You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Devangshu Datta: Social engineering and bigotry

Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

The Economist recently quoted a Tennessee shopkeeper who described Barack Obama as a “F**ing N***”. Those words and the person they were directed at, together summed up the limits of social engineering.

Obama could not have been elected without the Civil Rights Movement and the social engineering it triggered. However, though the US’ social engineering reduced racial bias, it did not eliminate bigotry. The Tennessee shopkeeper’s words hark back 50 years, to a time when racists reviled a charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King in exactly the same terms.

The timeframes required to re-engineer social attitudes are mind-boggling. When a black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a Montgomery (Alabama) bus to a white man in 1955, the 48-year-old Obama was not even a glint in his parents’ eyes. Parks’ arrest sparked a bus-boycott, orchestrated by King. That led directly to desegregation and affirmative action.

India started its social engineering experiments even earlier. Gandhiji was preaching about the evil of untouchability in the 1920s. Legal equality and affirmative action through reservation have been embedded in the Indian Constitution since its adoption.

Sixty years later, it’s evident that those social engineering efforts have not been entirely successful. The reservation concept was flawed from inception in its definition of eligibility criteria. It ignored the issue of high-caste poverty, for one.

High-caste poverty continues to be ignored, leading to massive resentment. Increasingly, arbitrary definitions of caste-eligibility have also been adopted. The concept of the “creamy layer” is prone to leaks, given inefficiencies of governance.

Yet, flawed as it may be, the social engineering embodied in reservations has created routes out of poverty for millions. It has empowered the previously marginalised. Mayawati has a genuine shot at becoming Prime Minister someday. That would have been plain unthinkable for Dr Ambedkar, or even Jagjivan Ram.

Urbanisation, and the mixing it enforces, has also lowered many barriers. Most cubicle-dwellers neither know nor care about the antecedents of canteen staff. Nevertheless, bigotry persists. Many still baulk at the thought of marrying out of caste. Professional descriptions like leather-worker and sweeper are commonly employed as insults.

These examples show that social engineering is long-gestation. Any analysis of the Women’s Reservation Bill has to start from that context. It is undeniable gender discrimination exists. Across India, women lag in terms of education; the population gender ratio is unfavourable. In many professions, women are paid less. Domestic violence ranging from wife-beating to honour-killings and dowry murders is endemic.

It would be clearly beneficial if these evils were removed, and the imbalances corrected. The Women’s Reservation Bill is supposed to energise the process of reform and correction. But it could take decades before outcomes, favourable or otherwise, are apparent.

The immediate outcome is that more women will enter Parliament. Given dynastic biases, the beneficiaries will probably be members of political families. Will those ladies do right by their under-privileged sisters? Panchayat reservation hasn’t noticeably accelerated the uplift of rural women and that has been in force since 1993.

There may have been other ways to correct gender imbalances. Affirmative action aimed at educating girls and adult women may have produced quicker returns. Adapting micro-finance models to target female entrepreneurs may also have been more direct.

Chances are, the Bill and its efficacy will still be debated in 2050. But while more women in Parliament may not do much good in the short term, it cannot do any harm. At worst, the new MPs will emulate the men they replace by ignoring their responsibilities, screaming and sitting in the Well. If so, at the minimum, more women bailiffs will be hired. So, that is one guaranteed positive outcome.

First Published: Sat, March 13 2010. 00:05 IST