Social engineering and bigotry
Devangshu Datta / New Delhi March 13, 2010, 0:05 IST
The Economist recently quoted a Tennessee shopkeeper who described
Barack Obama as a "F**ing N***". Those words and the person they were
directed at, together summed up the limits of social engineering.
Obama could not have been elected without the Civil Rights Movement
and the social engineering it triggered. However, though the US'
social engineering reduced racial bias, it did not eliminate bigotry.
The Tennessee shopkeeper's words hark back 50 years, to a time when
racists reviled a charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King in
exactly the same terms.
The timeframes required to re-engineer social attitudes are
mind-boggling. When a black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was arrested for
refusing to give up her seat in a Montgomery (Alabama) bus to a white
man in 1955, the 48-year-old Obama was not even a glint in his
parents' eyes. Parks' arrest sparked a bus-boycott, orchestrated by
King. That led directly to desegregation and affirmative action.
India started its social engineering experiments even earlier.
Gandhiji was preaching about the evil of untouchability in the 1920s.
Legal equality and affirmative action through reservation have been
embedded in the Indian Constitution since its adoption.
Sixty years later, it's evident that those social engineering efforts
have not been entirely successful. The reservation concept was flawed
from inception in its definition of eligibility criteria. It ignored
the issue of high-caste poverty, for one.
High-caste poverty continues to be ignored, leading to massive
resentment. Increasingly, arbitrary definitions of caste-eligibility
have also been adopted. The concept of the "creamy layer" is prone to
leaks, given inefficiencies of governance.
Yet, flawed as it may be, the social engineering embodied in
reservations has created routes out of poverty for millions. It has
empowered the previously marginalised. Mayawati has a genuine shot at
becoming Prime Minister someday. That would have been plain
unthinkable for Dr Ambedkar, or even Jagjivan Ram.
Urbanisation, and the mixing it enforces, has also lowered many
barriers. Most cubicle-dwellers neither know nor care about the
antecedents of canteen staff. Nevertheless, bigotry persists. Many
still baulk at the thought of marrying out of caste. Professional
descriptions like leather-worker and sweeper are commonly employed as
These examples show that social engineering is long-gestation. Any
analysis of the Women's Reservation Bill has to start from that
context. It is undeniable gender discrimination exists. Across India,
women lag in terms of education; the population gender ratio is
unfavourable. In many professions, women are paid less. Domestic
violence ranging from wife-beating to honour-killings and dowry
murders is endemic.
It would be clearly beneficial if these evils were removed, and the
imbalances corrected. The Women's Reservation Bill is supposed to
energise the process of reform and correction. But it could take
decades before outcomes, favourable or otherwise, are apparent.
The immediate outcome is that more women will enter Parliament. Given
dynastic biases, the beneficiaries will probably be members of
political families. Will those ladies do right by their
under-privileged sisters? Panchayat reservation hasn't noticeably
accelerated the uplift of rural women and that has been in force since
There may have been other ways to correct gender imbalances.
Affirmative action aimed at educating girls and adult women may have
produced quicker returns. Adapting micro-finance models to target
female entrepreneurs may also have been more direct.
Chances are, the Bill and its efficacy will still be debated in 2050.
But while more women in Parliament may not do much good in the short
term, it cannot do any harm. At worst, the new MPs will emulate the
men they replace by ignoring their responsibilities, screaming and
sitting in the Well. If so, at the minimum, more women bailiffs will
be hired. So, that is one guaranteed positive outcome.
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