In The Armchair

Reservations – The Right Way

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on December 15, 2006

Reservations are back in the news, and have been for a while. The Congress government has proved resolute and determined to implement reservations in sweeping steps. There are multiple consequences, including nationwide protests, accusations of a sacrifice of merit, concerns about the impact on the economy should reservations be approved for the private sector, increased polarization and mutual distrust among various socioeconomic classes.

The reason given for reservations is that in the current socioeconomic milieu, different categories of people face different challenges in obtaining education and employment. The social and economic obstacles are hypothesized to be so large that, even if education assistance is substituted for reservations, the impact would not be sufficient to ensure sustainable overall equality.

Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action (MIRAA)

One question that arises often is, why only caste? It would appear that the optimal way to ensure equality would be to use a basket of indicators including caste, gender, economic status etc. One such basket, named Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action (MIRAA), has been suggested by Prof. Purushottam Agrawal. The argument for using caste alone is that caste is the biggest indicator of underdevelopment. Indices such as MIRAA could certainly be more effective in improving the condition of people than caste alone, since they would allow reservations to be effectively targeted at the people who need them the most.

To understand MIRAA, we first consider the basket of socioeconomic indicators it suggests. The primary considerations when choosing such indicators should be as follows:

  1. The indicators should be indicative of education and employment levels
  2. Information on the indicators should be readily available

The indicators considered by Prof. Agrawal under MIRAA are the following:

  1. Caste/Tribe
  2. Gender
  3. Economic status
  4. Kind of schooling received
  5. Region where candidate spent formative years
  6. Educational status of parents/family

Each candidate is awarded 0 to 5 points based on his/her status on each of these indicators, for a maximum of 30 points. This then forms 30% of the score used by any institution to determine admissions.

Debating MIRAA

This system is already being debated on Tehelka. Praise for the system includes the fact that is is proven: Jawaharlal Nehru University has used it successfully in the past. The system is a self-organizing score in the sense that it targets the right sections of society in a manageable way. The need to target the right people is mentioned by several readers on the Tehelka debate. The system also appears to balance the needs of the group and the rights of the individual. Put another way, 70% of the final admission score is “merit” based.

Criticisms include one from Amit Sen Gupta, another commentator on Tehelka, who believes that:

Targeting of affirmative action to a section within “backward” castes will be used as a powerful tool to deny the benefits to as many as possible

and that the system would be a non-starter on a nation-wide scale. Some readers on Tehelka also expressed concerns about the exact weights given to various indicators.

The points raised by Mr. Gupta bear thinking about. One strength of MIRAA is that it is a single transparently computable score. This is good for scalability. MIRAA also does not explicitly target a section within backward castes. It targets those who are suffering the most; as an implicit consequence, it will target backward castes. Within backward castes, it would target specific sections, but this is still implicit. The system as a whole remains simple, based on a single score, and thus not prone to overly high levels of manipulation.

The unstated but most contentious issue is likely the low overall weight given to caste/tribe – just 5 points out of 30, or in the bigger picture, just 5% of the total candidate score. Resolving this bone of contention is crucial; most of the difficulties with MIRAA are likely to be about the relative weighting of the indices and about the total percentage of the MIRAA score included in the total candidate score.

Objections by other readers serve to strengthen this assertion. The exact weights used to compute the score here were selected based on the individual reasoning, personal experience, or personal preferences of a person or some persons. The 30% number was arrived at the same way.

In a word, MIRAA as it stands today is a subjective system.

Making MIRAA Objective: the Modified MIRAA Score

Turning MIRAA into an objective system requires only a little tweaking of the system itself. It would, in addition, involve some survey sampling and statistical analysis.

To understand how to make MIRAA an objective system consider what we mean when we say that a person belonging to a certain category, say an SC candidate, is at a disadvantage compared to a forward caste (FC) candidate.

An objective way of defining the amount of disadvantage is the following. In an examination, suppose the average SC candidate scores 12% less than the average FC candidate. Then the SC candidate is at a disadvantage of 12 percentage points compared to the FC candidate. In the above situation, the SC candidate should get a MIRAA score of 12. This is the correct score because it neutralizes the real disadvantage the average SC candidate has relative to the FC candidate. It is objective because the score is completely data driven; personal opinions don’t come into the picture. The data and methods used to establish the actual disadvantage would be a matter of public record.

The MIRAA set of indices can be used to refine the above further. For example, SC women may, on the average, score 18% less than FC men, while the difference for SC men may be 10%. SC women should get a MIRAA score of 18, while SC men should get a MIRAA score of 10.

The same system can be extended to include all 6 variables. In this modified MIRAA system, there is no artificial percentage attached to group needs, such as the 30% in the original MIRAA. Their modified MIRAA score is is simply added to their score in the entrance exam to determine the candidate’s final score. This final score may add up to more than 100, but that is not a problem if rank (based on the final score) is used to determine admission.

