get a taste of their policies by dying in the hands doctors who lack merit. Here the assumption is that SC/ST/OBCs don’t have the gunas that are necessary for being a good doctor. Once a lower caste, always a person lacking certain gunas. The possibility that people learn given the opportunity doesn’t even enter the picture. So such assumptions about merit are good old fashioned casteism couched in a different form. Of course, such ideas about merit aren’t unique to the caste system. At a lower level, they can be seen as arising from fundamental attribution error, and also from a belief in a just world.

Merit in practice


Now lets come to the how merit fares in the real world. Most of the time merit has little to do with how successful one is in their life. Consider these cases:

Buying your way through college. Since independence it was mostly the upper castes who were able to do this – either buy seats in private colleges in India or send their kids to other countries like the US (when to compared to Indian standards of living, that costs a lot of money. Even with scholarships). So given that there are plenty of doctors who bought their way in, why no jokes about their competency? More importantly why didn’t buying your way through college result in utter lack of quality of services provided in various professions? The answer lies in getting rid of the delusion that merit is always inborn. People learn given the opportunity.

Hiring practices in the private sector, the gold standard of meritocracy as opposed to ingrained incompetency of the public sector (As an aside, the word “meritocracy” was originally meant to be sarcastic). If merit were paramount, companies would publicly advertise for a position and vet as many candidates as they can to get the best merit. But companies do such things as a last resort. Their preferred method of hiring is by referrals where they restrict themselves to a smaller pool of talent. Sure even after a referral the candidate has to go through an interview. But the interview process itself is subjective and anyone who has conducted them knows that candidates who aren’t the best fit do get through. Then there are the cases of nepotism in the private sector. And then the cases of fake experience on resumes.
So how come despite all that the private sector manages to produce goods with reasonable efficiency? Again, the answer lies in the fact that people learn. A person might not have sufficient merit at hiring time but given the opportunity, they can learn and become better at their jobs.

Businesses. They are typically inherited. There are no entrance examinations to determine who has the best merit to run a business. Anil and Mukesh Ambani didn’t become owners of their business because of merit, but became owners because they are the sons of Dhirubhai Ambani. Business deals, partnerships too mostly happen on who knows who basis and not on some merit based tests.
So, on one hand we know that merit can be acquired given the right opportunities and on the other we also know that merit in the real world doesn’t work in the ideal way. Despite that there is a lot vitriol directed towards reservations as if the very existence of them is an affront to merit. People feel the need to make jokes about lower caste people make bad doctors or ask rhetorical questions like “Would you fly in a plane piloted by a reserved category person”? I would say that a good part of the scorn originates from caste prejudices in the Indian society and a serious lack of effort to prevent acquisition of such prejudices from early on, like being taught about them in schools. All that has led to a very lopsided discourse on the topic of reservations. Despite there being evidence that they work, they’re portrayed as one of the evils plaguing India without leaving any room for a nuanced discussion. Among atheists who advertise themselves as “good without god”, such prejudices show that a mere disbelief in god isn’t enough and getting rid of social prejudices is every bit hard as letting go of the god delusion if not harder.

Please see these links for deeper understanding of issues involved. 
Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital

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