Wednesday, December 9, 2009

[ZESTCaste] Affirmative action (ET editorial on Tata Group's initiative)

Affirmative action

8 Dec 2009, 0301 hrs IST, ET Bureau

It's welcome news that a clutch of companies, led from the front by
the Tatas, are putting in place policies to diversify the social base
of their
workforce, by trying to give preference to those from the deprived
sections of society, other things being equal. This is all to the
good, but falls short of either what accelerated social change
requires or what politicians hankering to represent the deprived
sections would find as acceptable levels of corporate commitment to
their cause. While reservations in the private sector would be a bad
idea, it would make sense for the private sector to ward off populist
pressure to bring these in.

This is indeed why our industry chambers have set up committees on
affirmative action. It is important for industry, as much as for the
political class, to appreciate that the present era is special when it
comes to tackling social discrimination on the basis of caste. This is
because of the rapid economic growth and concomitant structural
diversification in the economy arising from globalisation.

In the pre-Independence days when anti-caste movements and related
ideas of social reform were most forceful, the material condition for
linking social reform with economic change did not exist: economic
growth was at a snail's pace, agriculture remained predominant and
primordial and the scope for inter-generational social mobility was
close to zero. High correlation between birth and occupation forms the
material basis of caste.

If the hewers of wood and scavengers of nightsoil could hope to see no
occupation for their next generation other than their own, reform of
caste remains some minor reshuffling of ritual hierarchy. And this is
what came about from social reform movements unrelated to economic
change. Today, when economic change is vibrant, the anti-caste agenda
is virtually dead. What we do have are caste solidarity movements that
reinforce, rather than degrade, caste distinctions.

The challenge is to revive the anti-caste agenda of social reform, and
marry it with globalised growth and economic diversification. It must,
of course, have political leadership. Companies can help through
community outreach that nurtures, educates and empowers people at
levels of engagement several steps prior to hiring.


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