For all the controversies the film Aarakshan was a tad disappointing. Rather strange for a Prakash Jha production. Although nothing can quite surpass the steadfast determination to get offended, there was nothing in the film remotely offensive. The film was more a narrative about meritocracy, and the difficulty in maintaining its purity in the face of economic and political pressures and the growth of the private tuition industry, than the arguments for and against reservation.
That is with the exception of a solitary scene of Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan), the brilliant lower caste teacher of the institute headed by the painfully idealistic Dr. Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan). When asked why he supported increasing the reservation quota, Kumar launched in to a diatribe the gist of which was that until their upper caste mothers were scrubbing dishes for a living (as his mother had done) justice would not be served.
This was rather disappointing (disappointment with the fictional character) from Kumar who had advanced the ranks through his sheer hard work, intelligence and determination and might have been expected to be a protagonist for these qualities, a veritable role model for the disadvantaged rather than another lazy apologist. The director chose not to go against the stereotype, perhaps because it might have blighted the sensationalism. And it worked, at least in so far that it managed to get under my skin.
Nonetheless Deepak Kumar’s rationale struck a chord. In the giddy days of 1990 when Bihar began to launch social justice version 8.0 there was a lot of talk of restitution. The frenzied politicians riding on the tide of popular opinion decried that true justice would be served only when the social gradients were not simply abolished but reversed. The hunter would be the hunted. The new condescension would be scorned upon the Brahmins and other ministries of the old order.
Had that happened it would not, in economic terms been a Pareto improvement. A Pareto improvement is one in which social policy leads to at least one person being made better off without making anyone else worse off.
Let us say for the sake of argument that in response to Kumar’s lamentation a dozen or so upper caste mothers started washing dishes for a living. How would that have improved the plight of Kumar’s community if their mothers were still washing dishes with the same frequency?
Perhaps this question can be asked differently. Is there a way that fewer members of Kumar’s community or any historically disadvantaged community for that matter perform manual labour without someone else, upper caste or otherwise, having to pick up the slack? The answer, of course, is in the affirmative. This is the essence of the Pareto principle, failure to understand which leads to the most common and egregious misconception of wealth generation.
There is no fixed poverty pie. There is no bond with poverty that in order to escape a replacement must be found. Kumar’s call for the bourgeoisie to exchange places with the menial workers is not based on economic reasoning. The argument is barely moral, unless vengeance and vindictiveness have occupied the lexicon, perhaps through reservation, of new age morality.
From where does the concept of the fixed poverty pie arise? This is the natural conclusion of a flawed precept, that of wealth creation which is still believed by many to be mutually exclusive – i.e. one person’s gain is another person’s loss. How often have you heard the complaint “rich are getting richer whilst the poor are getting poorer”?
In a free market system operating in a democracy, wealth creation is not a zero sum game. No one has gotten poorer as a result Bill Gates’ billion. Indeed, as a result of his philanthropy many have benefitted from the medical research his charitable foundation has supported. This thinking is a relic of the thoroughly discredited command and control economy, a version of which paralyzed India till 1991. In this business model it is the enlightened bureaucrats not the people who decide which entrepreneurs to reward with contracts and tenders.
It is not simply a misunderstanding of basic economics, but also the allure of equality that leads many policies not to obey the Pareto principle. For the Marxists, leftists and the perennially discontent nihilists, equality is the greatest virtue and inequality the unpardonable sin. It takes a little application of logical reasoning to appreciate the hollowness of this thinking. Is a society where everyone is starving but starving equally due to a famine really preferable to one where food is in abundance for all, yet some are so rich and so obnoxious in their display of wealth that it is sickening?
Prosperity emerges from inequality because it is conditional on the most human of all traits – the desire to be better than your neighbor. Conversely, there is no better way to preserve poverty than to push for equality. This is because such a push more likely results in an increase in the number of hitherto affluent mothers washing dishes for a living (social class descent) than former pauper mothers washing dishes for fun (social class ascent).
This brings me to the arguments for or against reservation. There is only one way to judge reservations - in economic terms. Have reservations resulted in a Pareto improvement? Is this the most Pareto optimal way to improve the plight of the historically disadvantaged community? If the answer to both questions is in the negative then reservations have been unsuccessful.
Dr. Saurabh Jha, MD MRCS, a British/Indian NRI, is an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. With his natural flair for writing, Dr. Jha will be expressing his views on Bihar, Bihar-related issues, and other topics that are sure to grab the attention of the visitors of PatnaDaily.Com.