India Pits Affirmative Action Against Castes As India's economy grows and its society modernizes, the government faces a crucial question: How do you make a vast and diverse society more inclusive, so that the fruits of progress can be enjoyed by all? How do you raise up the two-thirds of the 1.1 billion members of the population who are lower-caste?
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India Pits Affirmative Action Against Castes

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India Pits Affirmative Action Against Castes

India Pits Affirmative Action Against Castes

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

India is growing fast as an economic power, but it is still burdened by an arcane caste system. That system locks hundreds of millions of people on the bottom rungs of society. Well now the Indian government has decided to do something about that. Today it introduced an affirmative action law in Parliament. The plan is to give lower caste Indians much greater access to federally funded higher education.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi, the law has created an outcry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)

PHILIP REEVES: A crowd of students gathers outside India's Parliament in the heart of the capital. Police, armed with heavy wooden sticks and water cannon, block their path. Scuffles break out. There were similar protests in other large Indian cities today, including Calcutta and Mumbai.

They're about a government plan to greatly increase the number of places reserved for India's lower castes at federally funded universities and similar institutions, like med schools. Students, such as 20-year-old Sajeed Malhatra(ph), say this system of reservations is divisive.

SAJEED MALHATRA: Why do we need reservations? Why do we need to further divide our society? We need to unite our society, like as one true Indian. Do we really care on our college campus who's from which caste?

ARJUN SINGH: A small but irrevocable step is being taken today.

REEVES: Inside Parliament, India's Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh today placed a draft law before a boisterous chamber. It was an opportunity, he said, that millions of Indians have been looking forward to. It will mean in some educational institutions, nearly half the places will be reserved for lower castes.

Udit Raj campaigns for the interests of Dalits, the group of Indians once ostracized as untouchables. He says this kind of affirmative action is the only way to breakdown caste barriers.

UDIT RAJ: This (unintelligible) our country, that without reservation they cannot get participation, it is a matter of participation.

REEVES: A quota setting aside a certain number of government jobs and other positions for Dalits has existed for years. By increasing the reserved places in higher education the idea is to reach out to the next level up, a huge category of people termed Other Backward Castes. Udit Raj is in favor of this. After all, he says, reserving jobs for Dalits has proved effective.

RAJ: They are sitting side by side with others, with upper castes. They are dining together. They are having tea together. So you say integration. I look at it, that's integration.

RAVINDER KAUR: You know I have been seeing students in my own classroom for the last 10 years and most of them would say that, you know, they don't know what the caste of the person sitting next to them is. But after this they will.

REEVES: That's Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor. She believes the proposed law reinforces caste divisions at a time when they should be disappearing.

KAUR: People will be wanting favors from the government on the basis of their caste, which is exactly what we wanted to get rid of. I think people should be given favors on the basis of low socioeconomic status or poverty or other things, but not really today on the basis of their caste.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)

REEVES: Protests have been held in India off and on for several months, particularly involving upper caste students who believe the quota law penalizes merit. At this recent New Delhi demonstration, people complained that setting aside much sought after university places would also lower standards at a time when Indian expertise is at a premium. Among them was Dr. Jitender Bali, an ophthalmologist.

JITENDER BALI: Don't compromise on quality. That is brand India. That is what the world wants. The world wants our knowledge, our minds, our ideas.

REEVES: Electoral politics are playing their part. India's ruling Congress Party is keen to win support among the mass of lower caste Indian voters. Mythili Bhusnurmath of India's Financial Express newspaper.

MYTHILI BHUSNURMATH: It was clearly a political gambit. Unfortunately, because no political party can afford to oppose it, everybody's just going along willy-nilly and all of us will suffer as a consequence.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)

REEVES: The proposed law will now be thrashed out by a parliamentary committee and also for some time to come in the streets of India.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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