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Reservation Blues: The hope for dialogue

Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia’s proposal to provide 90 per cent reservation for Delhi domicile students (those who complete senior secondary schooling from the city) in 12 Delhi University colleges, which are fully-funded by the state government, has generated a lot of negative reaction from the media and key stakeholders in the varsity. Universities and colleges not affiliated to DU and directly controlled by the state government, such as IP University, Baba Saheb Ambedkar University and Delhi Technological University already have 85 per cent reservation for Delhi domicile students. A key caveat must be brought in before we begin to assess the merit (or the lack of), in the government’s proposal.

AAP spokesperson and key election strategist, Yogendra Yadav, in a television interview said, ‘Reservations is something that has become a contentious issue. AAP looks at itself as a party that will intervene in these contentious debates. The idea is not take extreme sides, but to set up a dialogue’. This has been a refreshing change in the attitudes that we have become accustomed to over the years from the political class. On an issue of such magnitude, there is hope that such issues will be debated and deliberated upon, involving all major stakeholders.

Before getting into the negative reactions this proposal has generated, it is imperative to understand his rationale behind this policy. Sisodia claims that his concerns lie with the 2.65 lakh students, who graduate every year from schools in Delhi, with only 90,000 seats available in the varsity. In light of these statistics, according to Sisodia, Delhi government had spent Rs 113 crores on funding 28 colleges, affiliated to DU. He goes on to add that his idea is not to regulate the admission process in Delhi University, but to fulfill the aspirations of those students from Delhi yearning for quality higher education. There are 12 colleges which are fully-funded by the state government with partial funding (upto 5 per cent) to 16 other institutions. AAP has always made it clear that their intention was not bring in a populist measure.

However, statistics presented by Moksha Foundation, an NGO which filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi high court on 17 July, 2013, were different. The NGO wanted reservation of up to 85 per cent of total seats available for Delhi domicile students in all 12 colleges funded by the state government. It claimed that in 76 DU colleges, there are only 55,000 seats available for undergraduate courses. According to them, even if all 55,000 seats were given to Delhi students, one lakh students will not be able to attain admissions into DU. Clearly, there is ambiguity regarding basic data upon which reservation policies need to be drawn upon. Greater clarity is required on matters of key policy changes.

Dinesh Lalwani, who filed the PIL, on behalf of Moksha Foundation, in a television debate programme, said that due to favourable marking system in state boards outside Delhi, students from the city state are unable to compete with ‘outsiders’. However, when asked for proof, he goes onto admit that no analysis has been done to compare marks given by other state boards and the Central Board of Secondary Education. More importantly, in the larger scheme of things, according to MM Ansari, a member in the University Grants Commission,a body that provides 95 per cent funding to most colleges in DU (except for 12 colleges), there is no data to prove that students from Delhi have been displaced to accommodate those from outside the state.‘Even if Sisodia’s statistics, regarding the displacement of approximately 1.7 lakh students were true, these colleges, along with state run colleges such as IP University, Baba Saheb Ambedkar University and Delhi Technological University, do not have the wherewithal to accommodate all of them’, added MM Ansari.

The AAP-led government wasn’t the first one to make such promises. Dr AK Walia, education minister in the previous Delhi government also made these promises. He also promised that in the other 16 colleges,where the Delhi government provides 50 per cent grant for capital works and 5 per cent as recurring grant, 50 per cent reservation would be provided to local students. In fact even Delhi BJP president, Vijay Goel clamoured for these reservations. Within the ambit of Delhi University, there are three key administrative bodies.

On top there is the Delhi University Court, which has the power to review the activities of other two key bodies, namely the Executive Council and the Academic Council. It is the Academic Council which takes key decisions on the admission process, regarding reservations for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, Other Backward Class and Physically Challenged students. Reservations for these categories almost take up 49.5% of seats available in the varsity. What is not clear from Sisodia’s proposal is whether in the name of providing 90 per cent reservations for Delhi domiciles in these 12 colleges, if he is willing to let go of the DU brand and snap their affiliation from the varsity?

