The New York Times reported that thousands of Gujjars, an ethnic sub-caste, had taken to the streets in Rajasthan to demand a greater quota reservation for their community, with clashes erupting into violence.
“Failing to control the stone-pelting mob, police had to resort to firing,” Umesh Mishra, police inspector general, told Reuters.
India administers the largest affirmative action program in the world. Originally championed by Babasaheb Ambedkar, himself an ‘untouchable’ who rose to national prominence through world-class education and sheer unbending determination, the system has gotten out of control with many castes and communities competing to be classified as more backwards than others to gain greater quota reservations. Quotas exist not just in government jobs, but also in higher education and this latest round of violence is a repeat of similar clashes that took place last year in Rajasthan and on the campuses of many elite educational institutions.
Ambedkar’s original vision called for 10 years of quota reservation to reverse thousands of years of cumulative disadvantage that the caste system has created in India. Yet the entitlements that followed created masses of voters that politicians could easily pander to by forcing the renewal of the original bill. The scope of the bill continued to expand, ironically strengthening the caste divisions that the legislation sought to weaken while filling the ranks of government with incompetent and inefficient civil servants.
The incredible dichotomies that result are perplexing: not enough government jobs, but too much government work screaming for completion; a shortage of both skilled and unskilled workers, but millions of unemployed citizens.
At the center of it all is too many people competing for scarce resources in what is perhaps the ultimate divorce between value and the paper that tries to store it. Whether its scarce gov’t jobs, or scarce IIT seats, rupees ‘earned’ for doing nothing or an IIT degree without the brains to back it up demonstrate more clearly than anywhere else that the emperor has no clothes. For all its evils, the quota system strips bare the notion that money or degrees are a legitimate store of value. Compounded with the other inefficiencies of India, one wonders how the country even functions.
The answer to that question lies in the sensitivities for real value that develop when surrogates for value (i.e. money, degrees) have less meaning. You treat a rickshaw driver like a human being and you instantly lose the ‘tourist tax’ of the extra rupees he was going to charge you as an outsider [when I treat them like brothers, they sometimes refuse to take money!]. You have a great idea that can make a company some money, and you can walk in from the street and get invited into an executive’s office. You have even a little influence, but not necessarily any affluence, and you can meet with politicians. A massive gift-economy is in constant operation within every community, and greases the skids of what would have otherwise stalled long ago. The only problem is that the communities rarely mix and so the gifts never cross over.
Combined with disorganized and sometimes disinterested governance, India’s sensitivity for value may just make it prime soil for developing local alternate currencies. Professionals skilled at acquiring money in the centralized economy are more than happy to pay for services in a currency that lets them keep more rupees, yet doing so invariably makes them participants in a system that opens their services to people who normally could not afford them. When a slum-dwelling ‘untouchable’ mason is able to avail himself of doctor by virtue of building an extension to his house, the mason’s health improves and his family finally has a real chance to escape the cycle of poverty rooted in ill-health.
Legions of middlemen profit by keeping the doctor and mason from ever speaking. Educating different socio-economic classes on the presence and acceptance of an alternate currency is a formidable challenge. Keeping counterfeit alternate currency from flooding the market is a genuine concern.
Yet India’s sensitivity for value means that there are armies of people who would easily support this idea if a brilliant mind could design a system to deploy it. The payoff seems to be nothing short of saving lives.