Despite the formal protests, the corporate world should be far from afraid of the proposed policy, for two reasons. First, employment in the organised private sector has stagnated since about 1995 at around 85-86 lakh. The skill profiles have also changed due to hi-tech shifts in industry and individual firms and further, due to outsourcing to the informal sector. Thus, several activities which have high potential for employment of the SCs and STs have moved to the informal sector.
Second, if the private companies want to discriminate against these vulnerable groups, they can do so by working around the required specifications and competencies as also the tests and procedures for selection. In fact, good companies they do not require the candidates to mention their castes or religion either in the application forms or interviews also may now get conscious and use similar defensive mechanisms of exclusion.
It is public knowledge that the reservation-based empowerment of SCs and STs has been a failure. At best, it has helped an estimated 1 per cent creamy layer in the cities such a concentration of benefits is a global situation as revealed by a recent empirical study of affirmative action in several countries by Thomas Sowell. Two-thirds of dalits are illiterate compared to about 50 per cent of the general population and the 85 per cent of them living in rural areas face continued discrimination and oppression. School drop-outs are staggering at 77.65 per cent at the secondary school level. About 86 per cent of dalits are landless. Only 31 per cent of these are equipped with electricity as against 61 per cent of the general population. Only 10 per cent have sanitation facilities compared to the 27 per cent for the others. None of them will compete for jobs in the corporate sector.
Worse still, is the matter relating to manual scavenging by dalit groups that agitated Mahatma Gandhi so very much and the government was able to bring out the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, in 1993. The offenders are also liable for prosecution under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Several states, including Bihar and West Bengal, have reportedly not completed the survey of even identifying manual scavengers! As per one report, there are over 800,000 dalits engaged in manual scavenging municipalities, panchayats and governments themselves being the biggest culprits with nearly 15,000 of them in the Nations capital itself! Against this background of lack of will to implement laws, mere protection of dalits itself is under continued doubt.
Reservation policy in the private sector thus is like reaching for the moon when one is unable to even climb a rock. Instead of confronting the private sector with a potential paper tiger, the government would do better to co-opt and collaborate with it to build capacity and empower the deprived sections in select regions. The Indian corporate world has stepped up its involvement in social and environmental issues as part of its corporate social responsibility policy. Several companies have already begun partnering with reputed NGOs to contribute to development in targeted areas. The government should consider giving them incentives and encouragement to undertake projects that would generate employment and improve skill levels, competency, literacy, nutritional standards, knowledge and information that might actually benefit a few lakh SCs and STs every year. The massive funds earmarked, can be better utilised by partnering with the private sector.
Researchers have commented that where these funds were spent, monies have been mostly pocketed by the official machinery and the upper crust a fraction of the historic 5 paise in a rupee appears to reach the dalits. By co-opting the private corporate sector, the government can augment funds, target better, reach the beneficiaries well and empower them meaningfully.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)