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Reservation for govt school students: Is the Odisha govt admitting that they have created a new backward class in the state?

This is the fifth term of Naveen Patnaik’s rule in Odisha. What he is telling us is, government schools have failed. Government education is not up to the mark even after 21 years of his rule. And he can’t improve it either.

The Government of Odisha has recently passed a cabinet decision to bring reservation in medical and engineering courses for students from government schools in the state.

infographic shared by Odisha government

As per the Naveen Patnaik government’s decision, a high-level committee headed by a retired HC judge, comprising educationist and eminent personalities will be set up to chalk out the details and submit its report within 3 months. It will recommend the percentage of seats to be reserved, inclusion/exclusion of creamy layer(if any) and other details about who can be the beneficiaries.

Announcement by the Odisha government regarding seat reservation

For our non Odia readers, here is a rough translation of the cabinet decision.

“It has been observed that there has been a steady decrease in the number of state government school students enrolled for medical/Engineering courses after all-India entrance exams like NEET and JEE were started. This is not due to lack of merit but due to lack of access to quality coaching.

These competitive exams need specialised coaching, which can only be imparted through coaching centres or online coaching classes. These coaching centres are primarily located in urban areas. Students from rural areas and govt schools do not have access to these centres.

Therefore the competitive exams are bringing in inequality among students. To bridge this gap, inspire confidence and to provide a level playing field to these meritorious students from government schools, the state cabinet has decided to give reservations in engineering and medical entrance exams.”

It was hailed as one of the greatest schemes to bridge the gap between the rich and poor by the pro-BJD media and political sphere. Hashtags were trended by BJD MLAs/MPs. But if you haven’t realized how deeply flawed this is, read along.

The problem and the solution

You are a telecom service provider. Your service quality is not on par with competitors. Your subscriber base is falling. What do you do?

Improve your service quality? 

But this would require setting up new BTS, towers, strengthening your fibre network, installing quality switches, routers and so on. Quite some work, isn’t it? Now let’s add a rider. You are a state-owned service provider and enjoy unlimited regulatory power. You bring in a new regulation that stipulates that every day, between noon to 3, private operators have to switch off their network. This 3 hours window will be exclusively reserved for the state-owned provider. You force people to subscribe to your service without improving your service quality.

This is what essentially the Odisha government is doing. By the government’s own admission, the problem is access to better coaching and learning facilities. The solution should be to improve the quality of coaching. But the solution the government is offering is to reserve seats in competitive exams.

Government’s admission of failure?

In its explanation for the need of the reservation, the Odisha government has said this:

Tweet by CMO Odisha

“This is not due to lack of merit but a deeper divide in access to coaching”.

This is the fifth term of  Naveen Patnaik’s rule in Odisha. What he is telling us is, government schools have failed. Government education is not up to the mark even after 21 years of his rule. And he can’t improve it either. In these 21 years, he has in fact created a new backward class. But, because he can’t uplift them, he will give them a reservation. Rarely we have seen such honest admission of failure.

Reservation cannot be a solution

What is the primary aim of reservation? To provide a level playing field to backward classes so that they can be brought into the mainstream.

How do you assess the success of such a scheme? The most objective assessment would be, how many backward classes have been uplifted by such schemes. And the answer is ZERO.

Article 341 lays down the law regarding the identification of races, tribes and castes as SC/ST. Part 2 of the same article empowers the government to include or exclude castes from the list of SC/ST. However, post-1950, not a single caste has been removed from the list of SC or ST. To summarise, reservation has not been able to uplift a single caste from SC/ST.

Does caste based discrimination exists? Yes, it does. Can reservation be a solution to this? Data in last 70 years tell us, reservation has failed to bridge this inequality and uplift backward classes. Hence, reservation as a policy, to provide level playing field, has failed.

Reservation for Economically Backward Classes

This idea has been gaining a lot of traction, at least on social media. It may sound righteous and hence difficult to counter. But it is deeply flawed too.

The genesis of reservation is to undo the historical wrong. Lower castes were and in some cases, still are denied a level playing field. And this denial comes from a socially imposed disability on them. Because, the society has imposed disability, it becomes society’s responsibility to compensate for it. Hence, society must give more than equal share of resources to such classes.

EWS are also disadvantaged like backward classes in terms of access to resources, education for example. However, is this disability imposed by society? There is no theory which backs this assertion. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for society to compensate from their share.

So should govt leave poor people at their own fate? Of course not. There should be schemes like scholarships, mid-day meal, focussed coaching for confidence-building measures. But to take away someone else’s share sounds totally unfair. Does it sound like wealth redistribution? Do you now see what’s wrong?

What About poor students from non-government schools

Let’s take the government’s proposal at face value. The intention is to “build confidence among meritorious students” who are not able to access quality coaching like students of privates schools do. What about meritorious students who are not from government schools but still belong to the economically weaker section(EWS), and live in rural areas?

There are a total of 1000 Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandirs in Odisha, run by RSS, which have 420,956 students under its tutelage being taught by 12,000 teachers. Up to 2010, SSVM students topped the matriculation exams for 4 consecutive years, post which the government stopped publishing this data. In fact, 55 out of the top 100 and 18 out of top 30 were from SSVMs. What about these meritorious students? They too are from EWS and hence don’t have access to quality coaching like other government school students. They chose SSVM because they thought SSVMs are better than government schools. Why deny reservation to them? Are they not poor? Or are they not meritorious enough?

This is a lazy solution to a genuine problem. Socialism debate apart, in our country, healthcare and education are two fields where the government must continue to play a significant role. However, moves like this will do irreparable damage. No successive government will try to improve the quality of education in govt schools as they have found an alternative but an ineffective and lazy solution. The bigger problem is, no political party worth its salt will ever challenge it in court or roll it back. The moment you attach “pro-poor” to a scheme, it becomes sacrosanct.

One can just hope against hope that better sense prevails and the Naveen government stops this disastrous move before the cabinet decision becomes law.

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