What affirmative action can be all about

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Apr 29 2006, 05:30am hrs
Recent statements from corporate leaders and industry associations in the context of Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs speech go to show how easily excitable they are. To be sure, the PM did not mention anything about reservations or quotas, but reminded the industry, inter alia, of the need for affirmative action, which is a voluntary commitment. He talked of the less privileged and marginalised groupsand of investment in skills and capabilities as important supply side initiatives. He did not commend a particular caste, or gender, to be the beneficiary of affirmative action. Yet, there were two streaks of response from the industry, possibly worried over political posturing by some ministers regarding reservations not only in institutes of higher learning but the private sector as well.

One was the offensive, talking of how bad reservations are for merit-based private enterprise that needs to meet global competition and how it may make employees caste-conscious and divisive. Some even stated that good companies do not even have records of the caste or religion of their employees. The second was indeed defensive, saying how they already employ a good number of SCs/STs and OBCs. Ashok Leyland reportedly has 55% backward class employees; Bajaj Auto says 30% of its employees are from SC/ST and the backward classes. Hindustan Lever says that 55% of its employees are from SC/ST and OBC. The numbers are even higher, some claim, if outsourced and contract labour is reckoned.

Instead of advancing time-worn arguments against political ploys, it would be more sensible for corporate leaders to read the spirit of the PMs statement and see how an affirmative policy can be mainstreamed into the recruitment and outsourcing strategies of a company. They can draw lessons from some accomplishing the social agenda, even as they improve the supply side of skills in a hyper competitive environment. They have used innovative thinking, a broader strategy and deliberate action for a decided outcome.

In Andhra Pradesh, the director of collegiate education informed me of the unique initiatives of the government and corporates in enhancing the skills and capabilities in government colleges with a dominant presence of SCs, STs and the backward classes. This initiative has the potential to become an exemplary public-private partnership in proactive development of human capital for the growing needs of the sponsoring industry, their contract/outsourced activities, as well as for high-growth sectors in the economy.

Manmohan Singh, in his recent speech, had not mentioned reservations
Hed merely reminded corporate India about the need for affirmative action
Corporates can learn from those who have been fulfilling the social agenda
HSBC has just signed an MoU with Andhra University to launch a special B.Com course with focus on customer service management, chipping in with half the tuition fee for the students. The aim is to generate a good supply for itself, as also increase the opportunities for these youngsters on an international scalea majority of such students are expected from the under-privileged segments.

A Chennai company gave its canteen contract to a cooperative of hearing and speech impaired women after appropriate training. While a short-sighted IT company rejects a polio-affected software engineer, another is eager to employ such persons affirmatively, as their training and retention is easier. Some wise companies have spread their affirmative action to their supply chains and distribution networks. Take the case of elimination of child labour and employing adults in their placeseveral companies and industry associations have taken important strides, expanding opportunities for the under-privileged and the marginalised. Some ITC group companies have ensured elimination of child labour in their downstream and upstream linkages as well, thus providing scope for more appropriate employment.

Dr Reddys Laboratories, the pharma giant, has led a livelihood project that builds skills and capacities, especially in rural areas and among the under-privileged. There are trainees from these initiatives who can be employed in the service sector as also in the downstream and upstream linkages of the company.

Corporates need not be paranoid about reservations or job quotas by constitutional amendmentsnot only because of its low probability, but also because they are already employing such good numbers. If necessary, they may wage a battle through parliamentary lobbies and other means. Right now, they must debate how they can integrate affirmative action with the human resource supply chain strategy more fruitfully.