As things stand, he or she can become a peon or a clerk in a government department. This is cruel and morally wrong for it not only deprives the underprivileged of social mobility but creates intergenerational poverty traps
TWO conversations – one with my favourite, wonderful, sensible and sensitive professor, an academic of academics and the other with a bright Kashmiri friend – set me thinking about meritocracy and life chances. The former, to a quasi-philosophical question about meritocracy wrote to me that, “life is unfair and the distribution of blessings and resources was not understood”. The latter had posted on Facebook and to paraphrase him, that the happiest day of his life would be when the progeny of the waatul (cobbler in Kashmir) would study at Yale or Harvard. Both remarks are poignant and salient, especially in a world, especially the West, where diversity and gender parity are becoming thematic areas of concern, in boardrooms, universities, governments and so on. While booth are laudable goals, and works in progress in the West, but in lesser developed contexts, there is little equality, or meritocracy or value for diversity.
To be fair, the Western university system has, to some extent stepped into the breach and disbursed some scholarships to this end. But, in the main, the beneficiaries of these, usually, are the already privileged. Consider a factual. Access to scholarships in the West presumes a degree of education, access to resources, access to the internet, referees and so on. Where would, say the child of a cobbler access these? In a hierarchical society like ours, where the term waatul has acquired pejorative connotations, who will give a reference to the waatal’s progeny? Hindered by access to resources and poor education, how is the waatul’s child to write a statement of purpose that cuts ice in some Western university? Because of a lack of access to the internet, how would the waatul’s child know there are Yales, Harvards and Oxfords of the world that offer scholarships?
At best, if the parents of a waatul’s child are able to afford education, the progeny can suffer the shoddy and poor quality of education in a government school and if he or she is able to go beyond secondary school, he or she can become a peon, a clerk or an orderly in a government department. This is as cruel as can be and morally wrong for it not deprives the underprivileged of life chances but creates intergenerational poverty traps.
Can this condition be remedied? Maybe. One way is through affirmative action programs but the record of these is mixed. The other is broader enlightenment of society where it rises to the occasion, by first, getting rid of pejorative labelling and stereotypes and making the underprivileged equal members of society. The third, even though, by virtue of limited resources is vigorous seeking out of the underprivileged in third world contexts and helping them out through scholarships. This is doable but would require some additional efforts by universities weeding out information asymmetries and so on. If centres for exams like the TOEFL, GRE and GMAT can be outsourced and vigorously monitored, so can institutions that help poor, underprivileged students be developed to help them.
Admittedly, this can only be a drop in the ocean but it is well worth the effort, and there can be wider social returns. If, however, there is more of the same, there will be what economists call rent seeking behaviour whereby only the elite and the privileged in third world contexts can access and benefit from these resources.
There can never be total and comprehensive equality in any given society, especially in economic terms but there can be approximations to and of social and cultural equality or, in the least, equality of access to social and cultural goods, leading to an amelioration of the living conditions of the underprivileged. This can be built on and network effects created that will redound to the benefit of the poor.
In the final analysis, my gifted professor from America is right. There has been and perhaps can never be understanding of the distribution of blessings and resources, but this should not mean that human agency of some kind can redress social and economic inequalities in the world. In the context of Kashmir, a waatul’s child has every right to dream of and actually be an afsar (officer) as that of a chief minister’s or industrialist’s or businessperson’s son or daughter. It is then that society can be redeemed. But, for this to happen, the western university system can be a catalytic spur. Nothing should stop it from assuming this noble role.
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