December 08, 2005

Price on merit

Thoughts prompted by the recent electoral loss, in Bihar, of a man whom I believe is our savviest politician bar none. Not about him, but in some ways about what he stands for.


In September 1991, I was backpacking through Namibia. One day in Windhoek, I ran into a bustling Indian trade fair. Several Indian exporters and manufacturers had set up booths, and they were thronged by curious Namibians.

Accompanying the businessmen was a delegation from the Trade Fair Authority of India. It was depressingly obvious that most of them had nothing much to do. When we got talking, they related with relish their experiences while travelling on TFAI business: duty free opportunities in Frankfurt, a nice hotel on a Dubai stopover, that sort of thing. But Windhoek bored them. No decent shops, Dilip-bhai!

Two days later, I met the TFAI delegation at a dinner. There, the conversation turned to Indian politics, and to Mandal. A year after it had erupted into a national conflagration, Mandal still fired passions. The delegation leader launched into a long denunciation of reservations. Implementing the Mandal Report, he said, would elevate illiterate and undeserving people to positions of power. You see, he pronounced to his listeners, VP Singh -- upper lip curled in derision -- wants to give "certain kinds of people" -- curled some more -- jobs they are not qualified for. What would happen to merit?

Even today, I remember the rage that flooded over me. Pros and cons of Mandal aside, there was something galling about hearing a lament about merit from this man. Here he was, luxuriating on a taxpayer-paid jaunt, doing nothing except shop for gee-gaws and sip drinks. This man professed concern for merit!

It struck me that in any regime where merit counted, this fellow would be out on his ear. Instead, he was lounging in Windhoek, wringing his hands over the demise of merit.

When Mandal's critics speak of merit, they think that's a foolproof argument against Mandal. But who are these critics? Have they got where they are because of meritorious services rendered? What is the evidence of merit in their work, or around us? Have they applied their merit to understanding what Mandal really says? (Of that, more another time).

Nobody would seriously argue that a society should ignore merit. But to what extent have we honoured merit in our nearly 60 years?

I mean, tot it up.

Some years ago, we watched then Maharashtra Chief Minister Patil-Nilangekar fudge exam results to get his daughter into a dental college. In Bihar, when CM Lalu Yadav was about to be investigated for crimes, he installed his wife as CM. For five years in the '90s, we suffered a remote-controlling Thackeray as the unelected ruler of Maharashtra; his son, nephew and daughter-in-law also rose to prominence, and taxpayers still pay for security for them all. Prime and other Ministers so easily let their foster- and other children use their name and power to get ahead.

Look around you when you step outside. The garbage that meritorious people throw on the road; the potholed state of roads; the seedy air our train stations sport; the surly service you still expect from most public sector institutions -- these features of daily Indian life tell us how much we have valued merit, dating back to before Mandal ever became a concern. What must we say about the builders of that bridge over Goa's Mandovi River, the one that collapsed before it could be used? Were they selected for their merit at bridge-building, and if so, what happened on the Mandovi?

When we say Mandal is an insult to the primacy of merit, we pretend that merit has always been a primary concern. But as we know well, it never has. And as long as it is used to whack Mandal, it never will.


A followup piece will examine some of what's in that Mandal report.


wise donkey said...

when it comes to Politicians during elections, has the question being asked what the person has done? The person is probably standing because of having a parent in the party, or money or muscle power). Where do we have a system of the voters knowing about all the candidates and voting on basis of Merit.

I am not arguing for reservations, but just agreeing with you that, lets put an end to this pretense of the society being perfect.

When Mandal came, all I thought was, hey I would want my doctor to have become a doctor on the basis of merit. And yet today realise that 63% of injections in India are unsafe according to WHO.

Sure Merit is important, but lets give importance to Merit all the time , in all the fields.

Goodpost. looking forward to the followup.

Yazad Jal said...

Two wrongs don't make a right Dilip. Your TFAI guy was obviously a hypocrite. His views on Mandal could be dismissed, but what if somene who was not a sponge said the same thing?

Your other examples are not of merit, but of its absence.

That said, I await your views on the Mandal report.

Dilip D'Souza said...

WiseD, that pretence you mention is precisely what I'm getting at, and I'm glad you picked up on that point.

Yaz, you ask "what if somene who was not a sponge said the same thing?"

I would say (or write) the same thing that you read here. The argument here is not predicated on a sponge saying stuff.

You also say, "Your other examples are not of merit, but of its absence."

That's just my point, and again, like with WiseD, I'm glad you picked up on it. I don't believe we've ever given much of a damn for merit.

Anonymous said...

