Corrective and Affirmative Action in India – a Critical Look

“If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago, and a racist today.”
-Thomas Sowell

Shocked? No, one should not! This is the truth and is quite appropriate to the present caste, religion, region base political equation in India, where equality is by and large replaced by Corrective and Affirmative Action. This is a post independent phenomena, recently hyped and politicized by the politicians; simply one has to accept this without much uproar.

In the recent past, there was a debate and huge uproar on some thing similar, that sparked after the new reservation policy on Higher Education and Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh’s statement on reservation on private sectors in India. Some argue that these are Corrective and Affirmative Action and are necessary, some say that these are preferential treatment to a section of the society. Since, quite a large part of the society do not understand the terms Corrective Action and Affirmative Action, let us first understand these terms and then discuss critically Corrective and Affirmative Action in India.

Corrective Action is a change or correction that is desired and implemented by the management of the system to counter the weakness or nonconformity or abnormalities of the system. In practice, it is implemented in response to the abnormalities of the system; has two basic steps, (a) identifying the abnormalities and (b) identifying the countermeasures. Depending upon the nature of the abnormalities and the response of the management, corrective actions are either temporary or permanent. Though corrective action should address the root cause of the nonconformity of the system, it does not happen in most of the cases due to various reasons.

On a similar note, Affirmative Action is a set of policies or remedial measures to counter the dominant part of the system, by promoting the non-dominant or minority (be in caste or religion or race) of the system through education and/or employment. Eventhough both corrective action and affirmative action are controversial and are not acceptable to a majority of the system, they are being implemented to counter the imbalance of the majority vs. minority in the system; some times desired, some times politically motivated.

Those who are opposing corrective and affirmative action, used to argue, that the evils or the social injustice of the past were committed by and against the persons of the past which are irreversible. By the means of corrective action, one can neither punish the perpetrators of the past nor can compensate the victims of the past. The injustice was already done in the past, needs to be checked at the present. But, by promoting a particular section of the society as a means of affirmative action, we are also repeating the evils of the past on a different set of people. One has to remember that the march of social justice does not begin with the proposal of affirmative action, and it will not end with its entrenchment. In fact, in the name of social justice and affirmative action, the possibility of sacrificing justice to its negation is very high.

So far so good. Both parties are right in their argument. But, what is important at this stage is how to proceed with both parties; with equal measure or with corrective and affirmative measure? This is quite relevant at this stage and is a matter of concern for all of us. It is true, that any civilized person will not oppose to the uplift-ment of the backward, poor and minority section of the society, if, that does not happen at the cost of the progress of the other. Therefore, it is critical and crucial; how to proceed with both the majority and the minority, the poor and the rich, the backward and the forward and to achieve social justice in the society. The relevance of this in Indian context is the point of debate here.

The major affirmative action or corrective action in Indian context one can think of is “Education for all and 100% literacy“. No one in India will deny that we lack in terms of basic education and literacy as compared to others. The country wide literacy rate is around 60%, whereas it is even less than 50% in some parts of India. With 60% or less literacy how do we expect to reach the every Indian? When the youth literacy rate is around 71%, how do we prepare ourselves to counter countries like China (where youth literacy rate about 99%) in future? When the illiterate common man does not understand and does not know the schemes drafted for him, how do we expect reaction for him? By drafting the schemes at the parliament or at the planning commission level, our responsibilities do not get over. In fact responsibility starts at that very point; to complete the process and to implement the scheme.

In this scenario, the first and foremost task of ours is to bring all kids to school (though we succeed by enrolling 96% kids) and teach the illiterate through different means. This will at least make them in a position to understand the schemes designed for them and can get benefited out of that. But, what have we done in this direction? We spend just 3.5% of our GDP on education, way below China’s 8%. If you see the statistics, there are people in India who are still untouched by the modern society; modern education system has not reached them, forget about sanitary condition and health care. The number of schools we have in India are not enough; forget about the quality of education there. English medium education is still confined to the cities. In the name of free primary education, wasting of taxpayers’ money is enormous. Education for girl child is still a far reach and that too is not encouraging even in the civilized section of the society. Don’t we think we need corrective action on the above issues?

