April 22, 2006

What job reservations in corporates really mean

The Ultimate Privatisation
Coming on the heels of Arjun Singh’s proposal to impose reservations in educational institutions, Manmohan Singh’s veiled caveat to the Confederation of Indian Industry that if the private sector doesn’t accept caste-based job reservations it might have them thrust down its throat by executive fiat, is sending seismic shocks through the Indian polity. With talk of Parliament using the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to make private sector reservations non-justiciable, the debate has intensified.
In the clamour of ‘merit’ versus ‘affirmative action’, a fundamental aspect of the issue has been ignored: What are — or ought to be — the core competencies of the private sector and of government, respectively? The core competence of a purely commercial private enterprise (as distinct, say, from a school or hospital or other public service institution) is the making of legitimate profit, with the emphasis on the word ‘legitimate’. If it cheats — by fudging its accounts, or manipulating its stock, or selling sub-standard goods, or despoiling the environment — it should be brought to book by the government. For that is — or ought to be — the core competence of the government, to govern justly and fairly and protect the interests of citizens against fraudulent practice and exploitation.
Today, some would say that the apparent determination of the government to force the private sector to become a vehicle for supposed social justice is itself tantamount to fraudulent practice and exploitation. The delivery of social justice is the proper job of the government, which many would say it has singularly failed at. When Dalit women are raped for the crime of drawing water from a well reserved for upper-caste use; when over 160 districts spread over several states are in the grip of armed insurgency; when hunger stalks the tribals of Maharashtra and other parts of the country, sarkari social justice remains a cruel mirage.
So what does the government do? With adroit sleight of hand it passes the buck on to the private sector. You make profits from society, don’t you? So you must have social responsibility as well — quite apart and on top of the social responsibility of paying corporate taxes, which the government supposedly spends on providing citizens with basic civic amenities, including the basic amenity of social justice.
Now, private enterprise is expected to shoulder the public responsibility — or in other words, what legitimately ought to be the government’s responsibility — of delivering social justice as well. And by doing so it presumably leaves the government free to do its own thing, concentrate on its own core competence. And what is that? Well, by its own tacit admission by asking the private sector to do it, it hasn’t been the delivery of social justice. Or of other items of basic infrastructure such as education, health, law and order, electricity, water, roads. Regrettably true. But then, the government’s been pretty busy doing all sorts of other things. Such as running airlines and hotels, and trying to ban dance bars and smoking in public places, including the public place of the cinema screen.
Unilaterally assigning public responsibility and the task of furthering the ends of social justice to the private sector (which has already at least partly been made to take over such ostensible public sector services like mail delivery, through courier agencies, and the protection of property, through private security guards) becomes all the more questionable if one broadens the definition of private enterprise to include not just corporates but individuals as well. Should professionals — such as doctors and lawyers, for instance — be obliged to propagate social justice by taking on a fixed quota of patients or clients who belong to societally underprivileged segments? What about individuals who represent private enterprise in other fields, such as film-makers, or actors, or writers, or academics, or journalists?
Should they also have ‘social justice’ quotas assigned to them in the pursuit of their endeavours? Making individuals conform to the dictates of a government-determined social justice recalls Indira Gandhi’s pre-Emergency attempt to create a ‘committed’ judiciary, a ‘committed’ bureaucracy and a ‘committed’ media. This is thinly disguised totalitarianism, a back-door nationalisation of the private sphere, including that most personal of spaces which we call individual conscience and the freedom to choose as to how we exercise it.
Affirmative action, in the name of social justice or social ‘commitment’, becomes its opposite when it is at the expense of individuals’ rights legitimately to pursue their core competence, be it to set up a competitive and economically viable business enterprise, select a sports team, write a book, make a film, paint a picture, teach in a classroom, conduct research, publicly express an opinion, or engage in any of myriad activities whose free interaction constitutes an open society. There is, of course, another way of looking at it. If social justice is put into private custody, it would mean the ultimate ‘privatisation’ of the public sector.
When an outcry by thousands of private citizens causes the reopening of the Jessica Lal case, or when individuals like Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and Aamir Khan help us all to remember the displaced villagers the government seems to have forgotten, public and private roles are switched the other way round. Perhaps what we are witnessing is not the ‘nationalisation’ of private conscience but the necessary ‘privatisation’ of a dysfunctional national conscience.

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