Just because we havent given a damn about merit.... doesnt mean we continue doing the same. besides the vey meaning of merit is of dubious and argumentative nature. While there is no very obvious measure for merit...reservation schemes do more bad than good anyday

Anonymous said...


Your argument can be summed up as "the world is highly imperfect, so there is no harm in having more imperfections." A variant of this argument has been used against capitalism at least since Marx. Capitalism is highly imperfect, so we should junk it.

The lesson I take from your episode (which you dont care toi draw) is that government servants are coruupt, government wastes public money, government programmes are a cover to swindle more public money. Ergo, we should be reducing the size of government, not recommending more government programmes.

The other lesson I draw is that this guy is highly prejudiced. There are zillions of prejudiced people in India. This should hardly come as a surprise. But if you implication is that ALL those who argue against reservation are really guys who closet casteists, then I am afraid you are another caste-baiter- a la the Dravidianist fascists of TN.

BTW, let me be clear. I dont think the merit argument holds any water. To me the argmuent is more basic. Insofar as the private sector (please note) is concerned government inquotas are a unacceptable infringement of right of contract. Nothing more, nothing less. I as an employer have the right to choose who I want to work with. Just as you would not want the government to tell you who you should be having as friends, or where you should be buying groceries from, who I hire and want to work with is really not the government's business. Merit has nothing to do with it.

The public sector can of course have "socially progressive" recruitment. I dont see any argument against that. Given the way government functions in India, merit-based arguments are a joke. In reality, the less government we had, what the government does in its hiring would become irrelevant. That the Mandal recommendations created a conflagration is reflective of the times, when government was the dominant provider of "jobs."

Dilip D'Souza said...

reservation schemes do more bad than good anyday

Says who? Have you stopped to ask people who benefit from them? (Not all are cheats). Have you spoken to people to whom Mandal stands for their aspirations? This is why I started this with Lalu (the savvy politician) -- because this ties in to any attempt to understand why he (and Mayawati, for that matter) has such support. To me, your throwaway statement above is no different from thinking of Lalu as a stupid buffoon.

Your argument can be summed up as "the world is highly imperfect, so there is no harm in having more imperfections."

Not at all. My argument can be summed up like this: used against Mandal (and reservations in general), the merit argument stands on only half a leg.

But if you implication is that ALL those who argue against reservation are really guys who closet casteists...

Not at all. My implication is that that guy in Namibia was a creep. That's all.

when government was the dominant provider of "jobs."

I don't believe it ever was.

Anonymous said...


The public sector is by far the dominant employer in the "organized sector." In the 1980s, the growth in public sector jobs was rapid, unlike now. Please check out this link:

I dont know if you are using the "savvy" adjective with any value judgement at all. I wonder if you would use it for Modi. You want people to understand why Laloo and Mayawati have such support. Is "understand" here meant as a synonym for "learning" or as a synonym for "appreciate and agree with"? Just because somebody has support does not mean their politics is justified. I am sure you understand how such arguments can be extended to Modi.

Lastly, if you truly want "rule of law" and criminals to be brought to justice (whether riotists or terrorists), then you cannot be condoning some people while hammering away at others. Rule of law is not selective. Respect for law is the foundation of civilized society and if you want to breed respect for law, then you cannot be condoning guys like Laloo who have actively shielded some of the worst criminals like Shahabuddin.

Dilip D'Souza said...

What article brings whom out from the woodpile would be easy to find, accept that I am not interested in doing so.


Funny. Write an article making the point that the call for merit is a strange rod to whack Mandal with, mention in passing a belief that Lalu is our savviest politician. Immediately that last is pounced on, and comparisons to Modi made and I'm told I'm condoning Lalu. (Even though one of my few examples of spitting on merit is Lalu himself).

The whole thing about merit -- remember merit? -- is dumped by the wayside.

Nevertheless, again.

For how I feel about Lalu, maybe I should simply point to what GreatBong has written far more eloquently than I could.

Lalu is savvy in the sense that he knows just how to win elections (though yes, he finally lost) in his constituency, and the hell with what anyone else says. Modi is savvy in that sense too. I despise their politics, but I would be the dunce if I pretended that they are not
smart. I would be even more of the dunce if I didn't make an attempt to understand why people support him, as I make an attempt to understand why people support Modi.

How saying this much is taken to mean I "condone" Lalu is, like many things, beyond me. But then again, it is convenient to say that and swerve the debate away from what this piece is saying, about merit.

This is getting to be a long comment, so I shall put the rest of what I want to say in a second one.

Dilip D'Souza said...