The other problem we witness is the shortage of quality teachers. Not that we do not have quality people available, but the attitude of us towards teaching is not there. The salary structure for the teachers is not at all encouraging. In the name of Sarvasikshya Abhijan (Education for All), new teachers are getting appointed at a monthly salary of Rs 600/- (i.e., Rs 20/- per day 😦 ) at the primary school level, which is even less than the monthly remuneration of unskilled labors. Even then, 20+ people apply for a single teaching post, not because they all are interested, but because of the un-employment in the society. Corrective action too is required on this issue.

The facilities for the students at the school level is also not at all encouraging. Many schools do not have even the basic infrastructure; no chair, no table, no toilets and even no roof. The midday food programme is also not properly implemented in many schools (mid day food programme is in fact the main attraction for the kids to come to school in many places). To attract more kids to school, we need to motivate their parents first and the society second through social awareness. Once we get more students (even though not 100% success) we can motivate them for higher education through proper guidance. But, we lack at this very basic point. We do not have a planned guidance system/scheme for the students and we do not do much to stop the dropouts of students at various level. The percentage of dropping of students is about 40% at the primary level and over 33% high school students complete graduation. This has to be looked into. Without proper education, we cannot grow. For the growth of the country, we need trained man power, be it trained labor in the industry sector or trained farmer in farming or trained educators at various places or the intellectuals. The number of trained manpower needs to increased. Unless, we stop the dropouts at or after school, and provide education to all through corrective and affirmative actions, where do we get the required manpower?

College education is also necessary for growth. But, in India, college education is not that accessible to all. Even if it is accessible, the quality of education is not that good as compared to that of developing countries or developed countries. Technical education is still a far away reach for the common man. The present form of college education does not ensure any form of employment opportunity in most of the cases. We still do not give enough importance to basic research. The faculty crunch is clearly visible. Encouraging the youth to opt for teaching and/or research is not exhibitive. If we need 10% GDP growth, don’t we need to have more corrective measure by giving importance to value based education and affirmative measure by encouraging the youth to opt for research and teaching?

The other major problem which we are facing is the caste based reservation policy. Yes, it is right, that there are people from various castes who are underprivileged and are backward. They have still not come at par with their other fellow Indians. It is our responsibility to bring them to the main stream, to bring them to the mass. But, why to make that politicized? Why to make caste as the only factor for reservation? There are people form other castes too who cannot afford to be a part of the main stream and are socially and economically backward. Don’t we think we too have the responsibility to bring them to the main stream? But, does that happen in the corrective or affirmative steps we are taking through reservation? Don’t we think it is too crucial for the growth? In fact, with caste based reservation we too support castism, further divide the society based on caste and add fuel to the age old caste based divisions. Those have already availed the reservation and have joined the mainstream, don’t we think we should not give further reservation to them? Let the people who are really underprivileged and need reservation avail this, not the privileged ones. A serious discussion and brainstorming thought is of curse required on this.

Many of us still do not understand the rationality of reservation at higher education level and that too after 60 years of independence based on some 70 years old data-base. Simple political! When we do not give as much opportunity as required to the unprivileged at the school level and bring them even to secondary school level, what is the rationality of reservation at higher education? Instead of giving reservation at the higher education level, let us give opportunity to them and prepare them at the primary school level, at higher secondary level and at the under graduation level. By stopping the dropouts at the school level and bringing them to higher education level, we can reach to the mass in a more effective way, which will have definitely better impact than giving reservation at higher education.

On a slightly different note, there were concerns and differences in the recent past arose due to reservation at the private sectors. Most of the private sectors are opposing to the caste based reservation at their places. To survive in a competitive market, they should be given a fair chance to decide their own action and whom should they hire? They should not be forced with reservation. Instead, they should be encouraged and directed to provide resources for better school and other facilities at least till the higher secondary level. This is similar to forcing the major telecom operators to provide basic services in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharastra and Rajasthan, which is definitely a success in India. Similar schemes can be duplicated by various sectors and the affirmative action or corrective action can reach to the ground level.

For better implementation, let there be an independent survey by a group comprising representative from NGOs, Govt and Private industries on the need and method of affirmative action or corrective action required in India. Taking a decision based on some recent survey, not on 70 years old survey, is definitely desired, if we are serious about the development and social uplift-ment in the society.

Aamjunta – what do you say? It is time for you to act!

PS: The author is grateful to many like minded people who shared their thoughts through various means during the course of the writing of this article.