The modified MIRAA system handles the balance of merit and group needs in a more correct way by restoring to each candidate exactly the amount of merit that he/she was deprived of by the socioeconomic system.

Potential Drawbacks of the Modified MIRAA Plan

This method appears to have a drawbacks as well.

First, it appears to reward poor performance. The strata that perform the worst would have the highest MIRAA score. Thus it could be argued that this system may actually encourage poor performance. This objection is not valid in reality however. A counterpoint is that, within each stratum, candidates are selected by fair competition according to merit. Thus there is a strong incentive for each candidate to perform higher, and those who perform lower within each stratum would fail to obtain seats.

The second objection is that there is no single standardized exam in India (analogous to the SAT in the USA) on which the difference in score between different strata could be evaluated. This objection can be resolved by using statistical methods (such as “grading on a curve”) to normalize the scholastic achievements in different educational boards. Alternatively, if it is felt that there are fundamentally different categories of examinations and the score should be different in each, several categories of exams could be created, with a different table of modified MIRAA scores for each.

Discussion and Conclusions

The existing reservation system does not necessarily get resources to those who need them the most; however, some sort of assistance must be provided to those who have historically suffered from socioeconomic discrimination. Prof. Agrawal’s suggestion of MIRAA takes 6 important indices, as well as merit, into account when computing a score, and is simple enough to be implemented transparently. If implemented, it would be instrumental in giving specific socioeconomic strata of people the assistance they need. However, MIRAA as it stands today faces some objections that can be traced back to the subjective origins of its scoring system.

A “Modified MIRAA” score is proposed that achieves the same objectives as the original MIRAA system but eliminates the subjectivity of the score, potentially increasing its acceptability. The Modified MIRAA is also perfectly fair: it compensates each socioeconomic stratum for exactly the loss in merit imposed by the socioeconomic system. As a consequence it also balances merit and socioeconomic status in a natural way. The price paid for the objectivity of the Modified MIRAA score is data collection and statistical analysis; however, this could also be done using simple and transparent protocols.

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4 Responses

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  1. Sujai said, on December 19, 2006 at 7:12 am

    I have already posted this message at desiCriticts. I am reposting it here just in case.

    Hi Armchair:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with you when you say- “Each class of people is lobbying for whatever gives them the greatest advantage.”

    Having said that, I do believe that it is the responsibility of certain privileged, majorities, the ruling section, the elite, to make provisions and means to accommodate others into the mainstream. The policies, duties and rights should take this into account. We pay taxes for certain reason- most payers would like to get the greatest advantage, however, the state imposes taxes.

    Coming to teaching history that is another topic in itself and also something that I am keen on. You ask- how should history be taught? and then you add:

    The question now is, how do you teach this in history classes without establishing in young students an inner revulsion for their own country and without dividing opinions along caste-oriented fracture lines?

    This is quite interesting. You have identified one of the problems on why we shy away from teaching certain realities to our kids. There is a saying-Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it [George Santayana]. Most of European and American teachings in schools are somehow based on this saying. Germans have gone overboard in teaching their kids the evils of fascism and even nationalism, so much so that ‘patriotic’ Germans were frowned upon. The same is true for Japanese. [There is a national revivalism of certain shades, with extreme caution, that is now picking up after years of teaching the evils of their own nationalism.]

    We in Indians do not seem to believe that our kids can be mature and responsible when they grow up. We tend to protect them from all evils and all realities. A culture that grows up not knowing what forces could play upon them, what forces acted on their ancestors in the same land, have a great potential to repeat that history. This country is growing up not knowing the forces that caused the widespread discrimination- which is unique in the history of mankind, given its depth, extent, longevity and its institutionalization through religion and philosophy itself. This country is growing up not knowing what happened during Partition and why it happened? By bringing certain scapegoats into the picture to transfer the entire blame, we are losing the opportunity to learn from it. We are paving way for far greater dangers, very similar to the ones that happened on this land, by not learning from it and by not teaching it.

    Can one not teach the realities without affecting the morale of national identities?

    As you rightly point out, one can condemn a deplorable action by showcasing how greatly we have won over it, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dr. Ambdedkar, etc. However, there is a necessity to teach the evils as well and discuss it in classrooms. Touching upon it superficially, limiting oneself to show things in positive light is not going to yield any results. The kid will learn it the way he learns that “in 1526, we had First Battle of Panipat”. Another factoid for the exam. I do not agree with you when you convey that we need to tread this path carefully. I do not see any reason why we need to teach our kids only the proud things of India- they should even know the deplorable things of India, both in present and in past. The younger generations need to learn from it, be able to handle it, and carry both glories and burdens of this land. Hopefully, we will have a mature nation that can pick up the waste and throw it into the nearest garbage can.

    This problem is faced by other countries as well. The USA’s solution to its own history of slavery is to focus not on the atrocities it committed, but on how it rose above slavery.