About employment: the use of the formal (or "organized") sector to make conclusions about total employment is, shall we say, peculiar. Why? "In total, less than 10 per cent of all workers are in the formal sector" -- a quote from Para 4.3 in this paper: (yes, the same paper Anonymous anonymously points me to).

But more important, the table(s) in that paper has its figures inflated by a factor of ten. This should be obvious to anyone who read both what I've quoted above (the 10% figure) and the table itself. For example, the table says 1991 employment in the formal sector is (millions) 14.5 + 11.0 + 63.3 + 9.5 + 12.2 + 156.9 = 267.4 million people. If that's 10% of total employment, then total employment in 1991 was 2.674 billion people, or over twice India's 2001 population.

That should have set off alarm bells in anyone quoting these figures, apart from the guy who wrote this paper in the first place. Apparently it did not.

I have the employment figures for the organized sector in front of me (in Tata Statistical Outline of India), and those 1991 figures are exactly right, except in lakhs (i.e. the top of the table should have said "in 00,000s" and not "in 000,000s"). Thus total employment in the organized sector in 1991 was 26.74 million.

And total employment (formal and informal)? By this table, it was about 314 million in 1991 (do the arithmetic), which fits with the 10 per cent figure quoted above.

Finally, it's against this backdrop that we need to analyse what Mandal was talking about, and I will get to that in a post, not in these comments.

Neela said...


You do make a passionate case that we apply the term "merit" selectively. Its interesting - I was just reading something about the concept of fairness which is that people really care about fairness but only when it benefits them. So they find a 40-60 split of a pie unfair if they get the 40% but are insensitive to any unfairness thoughts when they get the 60%. Seems something of the sort happens here too.

I hope you will discuss the facts of Mandal in another post. I still don't understand why the Mandal commission included social criteria when they could have achieved the same goal (and I suspect with far less protest) with only economic criteria which would have appeared more objective. I would think that the social and economic criteria (at least listed out by them) would be highly correlated. Further, the inclusion of such social criteria as "castes considered socially backward" is ambiguous at best.


Anonymous said...

Says who? Have you stopped to ask people who benefit from them? (Not all are cheats).

Can you advocate the cause of Mandal and Laloo with a clear conscience? Reservation is not a reform mechanism. It has long stopped serving that purpose. Any person who gets a job using the reservation scheme (unfairly i will say) is tempted to continue his advantages long after the need has subsided. Not only him, his family and future generations take these benefits as granted and obligatory to them from the society.
Where is the justice in reserving even 1% of the job for people grouped under any tag, when the rest are equally clamouring for the same.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, interesting comparison to the idea of fairness. Puts things in some perspective. I do plan a post on the criteria Mandal used, which I hope will be as eyeopening to you as it was to me. As soon as I get a little while.

Anonymous, I see I have now moved (if it's a move) from "condoning" Lalu to "advocating the cause" of Lalu. Excellent. If you and I don't quite see eye to eye, I must be the devil himself (hey, aren't Lalu and Mayawati the devil incarnate?).

"Reservation is not a reform mechanism" -- let me ask again, how do you know? Have you stopped to ask those who have benefited from them (not all are cheats)? You may not like them, which is fine, but plenty of people have used them legitimately and found their feet. To dismiss that by saying it "is not a reform mechanism" or it "does more bad than good" is remarkably short-sighted.

Anonymous said...

Devil incarnate ...ha ha very funny! You are the devil with words alright!
so you think I am short sighted about "reservation is not a reform mechanism". Perhaps you will explain how more than 50 years of implementing reservations has been far sighted of our beloved politicians (laloo and mayavati included).
I will add a link here to another (short sighted?) comment on the same subject by Narayana Murthy Perhaps you will allow that he can speak of merit.

BangaloreGuy said...

" For example, the table says 1991 employment in the formal sector is (millions) 14.5 + 11.0 + 63.3 + 9.5 + 12.2 + 156.9 = 267.4 million people. If that's 10% of total employment, then total employment in 1991 was 2.674 billion people, or over twice India's 2001 population."

Dilip, if you compare that with the figures you say you have from the Tata report, you'd notice that there's a difference of a decimal point in the total calculations - and that misplacing of the point could happen to anyone.

BangaloreGuy said...


you say:
"Reservation is not a reform mechanism -- let me ask again, how do you know? Have you stopped to ask those who have benefited from them (not all are cheats)? You may not like them, which is fine, but plenty of people have used them legitimately and found their feet."

Reservation is not a reform mechanism precisely because it makes casteism more entrenched. And makes the case for "my dad, grandad, ancestors had it(or did not have it), so I deserve it" seem very legitimate - and worse, it institutionalises that clannish, feudal behaviour.