Making of an Aamjunta

When I take a cursory glance over the last six years that I spent at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (MAP), it not only surprises me but also leaves me spell-bound. Ruminating at the breadth of my experiences and at the grinding process, I suddenly feel to have grown-up and learnt far more in terms of my life at the institute. To document all those require a Herculean amount of work, memory and time. Yet, I am tempted to pen down some of these for all those who might be interested to know what IIT has offered me; to an aamjunta by choice.

It was around 6am, 18th July, 2002. I landed at Dadar with my bag and baggage. Fortunately, my brother and one of my friends were there to receive me. Did not have any problem to come to my brother’s place at Ghatkopar. The city was new to me and so was the Mumbaiya culture. I came to this city with a purpose, to complete some part of my dream. Certainly, did not think at that time to stay for more than 2 years at Mumbai. But, destiny had some thing else as its plan. Completed six years at Mumbai and more than 5 years in one room 🙂 Don’t know exactly how many months (or years) more is destined for me.

On 22nd July, 2002 I joined IIT Bombay as an MTech student. Had a wonderful orientation programme with encouraging (rather warning) speeches and registration. Took some time to get into the system. Even though my IIT Madras experience was handy, it was bit tough initially to decide the courses and then struggling for the exams and quizes. I started my life in the institute from a small one room quarter T-1/128 (behind H-4) in the campus, shared with two other self sponsored MTech students as I was an industry sponsored candidate and was not entitled for a hostel in the first slot of allotment :(. That room was quite good, but the iron beds were really bumpy like the bumps and gutters of Mumbai during rainy season. Had tough time for food, especially during heavy showers, as we were allotted H-2 mess. Missing breakfast and snacks were very common. Fortunately, got accommodation in H-2 after a couple of months and life started the way I wanted. Had a very good and lively friend circle at H-2. Gossiping with them during lunch and dinner time was more interesting than the usual Rajma-Chawal.

I remember that when I first shifted to that hostel people used to inquire about my nativity, to which I replied humbly “I am from Orissa”. My fellow inmates would reply with perfect nonchalance and an all-knowing intelligence, “Oh Orissa! Orissa Assam me hai na?” I gaped with utter disbelief. I had pledged myself there on to make sure I take a pride in my homeland wherever I go and made it a point to remain a typical Odiya boy in spite of my education and nature of work. “Khanepe aur sone pe (on food and sleep) – no compromise” used to be the basic philosophy of my existence in IIT Bombay, be it exam time, or quiz time.

In the academic front, I joined Infonet lab, Electrical Engg, my second home and my work place for all these years. I was introduced to the other members of my lab by my guide. Everybody in the lab were quite busy with their work and with their friends. Took some time to get into the lab culture and into the fun world. Had very good time with seniors (though I was elder than most of them) in the lab towards the end of 1st year. In the beginning, it was the PC lab not Infonet lab, which was my working place. Reason? Simple, all my batch mates used to work in the PC lab. Our batch was mixed with very senior people in their early 40s married with kids, and freshers in their early 20s, and me the middle one 🙂 . We used to have parties, fun very often. It was quite lively with extremely brilliant guys at one end and with extremely un-professional guys at the other end. I used to solve (or try to solve) the assignments in time (in fact before time) and was quite sincere during those days. Getting calls for assignments was quite common; ctrl+c and ctrl+v was most of the times unavoidable (even sometimes names get copied also). Course work was a bit tough, not because it was made tough, rather becoming a student after a gap of 5 years was the reason why I found it tough. Open ended exams, 9.30pm quizzes, seminar without a guide etc., were mostly the memorable events of the 1st semester.

1st semester exam ended in late November 2002 and I booked my tickets for Bhubaneshwar via Chennai. It was 2nd December, 2002; I had my train for Chennai from Dadar at 8.30pm. Busy with last minute packing at Ghatkopar at my brother’s place. “Bhom”, “Bhom” — suddenly it sounded alarming at about 6.30pm. Could not understand any thing at that time. My brother came out from his room and saw people running outside in a panic. “What’s the matter?” He asked.. some one replied, “Bomb blast hua hai, bhago”. We could not believe… Two bombs blasted the Ghatkopar area, and one very near to the platform no. 1 on a BEST bus (some 200 mts from our rented room). Could not understand what was happening, how to react when things like that happened in real life, and most importantly how to go to Dadar? No taxi, no bus and local train for some time. Entire area was cordoned off. With all that, had some quick dinner and left for Dadar. Thought of taking a risk by going in local train. That clicked, got an almost empty local train and reached Dadar. Train journey was good. Reached office (company which sponsored my MTech) after a day. Felt some thing wrong there. The atmosphere was not good. Did not find the aura which RNB had left in July. Spent 2 weeks there and left for home town after that.

