Level playing fields
I've avoided writing about political issues here, but cant resist expressing my views on the suggestion to increase caste-based reservation in higher education. Frankly, it doesnt matter whether the basis is caste or something else. Like several others, I strongly oppose the very notion of anything other than merit being the admission criteria. In the spirit of full disclosure, I fall into what's called 'general category' and made it through assorted entrance tests without any benefit from reservation (though, a generous dose of luck may have played some role)!
Here's a quote that I heard at my earlier job - to get somewhere (in life), you need to either 'know something' or 'know someone'. Thanks to 40+ years of license raj, the 'knowing someone' angle has been particularly relevant in the Indian context. Coming from a typical middle-class family, the disadvantages of not 'knowing someone' become apparent fairly early. Several activities - getting school admission, driver's license, job, housing, even movie tickets - seemed a lot easier for others who 'knew someone'. Of course, one could always get to 'know someone' fairly quickly and really well by paying bribes, but a combination of ethics and affordability limited the use of this route.
A few months past my fifteenth birthday, my parents generously gifted me my first set of IIT JEE preparation material and not-so-gently suggested that I start working through the same. Then, I didnt fully realise the wisdom of their suggestion, but like any dutiful son, did as they prodded. Somewhere along the process, even I realized something very curious about this whole IIT-thing. This was the first case where 'knowing someone' didnt matter. It only mattered whether I 'know something'. At first, I couldnt even believe it. Here is one place where I didnt have any disadvantage over my schoolmates (even the ones whose dads were IAS officers, politicians, wealthy businessmen or could otherwise afford to pay capitation-fees). In retrospect, it was one of the few truly level-playing-fields I encountered. All I had to do was to use the brains I had inherited and work really hard. I still may not succeed, but at least, it wont be due to any 'extraneous' factors. This very notion of a pure 'meritocracy' was (and still is) quite liberating. Over time, a whole bunch of people (including Silicon Valley among others) figured this out, and IITs are what they are for this reason.
I realize that my words about 'meritocracy' and 'level playing fields' are meaningless to most of the Indian-poor. For them, the world is fairly 'unlevel', starting right from access to primary education. While the middle class by-and-large has reasonable and equal access to the IITs and IIMs, the same is not true of the poor. Similarly, large parts of our education system remain 'unlevel' even for the middle class (think of all the capitation-fee colleges). These are clearly difficult and critical problems that the government (and all of us) need to address.
But, let's not mix these up with what the government is trying to do right now. Instead of spending their time on areas where equal opportunities are not available to all, the government is instead trying to f*&k up one of the few level-playing-fields that actually exist. To me, this is ridiculous and retrograde.