The Laws of Manu and semiconductor design

Will affirmative action undermine India's global competitiveness?

Published July 5, 2006 6:50PM (EDT)

Everyone looks at the world through their own prism. Proof of this arrived this morning from iSuppli, a Silicon Valley market research firm that covers the semiconductor industry. In its new quarterly supplement on India, analyst Jagdish Rebello wonders how the current controversy raging in India on an enhanced quota system for lower-caste citizens in institutions of higher education "will affect India's competitive position in the arena of semiconductor design."

Understanding the full implications of that question requires reaching back to the earliest days of India's cultural formation, its struggle for modernization, and the demands and challenges of globalization and competition in high-technology markets. India's version of affirmative action, its "reservation" system, is an extraordinarily potent political issue. By some estimates, more than half the population belong to castes that are or have been discriminated against. But the attempt in 1990 by Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh to institute the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which would have substantially increased the number of "seats" for so-called "Other Backward Classes," "Scheduled Tribes" and "Scheduled Castes," resulted in the self-immolation of protesting students and is credited by some as being the straw that broke the back of Singh's government.

In India, the question of how to heal the social wounds inflicted by millennia of caste prejudice is always bubbling away, but in recent months the reservation system has been put back on the front burner. In August 2005, a Supreme Court decision banned the use of any quota system in private colleges. This was followed by the emergence of a bill in India's Congress that would enforce stronger quotas on both public and private educational institutions.

The battling banners, merit vs. social justice, are familiar to anyone with experience in the wars over affirmative action in the United States. The debate rages in Indian newspapers, blogs the legislature. It touches on the deepest structure of Indian society, dating back to the mythical setting down of the Laws of Manu that codified the caste system, and influencing every political twist and turn of India's political development before and since independence.

But India's newly emergent role in the global economy has added a new spice to the mix. Pump up the reservation system, say the critics, and you hurt India's competitiveness on the world stage. And front and center in this formulation is India's vaunted jewel in the high-tech educational crown, the Indian Institutes of Technology.

The IITs are widely considered to have played a key role in the development of India's famous cadre of software engineers. They are proof both of how effective government support of education can be in nurturing economic growth, and of the premier importance of technological education in the global economy. But according to a widely circulated letter from the alumni association of the Indian Institutes of Technology, the setting aside of more seats at the IITs on the basis of quotas runs the risk of diluting the worldwide "brand recognition" enjoyed by IIT.

"This brand recognition has been hard won," says the letter, "and has played a very important role in the rising international esteem for India and Indians in recent years. We urge the current and future leaders of India to preserve and enhance this great brand by continuing to be uncompromising in the highest standards of education and maintaining this system of meritocracy. Anything else would be against national interest."

For representatives of India's lower castes, the word "meritocracy" has an unsavory ring, conjuring up cultural memories of a society in which only the upper castes were considered to have "merit" of any kind, in a Hindu religious sense, and where education was denied, on principle, to the lower castes. The battle over admissions to IIT, then, is just another venue for the age-old struggle between Brahmin and untouchable.

The breadth and variety of arguments and nuance to the current debate about India's reservation system is just a tad overwhelming for a blog post to ponder, but here is one key point that emerged from this morning's initial exploration. Despite India's prowess in information technology and the image that is popular, at least in the U.S., of the subcontinent as the source of an unlimited supply of cheap knowledge workers, the fact is that India is a woefully undereducated society. Only 8 percent of the nation's 1.1 billion citizens get a college education. Within India there are shortages of every kind of engineer.

This may partially explain why students burn themselves in protest of policies they feel will give competitors the spots in elite educational institutions they don't deserve. But as at least one government official has pointed out, the most sensible way to resolve that problem is not to focus on allowing only the very best, as measured by entrance exams, into the few spaces available, but to greatly expand the number of spaces available to all. That means more universities, more faculty, more educational infrastructure. India's economy is growing by leaps and bounds -- there's no better time to be ambitious.

Viewed from far away, with only a smattering of knowledge about the immensity and complexity of India's history and culture and politics, it seems here that India's chances for being globally competitive in semiconductor design lie not so much in keeping the "undeserving" out of the IITs, but in building more IITs, with room for everyone.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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