My mother came with me in my return journey. While coming back, I lost a bag in the auto rikshaw. I still remember the incident, and get teased by my family members. The 2nd semester was quite interesting and difficult. My company unit, where I was working got closed down and we got pink letters. Fortunately, I got saved by RNB and joined him as consultant for 2 months at Gandhinagar. Even got some financial help from my guide through some project. Had good time at Gandhinagar with friends and other people. Fought with many people on principle and aamjunta’s way of life started. The complex feelings between PhD and non-PhD at Gandhinagar added fuel to the fire within me; I determined to go for PhD at any cost. But, I declined politely their sponsorship offer as I had burnt fingers just before their offer.

I lost one of my very close relative in that semester, reason is still a mystery for us. Then began the MTP (MTech Project) tension. Reading standard documents, RFCs, proposals became part of life. At the personal front I had a few good reasons to cheer up, brother got married, my social service started in 3 schools and my involvement with various organizations increased.

In the summer vacation, we got the news (rumors too) about a new hostel: Hostel-12. There are accidents, and some extremely good ones. One can name it as a turn in the wheel of fortune or my amazing luck that I got a boarder seat in Room No. A-501 in the newly formed Hostel-12 located at the fag end of the campus. Most of my H-2 friends got rooms in the vicinity of my room in the same wing. Good time started, and I moved from a shared accommodation to single accommodation. The view from my window can inspire a Wordsworth or a Tagore to compose the masterpieces of their life. The Powai Lake and the lovely green landscape around it, can keep any one glued to my window for hours. During the monsoons, if you observe closely through my window, you can literally see the clouds darkening up into a beautiful blackness and sweep over the lake into huge rain storm. Life became a sweet-sour journey full of fun, frolic and work. Not just the structure of the building but the lifestyle itself in H-12 can put the best ones into envy. As a student, what more can one look for?

In the second year, I joined the institute bit late, after a week due to my other commitments. MTP started with full vigour. Used to have marathon meetings. Hope was very high, to do this, to do that. But, that did not happen. Work was constrained with so many other factors, did not get a focussed work and even could not test my code on the real hardware. MTP ended without even a glance of the real hardware on which my codes are based on (though got AAs). As the sysad of our lab, midnight calls (and even sobbing complaints 😦 ) were very common. Fighting for a flat screen monitor, or for a working place were day-to-day affairs. I too resigned from the sysad post, even though I knew the consequences. Some one has to protest against unethical and wrong attitudes, does not matter whether that will turn to be good to you or not.

Not just academics attracted me, participated in extra curricular activities too and even won some events. Was quite involved in welcome/farewell functions of Utkala. Had good time with many Odiyas here and was quite motivated by some of them. From the very beginning, going for PhD was in my mind. Even though I tried for one or two jobs, I applied for PhD at IIT Bombay. Even though I could not do well in the written test, I managed well in the interviews and solved most of the problems there. That was a turning point in my career. Got selected for PhD for the Jan session, but deferred for a semester. Instead of availing that offer, applied again for PhD in July. Faced two written tests and one interview during my last stage of MTP. Interview did not go well and I was quite depressed. Did not get the support from the people I expected, but finally got the offer (interstingly I topped in the list) and joined for PhD with TAship in July 2004.

Life did not end there. It was just the beginning, beginning of a commitment, and a career.

To be continued….

