Social Capital and Affirmative Actions in India

Social capital is the aggregate influence a person by virtue of his birth and social connections gains in the society. It is the fundamental basis for institution of reservation in Indian society. In India, caste is an important factor of social capital. Caste in India is an exclusivist institution ratified by religion that has created endogamous units that do not allow social intermixing. The most identifying feature of caste is that it won’t allow intermarrying below the level of the caste in the social hierarchy. Endogamous units are social structures that breed only within.

I shall explain this with an anecdote narrated by an upper caste software engineer based in Silicon Valley in the United States. As I did not get the reference, I am recollecting the narrative from my memory.

The author was planning to establish a firm in the United States. While doing so, he reflected on one of his class mates in the Victoria college in Palghat, Kerala when he was doing his Predegree course (PDC). The protagonist was from a Dalit family in Palghat. He was brilliant and had stood first in his class in the local government school. None of his parents, relatives or neighbors were educated. He didn’t have many friends as he was from a lower class family.  Further, he didn’t have spare time to socialize as he had to daily commute 20 kms by foot. But yet he did his predegree  reasonably well gaining about 80% marks. After PDC, as everyone was attempting for engineering and medicine entrance,  he choose a local vocational training school popularly known as ITI ( Indian Technical Institute) to study as an electrician. Seeing his choice, the author asked about the reasons of his decision. He thought that his colleague could have easily got engineering or
medicine given that he is a Dalit. The answer from the boy was illuminating.

He said he didn’t ‘know’ about entrance tests and the career ladder to be an engineer or doctor. He got to know of the entrance tests only few weeks before the test. All he knew was that if he takes the ITI course he could easily get a job. This he learned from a relative of his who had made it to the ITI, to be an electrician. He cleared ITI, joined the local government owned electricity board as an electrician, studied part-time engineering
diploma and finally became an assistant engineer.

The author, however, was clear of his career plan. While doing his PDC, his doctor uncle had ensured him a seat in a reputed entrance couching centre. He did not clear the entrance test in the first attempt. He tried once gain, got into a government owned  engineering college , did his MBA and finally reached the Silicon Valley in his endeavor  to establish an enterprise.

Once he reached the United states, he found how difficult it was for him to establish the company, and how easy it was for a Jew to do the same. For, he found that Jews had elaborate network of influence in the industry such that the scheme of things was as easy and straight forward as was for the author in joining the entrance coaching center and finally securing a seat in the government endowed engineering college. He recounts that as a member of a privileged community, many things ‘just happened’, and the contrary was a ‘surprise’ to him. He concluded that his experience in the US made him understand the ‘necessity’ of choice of his Dalit colleague during his Predegree days.

The social capital makes your journey seamless. Many things you just didn’t know. It just happens. It happens through an Uncle here or an Aunt there. Average individuals cannot make it without a social circle of influence. Since the caste-system does not allow interbreeding, each caste need to generate ‘social capital’ of its own to be at par with others. This is more so in states where caste is an important social determinant.

Reservation or any affirmative action is not a poverty alleviation program. Rather, it is designed to generate what is known as ‘social capital’ for group of the society who have been deprived of opportunities for generations for centuries. Reservation is not directed to the individual, but to the community as a whole. It should continue as long that community’s historical social disadvantages cease to exist. For a community to achieve enough social capital, multiple people of that community need to be in positions of influence. Its endpoint is the community, not the individual.

Jobs and positions in a society does not exist in vacuum. It is the direct reflection of the population strength of a society. If Brahmins alone constituted the population of India, the government would not require the staff strength it requires at present. The bench strength of the governmental instruments is proportional to the demography of the nation. If a particular community dominate the instruments of a state they will create a social capital of reciprocal influence to perpetuate their hold.  The development of rigid caste system from an egalitarian Buddhist society itself is the evidence of this phenomenon. If this scenario goes on the nation would soon or later have erupted into violence. India’s founding fathers visualized reservation as a way to neutralise the asymmetrical privileges enjoyed by a minority for centuries. It is a safety valve for the deprived to hold on to the Indian state, and not rebel like the tribals in the Maoist belt of the country.

There is no pan India Maoism precisely because there is an elaborate system of reservations that allow the socially underprivileged communities to rise the social ladder. This is quite the contrary to the pre-independent India- because caste forbade social mobility in pre-independent era. Presently, on the contrary, caste aids social mobility.

The most economical solution for upper caste to combat reservation is to intermarry with communities of the lower caste. If intermarriages become seamless and commonplace, the state would not be able to discriminate the upper caste based on caste. Reservation would cease to exist if such a phenomenon become universal.

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