Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Feb 12, 2019
India and China: Meritocracy vs reservation

The expeditious passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill and subsequent approvals to grant ten percent reservation in government jobs and higher education to economically weaker sections of the general category of citizens attracted great attention and debate. In the backdrop of this expansion of quotas to the non-backward poor, an article in a leading newspaper bemoaned the demise of meritocracy in India while exulting in China’s promotion of meritocracy in that country. While advising India to nurture talent and shun quotas in order to bring prosperity and transformation in the nation, it referred to an on-going Harvard research project comparing China and India that is “likely to confirm that the difference between the two nations lies in meritocracy and state capacity”.

The newspaper article quotes from Daniel Bell, author of ‘The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy’. Bell’s work found that ‘a relentless pursuit of meritocracy through high quality education and placing talented persons in crucial spots in the country’s governance has hugely enhanced the state’s leadership capacity.’ This focus on meritocracy assisted China in achieving larger efficiencies, eliminating poverty and turning China into a middle-class nation. Despite conceding that a democracy is constrained to wrestle with the challenge of combining efficiency with fairness, the article concludes that had India “diverted some of its political energy away from reservations and focused more on placing the most talented officials in the vital sectors of education and governance, the ordinary citizen would have been much better off”.

Looking at the past 70-odd years of independent India, it is clear that this country has chosen to abandon the path of merit in public services and has over time both expanded and deepened its adherence to the reservation road.

The latest initiative also recognises the miscalculation that in the attempt to ‘right the wrong caste discriminations of the past’, a new ‘hidden class injury’ had ‘unwittingly’ got inflicted that had to be corrected. This inventive step has also triggered the debate, as cited above, between the votaries of merit and quotas.

The origins of meritocracy are old. Outside India, it dates back to Confucius, probably the first thinker to crystallise the concept that governance should be in the hands of the meritorious and that power and privilege should not be distributed on the basis of birth and pedigree. The idea found favour with Plato in the Republic and in the persona of the philosopher king. Later, both Aristotle and Voltaire approved the ‘merit’ concept. In India, the varna system that later degenerated into the caste system parceled jobs on the basis of individual skills. In a utopian situation, therefore, there appears to be wide, and almost universal, agreement that merit must be the determinant of professional mobility in life. It marked a definite advance over the distribution of power and privileges on the basis of birth and blue blood. It gave great advantages such as quality, efficiency and good governance to public as well as non-public organisations. The two most successful examples that apparently demonstrate the success of such policy are Singapore and China. Starting almost from very ordinary levels of governance, Singapore now has one of the highest living standards in the world with first class education, health, welfare systems and good, stable governance. Similarly, China, in the last three decades, clocked the fastest economic growth in human history and converted a poor nation into a prosperous one.

Human nature, however, has been proven to be highly fragile. It has natural proneness to seek a better deal for self, for kin and for those whom one cherishes more than the others. Unfortunately, meritocracy does not seem to be equipped to take care of these human frailties.

History is replete with instances that resoundingly prove this truth. India’s own varna system – based, to begin with, on meritocracy – was distorted to be converted into the caste system based on birth. Those who were at the helm of affairs unleashed a sinister plot to restrict power and patronage to a small coterie. As its practice continued for centuries, it mutated into more and more severe forms of segregation and oppression. Aristotle, one of the greatest human minds, euologised the pursuit of excellence but argued in favour of slavery. The Indian Civil Service, introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century, and based entirely on merit, was exemplary in maintenance of law and order and in perpetrating the hold of the British Raj, but drove more and more Indians into penury. It brought little prosperity and happiness in the common citizens’ lives. The problem with meritocracy, it transpired, was not that it did not have virtues, but that humans who put it into practice, displayed Hobbesian brutish self-interest.

Meritocracy, while as a concept, is very attractive, also runs into problems of measurement and implementation. Different jobs would have varied competencies. As a consequence, yardsticks for measuring those competencies become vital. Benchmarks used may be inadequate in assessing true competence or may have in-built biases transferred to the benchmarks from the subconscious of the creators. For example, a written and oral examination and horse riding used for selecting civil servants or police officers may be good to establish certain qualities of body and mind, but may not sufficiently reflect their fitness in certain instances where physical courage, integrity or moral virtue are prime requirements in the face of undue pressures. Moreover, the reliability of the authority/authorities that assess merit may be a further point of concern. The recent incidents of disputes in regard to selection of judges is a case in point. For these reasons, standardised assessments have been censured for failing to measure an individual’s creativity, initiative, sloth or industry and ingrained prejudices that would impact judgment. Meritocracy has also been criticised as “nothing but a post-modern version of social Darwinism”. Its pursuit drives social inequality deeper into society because it believes that just as human evolution moves through a process of natural selection, so also social institutions ought to be devised through the concept of survival of the fittest. That does not leave much scope for the cherished constitutional concepts of justice, equality and equal opportunity.

In any country, opportunities are not equally distributed. Countries where higher education comes at great cost, less well-off students would be left out because they would find such education unaffordable. And as a further consequence, they would not be able to compete for the top jobs. For example, in the 1950s, one-fifth of all judges in the US Supreme Court were either from Yale or Harvard universities. “Meritocracy” takes as its core an assumption an equality that does not exist.

It is, therefore, necessary to understand that despite meritocracy being an available alternative, nations across the world adopted democracy as the mode of governance, because meritocracy was so unreliable in delivering justice to all. What history repeatedly taught an observer of politics was that if you do not have a say in decision making, it is most likely that the decision will not be made for you.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that the theory of reservations, while ensuring some equality of opportunity, impacts quality and efficiency. Evidently, the country has acquiesced in a trade-off between equity in public jobs and merit in the private sector. Reservations given pertain to public services while meritocracy has full opportunity to play itself out in the private sector. In future, expansion in the number of public jobs would be limited. Most formal jobs are likely to get created in the private sector. It would be interesting to watch what kind of global excellence the private sector is able to achieve in terms of innovation, creativity and businesses.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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