BOMBAY — The United States has long been divided over what it calls “affirmative action,” a system of racial preferences intended to overcome the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination against black Americans. India is now becoming divided in much the same way, and for much the same reason — the emerging system of “reserved places” aimed at redressing centuries of caste discrimination.

India’s good intentions, like America’s affirmative action policies, are misguided. The underlying question is whether merit as a criterion for advancement is doomed when legacies of racial and caste discrimination exist. Are those who agitate for affirmative action fighting for something that is more a quack remedy than a real solution?

In fact, India’s “reserved places” scheme operates as a deliberate smoke screen, for it allows the government cleverly to mask the real issue, which is access to primary education for India’s disadvantaged.

Were adequate primary education available to India’s poor — or, for that matter, to America’s poor urban blacks — there would be no need for reserved places in higher education and elsewhere.

Indeed, any Indian able to read this article should consider himself lucky, because India’s politicians have succeeded in keeping a majority of the country’s population thoroughly illiterate (as well as poor and unhealthy). Instead of providing quality elementary education for all, our policymakers are more concerned with enacting caste-based measures aimed at short-term political gains.

Since India gained independence 58 years ago, billions of rupees have been doled out in numerous educational policies, but general primary education remains abysmal. According to a report released by the National Institute for Educational Planning Administration in 2005, 8.1 percent of primary schools in India have no classrooms, while 17.5 percent have only one teacher. In addition, 76.2 percent of schools do not have clean drinking water, while 14.6 percent lack electricity. Less than 4 percent of all primary schools have computers.

Likewise, the Bombay-based nongovernment organization Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report 2005, which was prepared after a survey in 28 states and union territories, reveals that 35 percent of children in the 7-14 age group are unable to read simple paragraphs, while 41 percent failed to solve a simple two-digit subtraction problem or a division problem. Instead of preparing a pool of educated workers for the future, the government’s policies have given rise to an illiterate and innumerate population.

These findings raise damning suspicions about the literacy levels that successive Indian governments have claimed to achieve. If the state of primary education is this bad, will the disadvantaged classes ever stand a chance?

Moreover, according to Vinod Raina, a member of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE), 80 million of India’s 200 million children between 6-14 years of age are not in school at all. Of the remaining 120 million, only 20 million are expected to reach the 10th year of school, with the rest dropping out along the way. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently expressed dismay over the fact that “only 47 out of 100 children enrolled in class I reach class VIII.”

The government has pledged in its National Common Minimum Program to raise public expenditure on education to 6 percent of GDP. However, recent years have witnessed a steady decline in educational spending, from 4 percent of gross domestic product in 2001-02 to 3.8 percent in 2002-04 and 3.5 percent in 2004-05.

Quality education is the single greatest asset that a nation can give to its people. It also happens to be the least expensive and most cost-effective support that government can provide. But Indian politicians’ interests appear to lie elsewhere.

After all, with the functional literacy rate at only 37.5 percent, they can easily manipulate the votes of uneducated people with alcohol, slogans and intimidation.

So the protests by highly educated Indians against “reserved places” is not only wrongheaded, but dangerous as well. Unless India’s highly educated stand up for better schools for all, protests against caste preferences will only succeed in heightening tensions and selling newspapers, rather than improving the lives of India’s destitute.

The government is probably happy with these protests, for they divert attention from the real issue — the authorities’ utter failure to address the fundamental problem.

As in America, the issue is not racial and class reservations and preferences, but ensuring high-quality primary education for all, rich and poor alike. As India’s educated revolt against preferences, they should not do so in a way that reinforces illiteracy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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