Life@Pre and Post APS

“I’m going to the temple for special puja, don’t worry, your APS will go well”, Minu/Ganesh’s mom informed her/him over phone on the morning of the APS day. Minu/Ganesh did well in the APS and is quite motivated now for her/his future research. It was just like a war of survival for her/him, has to win at any cost. That was a single isolated case out of some hundreds of PhD candidates/Research Scholars in every semester. Not all are that lucky or happy like Minu/Ganesh (interestingly some people around her/him are not that happy to see her/him in happiness 😦 ). Some are de-motivated, some are frustrated and some are happy after their APS. The peer-effect rules in some cases. Does not matter whether the APS was good or bad, it is certainly a party time for all of us. Time to celebrate after one year’s re-search and hard (!!??) work 🙂

Lots of discussion/gossiping happens in the Mess/Canteen Table over tea/break-fast/dinner/lunch (some time) on various topics related to APS. “My RPC members stripped me off in front of all, my guide asked most of the questions, the panel was just another nightmare for me…” are a few of the statements one can hear during the post APS gossiping/discussions. Most of the discussions are on the next step of APS; like when to go for pre-syn, some discussions are meant to be critiques; “he/she should have answered to a particular query in this way or that” or some queries in general, etc. Activities of life suddenly changes after APS – from extra-busyness to idleness (not for all). “Arre, bahut kaam kaiya, thoda to rest le le…”, “I need a break”, are the usual time pass statements and official excuses 🙂

For most of the people, the APS fever starts 2/3 months before the deadline. “What to present?”, “how to defend?” are the main concerns. Writing a report both in quantity (in terms of number of pages !!) and quality are very important. Some people are fascinated with the number of pages which creates panic buttons among their peers. In most of the cases reports are written at the last moment – at the eleventh hour. Few of them submit in time and most of them submit at the last moment (A few even submit just before the presentation). In many cases, reports are submitted as a matter of formality since it is required to be submitted; not complete in any respect neither by the student nor even glanced through by the guide(s) and the pannel members. Guide(s) as well as the panel members usually give their suggestions/comments on the report while going through it during the presentation. Some of the comments/suggestions are critical for the improvement and some are personal.

For those who have published many papers and are regular throughout the year – APS fever is not that high for them; for others the temperature is very high. Some times APS fever affects the brain resulting in depression and psychiatric problems. Suddenly life become very busy, even don’t have time to receive a call. Missing lunches/dinners are very common (of course eating Pizzas and visiting Gulmohar/Laxmi increases). Activities in the Labs get increased in many fold (if you want to get hold of some one in the APS season, then you should visit his/her lab post dinner 🙂 ), night-outs become regular events, serious(!) discussions with guide(s) become a part of daily routine, queues at the Xerox/Photocopy shops become unbounded 🙂 Getting ready for the APS day!

The most important and crucial time is the presentation time on the APS day. Some get bowled, some score six, some are cut-behind and some score a couple. Guide(s) usually help his/her student during the presentation. In most of the cases they give hints to the queries raised by the panel members and clarify a lot of issues. But, in some cases they just come in an attacking mood and instead of helping the student, they create most of the problems. Like discouraging the student at the time of presentation, asking some vague questions, raising doubts on some technical issues, finding faults with the method of work, etc.; as if venting out their frustrations on the student and become personal 😦 . Some time the panel members come in the rescue mode and step into the fight between the student and the guide. As the outcome of the presentation “a few get extension and repeat APS and most of them get go ahead signal”. Some cry, some defend and some accept with a pinch of salt.

Though in the ideal case both the student and guide(s) are responsible for the outcome of the APS, student gets the banging often. Of-course in some cases students are responsible for the poor performance, but it is not true in all. As usual guide(s) are very busy with so many activities, both in professional and personal fronts. It is obvious that they do not have that much time to spend like the student on a particular topic. But, the amount of experience and maturity level they have must be of use for the benefit of the students (which does not happen). In some cases they hardly spend time with their students on technical matters. But, that is not an excuse for the student. It is the student’s PhD and he/she is fully responsible for that; starting from choosing the guide and topic to publishing papers and defending the thesis.

Life goes on; in a different way for some days after APS, then one gets used to it and the (fear of ) preparation for next APS or Pre-syn starts. The thick (thin?) line between pre- and post-APS disappears and the joy/eagerness to complete (!) PhD increases.

aamjunta… how is your life in the pre- and post- APS? Must be enjoying 🙂 Do share.

PS: This article is dedicated to all Research Scholars of IIT Bombay. For the benefit of the reader, APS stands for Annual Progress Seminar. It is an annual event and each Research Scholar (PhD Candidate) has to appear for the APS once in a year. Monthly scholarship/fellowship gets renewed only after the successful completion of the APS. Similar activities can be observed in MTP/DDP/BTP presentations also.

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