Monday, June 20, 2005

Merit Matters

Recently, Shivam Vij reported on a fugitive Indian-origin doctor with the inviting moniker Doctor Death.

What piqued our interest was Shivam's use of this story to pour scorn over those favoring merit over reservations for education and jobs. Dilip chimed in by applauding Shivam for skewering the merit argument as it needs to be skewered. Wow!

Shivam's argument is that Dr. Death wasn't a beneficiary of reservations, yet he turned out incompetent. Hence, "merit" is a poor filter for admission to medical schools.

This argument clearly strains logic. However, we will concede that the converse -- of reservations leading to bad engineers & doctors -- is not valid either.

Reality is that most graduates from medical/engineering schools are alright, whether or not they arrived there using reservations. Furthermore, in real life, when people select a doctor, the only criterion they use is whether he/she can heal them. They couldn't care less how he/she got into a medical school. This is how a free market works, thankfully on merit.

The problem with reservations is a deeper one. It raises issues about how we organize our social order. Is entitlement our governing principle or is it competition? Which leads to success that's more gratifying?

We were thinking last night of an IIT classmate from a Rajasthani community entitled to reservations. This guy didn't need any. He ranked among the top students in a fiercely competitive class populated with very high JEE rankers. Another classmate, child of extreme & flaunted privilege, came in via reservations. He too emerged a fine engineer, but could anyone possibly consider his achievement (&, yes, merit) the same as the former's? That would be ridiculous.

Maybe we still need some reservations to ensure a level playing field. But, lets please not diminish the value of merit in life. Our Rajasthani friend understood merit well & he's the poster child for what social advancement is all about.

We're not afraid of doctors qualified via reservations, not merit. We are terrified of people who think this implies merit doesn't matter. It affirmatively does.

Update: Shivam points out that Reservations are more complex than you think (citing counseling experience at IIT Delhi of Dr. Shobna Sonpar). Two quick thoughts. One, the IIT Shobna Sonpar writes about is the time & place when this blogger was a student there -- clearly, our experiences were very different (although she likely has a privileged view given her role as counselor). Second, the issues she raises are not Dalit-centric as much as they are economic status-centric.


shaun said...

In the face of expected criticism, may I clarify that I did not say merit does not matter. I should know. Had to slog extra hard to get into an elite college, where Christians get admission with 15% marks less than the norm just because it's a Christian institution. With dalits, however, my point is that they have been deprived of the means to acquire merit. You need to see my posting in the context of my previous postings and comments on caste/reservations.

Caste in the newsroom?

Caste and the city

The Ungreat Indian Middle Class

Is there such a thing as a free lunch?

Primary Red said...

Will do. Thanks.

doubtinggaurav said...

While what shivam says appears to be reasonable, it has a fallacy.
He assumes that the group (for which it is intended)have the means to acquire the prerequisites.
For example in IIT's most of the SC's who get admitted are not poor or deprived of means but middle class just like us.
The reason is simple.To prepare for JEE you need a decent education and I dont think poor can even afford that.
So I will think that instead of providing reservations poor (dalit or otherwise) should be provided the means to compete.
Reservation doesn't serve much purpose except for short term political gains.

Nitin said...

A few weeks ago I had posted on how India is facing a crisis of selection.

National underperformance is the inescapable result of choosing entitlement over merit.

India needs a functioning meritocracy to ensure that it realises the promise of a democracy.

shaun said...

Second, the issues she raises are not Dalit-centric as much as they are economic status-centric.

As if being Dalit was not responsible for their economic status.

And they couldn't have been middle class - not all of them. And besides, even if they were, read my Caste and the City link above and you will see how despite being upper caste I have such views. Because I have seen how caste discrimination operates. One thing that reservations does is to bring Dalits into the mainstream, and that is a worthy cause even if compromises merit a bit. The compromise in merit is going to have short term effects but their being brought into the mainstream is going to change things for the entire family.

doubtinggaurav said...

I dont say that Dalits are not poor.What I am saying is Reservation is the abscence of education is useless.
I hope you will realise there is no use giving reservation in jobs, IITs etc. if you can not ensure that everyone has got primary education.
I admit that discrimination exists.
But reservation is surely a wrong remedy for it. Instead of bringing people into mainstream it alienates them, by creating a "us versus them" divide.
About SC's in IITs, from what I could ,they were as poor or as rich as other students.

shaun said...

But reservation is surely a wrong remedy for it. Instead of bringing people into mainstream it alienates them, by creating a "us versus them" divide.

But the divide has always existed. Ever heard of untouchability? A clerk in a government office once told me, "Kalyug aa gaya hai. Hamaray daftar mein afsar chamaar hai aur chaprasi brahman." Trans: It's the dark age in my office, with an untouchable officer and a Brahmin doorkeeper.

As for your point about primary education, you are confusing poverty with discrimination. Dalits face both. But even when educated, discrimination ensures that Dalits don't get the fruits of education the way an upper caste would. You haven't read my story, 'Caste in the newsroom?' It's a case study. The link's given above in a previous comment.

doubtinggaurav said...

Precisely Shivam,
Reservation can not eliminate discrimination, neither can a "only for dalit" movement.
To eliminate discrimination a "all inclusive" social reform is needed.
Tamilnadu witnessed a social reform movement in the 50's unfortunately instead of being inclusive it was exclusive, as a result today while brahiminical predominance is reduced (atleast in politics), discrimination still exists.
Ironically, what Mandal had done is to change the nature of exploitation. Earlier just upper cast was guilty of it, but now even the OBC's (atleast those with affluence) indulge in this.

shaun said...

reservations can reduce discrimination: when you are forced to have a dalit on the lunch table at an office event, you know... you have to change your attitude.

doubtinggaurav said...


Any action by coercion, however well intentioned it may be, never succeeds, or is it that you have forgotten how population control drive backfired due to what Sanjay Gandhi did.


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