    The issues of slavery and racial discrimination is discussed in American schools. Germans go a step further and talk very negatively about their Nazi regime- and this is inculcated in almost every kid. Japanese resort to similar teachings.

    I don’t think the answer is to establish guilt in young minds via a focus on the atrocities of the past.

    I don’t think the motive is to establish guilt in young minds, but rather instill responsibility that comes with certain atrocities and mistakes of the past. We seem to easily lap up and bask in the inherited glories of the past, how come we are shying away from taking up the responsibilities and accountabilities that we inherit from the past?

    I have read your article on the blog. I found your views very interesting. I find them reasonable. However, I tend to agree with Amit Sen Gupta. Your modified MIRAA is also interesting. I think that is the direction we should move towards over a period of time. Such methodologies can be taken up by corporate India. Both the methodologies you discuss assume certain evenhandedness on part of the people who are arbiters of this mechanism. I seriously doubt if that evenhandedness is relied upon. Reservations have been ‘imposed’ because we don’t seem to see that fair and equitable approach towards providing access to lower castes. The present-day protests from younger generations corroborate this view. Some young upper caste doctors were chanting away a song in which ‘they would like to show the lower caste their place’ and were carrying the brooms to show what their place is. The day we have a newer generations growing up with the needed evenhandedness, we can start looking at MIRAA. But given the kind of education our kids receive I seriously doubt that. To get a glimpse into the kind of young generation we are creating, you just need to look at some of the comments DesiCritics receives on some of the contentious issues.

  2. Armchair Guy said, on December 19, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Sujai,

    Thanks for your comments.

    On reservations:

    I think part of the problem in discussing reservations is the assumption of subversiveness on both side. The upper castes think the SC/ST/OBCs simply want a free ride and discount everything said in support of reservations. The SC/ST/OBCs think the upper castes just want to trample them at any cost and reject anything said against reservations. This is why I am reluctant to say anything about the correctness of offering reservations. But let me get my feet wet and say that I think some sort of affirmative action is required, but reservations are not flexible enough to be a solution.

    You say in your evaluation of the two MIRAA methodologies:

    Both the methodologies you discuss assume certain evenhandedness on part of the people who are arbiters of this mechanism. I seriously doubt if that evenhandedness is relied upon.

    Actually, I think the MIRAA methodologies are expressly suitable for situations where arbiters are unfair. This is because once the MIRAA tables are published, each candidate would then calculate his/her own MIRAA score and submit it along with proof of belonging to categories. No one else would be able to tamper with the score.

    Although I did not clarify this in the article, using the MIRAA scores also allows for surveillance. If a university is failing to use MIRAA, for example, its student body composition would reflect this and statistical tests could be applied to determine this.

    On teaching history:

    I agree that permanently sugar-coating history is not the right solution, but I don’t think this is what is happening. You cite the examples of the USA, Germany and Japan, and ask:

    Can one not teach the realities without affecting the morale of national identities?

    In India, this problem is unusually difficult because the classrooms are very diverse. Not just diverse in origin, but also in experience and opinion. In the US, the entire classroom opposes slavery. Think how different it would be if half the class had parents who were slavers. The German classroom as a whole opposes Nazism; if half the classroom were Nazis, would the kids be able to get along and remain friendly when being taught about the evils of Nazism?

    Although the evils should be taught, they should be taught in a way that does not polarize Indians right from their schooldays. I don’t think there is any doubt that dwelling on the history caste conflict in the classroom will not promote camaraderie.

    In India, each classroom is a mixture of castes and religions. Where do we stop teaching the “realities”? Our history books teach us that Akbar was an enlightened ruler who supported religious tolerance. We also get an inkling of the reality that this was not true of most Islamic rulers. But should our history books dwell on this? What would that do to religious fraternity in the classroom and beyond? Pakistani kids learn that India is an evil country that made three unprovoked attacks on Pakistan. Should all Indian kids be taught that Pakistan is an evil country?

    I think certain realities are best taught in moderation. Kids can’t learn everything in a classroom; I don’t think there is any Indian who is unaware of the fact that there have been grave inequalities historically; this IS taught in school. Most kids have an idea about this by the time they leave school, and then learn more about it by reading independently.

    Although I think there are problems with teaching history in India, I don’t think the biggest problem is that we should dwell more on contentious issues in the classroom.

    Best Wishes,
    Armchair Guy.

  3. Vikram said, on November 25, 2008 at 6:08 am

    Very nice work man. This was a very objective article, better than my rather passionate one. You pointed out several important details like the fact that lower caste women are at an even bigger disadvantage than lower caste men. I will have to think more about whether MIRAA is perfectly fair as you claim, but it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.

  4. Armchair Guy said, on November 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm


    Thanks for the comment! I’d be particularly interested in any criticisms you may have of what I call the modified MIRAA score. The primary idea was, while Dr. Purushottam’s MIRAA score considers various sub-categories, the points assigned under it are too subjective. The modified score attempts to correct that.

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