Friday, 2 June 2006

Apart from posting two more pieces on the blog - the interview with Dalit activist Chandrabhan Prasad is particularly interesting, even if I say so myself - I have a bit of good news to share. My book has been published by Penguin and it's out in the bookstores. It felt good to see it there. It's called The Backroom Brigade: How a few intrepid entrepreneurs brought the world to India.
It basically tells the story of how the BPO industry started and grew to where it is today. It's not a management tome nor a how-to kind of a book, but more like a current history story told in a chatty style.

We do want that education


It is perhaps a measure of the myopia that marks policy-making in India, that a controversy has brought to the fore an issue that the country should have been grappling with anyway. The issue of higher education infrastructure, for instance, is being talked about now only because of the decision to reserve 27.5 per cent seats in all Central higher education institutions for other backward classes (OBCs). The number of seats are to be increased so that no one loses out.

That's easier said than done, as the government itself is realising. The Delhi University vice-chancellor has said that it will take three years for the University to expand the infrastructure to cope with the increased load. So now, the oversight committee headed by Veerappa Moily will study the situation and work out a roadmap for doing this.

But why have we reached such a situation in the first place? The strain on the higher education infrastructure would have come regardless of caste-based quotas. Why didn't we prepare for it?

India's access ratio in higher education (the number of students as a proportion of population in the eligible age group of 18-23) is a laughable eight per cent, against 35-55 per cent in most developed countries. India plans to dominate the world economic stage with these kind of numbers?

The University Grants Commission's Tenth Five Year Plan in 2002 had planned to increase the access ratio to double digits-10 per cent-by 2007. That, the then UGC vice-chairman Arun Nigavekar had estimated, would have meant bringing in 14 million students into the higher education stream. This newspaper has reported that there is a 15 per cent increase in students passing out of school every 10 years and that the Human Resource Development ministry expects this to double in the next decade. The financial implications of this are enormous-close to Rs 12,000 crore, Nigavekar had estimated in 2002.

Can the public sector education system alone do this? Certainly not on its own.

Sure, no country has expanded its higher education infrastructure at the pace India has. Much of it has happened in the public sector, but the private sector has also played a significant role. Unfortunately, successive governments have done little to actively encourage private initiatives in education or let a vibrant market develop in that sector. If it had allowed that it is likely that the issue of lack of access of disadvantaged groups to education would not have come up at all. The current problem (and resistance to quotas) is as much a demand-supply mismatch one as it is a social one.

It's now time to start fashioning an environment that will encourage and facilitate the development of a vibrant market in education, which will supplement government efforts in primary, secondary and higher levels.

Why not revive the lapsed Private Universities Bill (introduced in the mid-1990s), which enabled registered societies, public trusts and companies to set up self-financing universities with their own curriculum, fee structure and degrees, under the benign supervision of the UGC? That's the kind of system the country needs.

It doesn't mean that the state withdraws from the field-why, even an ardent open economy advocate like Montek Singh Ahluwalia wants a hike in public spending on higher education -but rather, expands the market to increase supply.

Increasing the role of the private sector will also ensure that the curriculum is more in tune with what the job market requires; something that is not easily done in the government system. The problem of the lack of employability of our youth-regardless of caste-is a result of this.

It's not that the private sector is always more efficient. For all those private institutions that are doing sterling work, there are equal numbers which are extortionist and exploitative. The quality of education in quite a few leaves much to be desired. And there are several fly-by-night operators.

Unfortunately, attempts to regulate it only seem to foster a licence and inspector raj that encourages corruption even as it remains ineffective. The line between regulation and intervention is very fine but it is one that will have to be drawn.

Will creating a market solve the problem of access overnight? It won't. The problem is too huge and complex. It will take years -maybe even a decade-for a robust, fair market to develop.

But one thing is clear-education cannot be a public sector monopoly. The country and the economy have too much at stake to let this happen. Too much time has already been lost and since the benefits won't be immediate, the time to move in the right direction is right now.

"Pvt sector should integrate Dalits in the supply chain"

As India Inc grapples with the sceptre of job quotas for backward classes, some activists are trying to change the paradigm of the debate. Dalits should become entrepreneurs, Dalit scholar Chandrabhan Prasad tells Seetha, and the private sector can lend a helping hand by giving them preference in the supply chain.

# Do job reservations in the private sector have any relevance?

Dalits as a community should start thinking beyond working for others and start thinking of becoming businessmen and hiring others.

# Do they have a tradition of entrepreneurship?

There are many entrepreneurs, but they are small players. The only traditional business activity was leather processing. Most of those working in this area are in Agra and some have large companies. They prospered during World War Two, but post independence, the bania lobby took over the trade and Dalits have become sub-suppliers to them.

# How can Dalit entrepreneurship be fostered?

By integrating them in the supply chain. If the private sector has a problem with job reservations, why don't they start by making Dalits partners in the business by seeking supplies from them. Keep 5% or 10% outsourced services for Dalits. Hindustan Lever has 43,000 employees and two lakh dealers. Obviously, the latter is a larger pool and will create less displacement. Then there won't be so much social polarisation. It won't become an emotive issue.

I know someone working in a small factory making gear stick covers for Eicher tractors. This is sold to a wholesale dealer for Rs 5 a piece. He sells it to Eicher for Rs 10. If Eicher buys directly from a Dalit manufacturer, without compromising on quality, it can buy it for Rs 7.50. Both gain Rs 2.50.

Assuming a HLL dealer get a 1% commission, he can earn a minimum of over Rs 60 lakh a year. A Dalit can take up this dealership, taking less commission than others. Don't replace existing dealers, but when new dealerships are given out, reserve some for Dalits.

# So, they will need special privileges even here?

Yes, because the system of enterprise and trade requires traditional social networking. Dalits are not in the social loop. So industry has to make a conscious effort to bring them into the supply chain.

The American experience is so inspiring. Now, what 33 million Blacks spend annually in the market is equal to what 1 billion Indians produce annually. People say that affirmative action has saved the American economy because it has created a new class of aggressive consumers.

Similarly, if a Dalit is linked with HLL and Eicher, he will prosper and buy - not a Mercedes immediately - but a Maruti 800, a Videocon television and will build a house in his village. Whatever every empowered Dalit earns will go back to the market.

# Do Dalit entrepreneurs face discrimination in the market?

People may not practise untouchability. But if there is a manufacturer named C B Ram and another named C B Aggarwal, I will unconsciously start wondering and may opt for Aggarwal. It may not be deliberate. Many try to keep their identity hidden because of fear. The fear may be wrong but the very fact that it is there means there is some social basis for that.

# Dalit activists argue that the condition of Dalits has worsened post liberalisation.

They are right. Government downsizing after 1991 has hit Dalits very hard. With job reservations, they were assured of employment. That has stopped.

But instead of fighting liberalisation, Dalits must use it to their benefit. The fittest vehicle to get into mainstream society is the Indian rupee. Society will accept only empowered Dalits - wearing good clothes, living in good houses, exuding confidence.

# To become entrepreneurs, Dalits will need education, training which many of them don't have.

Lets start with areas where no formal education or complex skills are required. Dalits can start with this, earn enough to educate their children who will then not need reservations.

Coming together through business is much more reliable than any social reform law. The Dalit bourgeoisie will eliminate all social tensions. If the big industrialists understand this, it will be good.