Thomas Sowell, a scholar at the Hoover Institute of the US, has proved brilliantly in his book Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, that affirmative actions, which begin as means to help the less fortunate, end up, in practice, helping the more fortunate. Sowell, an American Black, whose community has been the main target of the affirmative actions in the US, says that his conclusion is based on hard facts that he collected in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the United States, among others. The time is long overdue to start looking at what actually happens under this programme (affirmative actions), as distinguished from what people hope or fear will happen, he advises.
In Malaysia, the quota-raj started under the notion that ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power because of a colonial legacy under which the country’s more urbanised Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper. In reality, however, under the British colonial rule, there was free education to the majority Malays but the Chinese minority had to provide their own. The Chinese still completely outperformed the Malays, both in educational institutions and in the economy. But that is a different story. The point is that three decades of the quota system produced more Malay university graduates and professionals than the Chinese; but it did not produce performers or quality workforce. As a result, the Malaysian government announced in 2003 that admissions to the universities would now be by academic records, with computers determining who gets in and who does not, without regard to ethnicity.
The American example provides similar lessons. There is now increasing evidence that “students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as bar exams for lawyers)”.
In contrast, studies have shown in America that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, black and Hispanic students—as well as the smaller numbers of preferentially admitted athletes and children of donors—excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called ‘mismatch.’
In an article in the November 2004 issue of the Stanford Law Review, Professor Richard H Sander questioned the effectiveness of affirmative action in US law schools. The article presents a study that, among other things, shows that half of all Black law students rank near the bottom of their class after the first year of law school, and that Black law students are more likely to drop out of law school and to fail the Bar exam. The article offers a tentative estimate that the production of new Black lawyers in the United States would grow by eight per cent if affirmative action programmes at all law schools were ended, as Black students would instead attend less prestigious schools where they would be more closely matched with their classmates, and thus perform better.
Prof Sowell has also shown that after group preferences and quotas were banned in California’s state universities, the number of Black students in the University of California system has actually risen. “Minority students are systematically mismatched with institutions” due to racial preferences, where they underperform relatively to the student body. Had they gone to an institution without the help of affirmative action, to a less selective school, they would have received better grades and graduated at higher rates. Sowell, thus, argues: “When the top-level schools recruit Black students, who would normally be qualified to succeed at the level next to the top, then the second tier of institutions faces the prospect of either being conspicuously lacking in minority students or (2) dipping down to the next level below to bring in enough minority students for a statistically respectable representation. Usually they end up mismatching students. Once begun at the top, this process continues on down the line.”
Unfortunately, in India, we really do not have quality data to judge the effectiveness (mostly, the lack of it) of the reservation policy. But the fact that reservations have been there for the SC and ST categories since 1950, and yet there has been no perceptible change in their overall conditions speak poorly of the efficacy of the idea. Whether it is the SCs/STs or the OBCs, most fruits of the reservation have been eaten by what is called the creamy layers within these groups, but even here most of those who have become famous are not because of their work and competence.
We must be clear that the quota-raj in India has nothing to do with affirmative actions. Elsewhere, affirmative actions are self-regulatory, not controlled by the state as such. And these actions recognise that there are multiple factors of exclusion and discrimination working in society (such as race, gender, economic factors, etc.) and that there are multiple approaches to tackle the problem. In contrast, in India, reservations focus, rather perversely, only on caste and community at the cost of addressing social justice. Instead of eliminating caste and religion as factors of social consideration, something that the Indian Constitution aims at, reservations in India actually perpetuate them. Secondly, in the rest of the world, affirmative actions aim at creating equality; but in India reservations are encouraged to create and legitimise, rather glorify, inequalities, as long as they fetch our political parties votes.
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