Speaking to Millennium Post on 13 January over adverse reaction to this proposal, Sisodia said, ‘It was announced before assembly election by the Congress government and it has not been implemented by them. To implement it now, we have to work in tandem with Delhi University and the Ministry of Human Resource Development.’ At this juncture, the proposal falls upon its first hurdle. Delhi University is a central varsity, which was set up under a legislation enacted in Parliament, called the Delhi University Act. A proposal, regarding reservations, cannot be enacted upon by the Delhi government.

If there were to be reservations in colleges affiliated to DU, then an amendment would have to be passed through Parliament. Ashok Thakur, secretary, Union Human Resource Development Ministry, when asked by Millennium Post on the possibility of establishing reservation for Delhi domiciles in DU, categorically said, ‘It will not happen in Central Universities’.The fact is that a central university is a key concept, over which a lot of stakeholders and observers have articulated their dissent.
Nandita Narain, president, Delhi University Teachers Associations, said, ‘I am totally against the proposal made by our education minister. Since it is a central university, we should be welcoming students not only from India, but also from other countries. Such reservation makes no sense as a lot of students, especially from the eastern parts of India, look forward to studying at the university.

The varsity holds an aspirational value for them. Such reservations will simply deny them of that option’. Shiv Visvanathan, an eminent sociologist, says, ‘It’s (reservations) a bad idea. It cannot be a unilateral move. Diversity is the strength of Delhi University. There are different kinds of reservation and in certain cases they are useful. However, the idea behind reservation is to create a certain sense of diversity and it should not end up creating a homogenous entity.’ Ramachandra Guha, eminent historian and an alumnus of the varsity went a step further in his criticism, when he tweeted, ‘Delhi University, one of our few universities with an all-India catchment, must not be made into a parochial ghetto.’

Abha Dev Habib, member of the Executive Council, Delhi University, said, ‘I am totally against this move. Who is a ‘Dilliwala’ student? No such reservations can be done in DU colleges. The previous Delhi government has already taken over Delhi College of Engineering. By trying to establish a hold over other colleges in the varsity, which are funded by the state government, they are attempting to create a false sense of increased opportunities. DU is not a state university. It is a central university, and should not be confined to Delhi only. If they are keen on reserving seats for Delhi students, they should open state colleges.’ On this note, there lies some of the issues the current AAP-government can address.

‘If the Delhi government is funding these colleges, their role in governance becomes critical. In the governing bodies of these 28 colleges, 10 out of the 15 members are picked by the Delhi government. A model of good governance is the need of the hour, as corruption is a major issue. OBC funds are thoroughly misused. In state-run colleges like IP University and Ambedkar College, there are administrative issues aplenty, which need to be solved soon’, said Narain. In fact both Habib and Narain agreed upon the need to open more colleges or expand existing colleges, if the government wants to accommodate more students from Delhi. Again, this can be done only with the aid of the central government.

Other solutions include the creation of a better environment in schools to promote excellence, which would allow students from Delhi to make the grade, when it comes to admissions in DU. In fact, on 9 January Millennium Post filed a report on how nine lakh primary school children in Delhi didn’t have access to computer literacy, due to a non-renewal of a tender for three years. Energies will be better spent solving such issues and this will augment the creation of competitive school environments, which will further facilitate their transition to higher levels of intellect and capabilities.

Yogendra Yadav, in his seminal essay titled, ‘Rethinking Social Justice’, said, ‘Reservation in one form or another should be used as a measure of last resort, rather than as the first or the only tool of social justice. Reservation is simple, familiar and robust and should be used in cases where we suspect that every other provision might fail’. Clearly, other provisions haven’t been explored and the ‘fixation with reservations’ does ‘follow from the limited and legalist understanding of the instruments of social change’. A lot needs to be assessed before any such decision can be implemented.

Finally, we arrive at the stakeholders that will be most affected, if this proposal were to be implemented: the students. Reaction this proposal was mixed. Two key student bodies, both the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (BJP youth wing) and National Students Union of India (Congress-backed), are against the proposal. Delhi University Students Union is controlled by ABVP, which won three out of the four key posts, in elections last year.

However, on the flip side to this, there is the case of Pardeep Bidhuri, a final year student at Dayal Singh College, Delhi University. He said, ‘Reservation is a great idea. While filing my admission forms in other state universities, I realised that many such universities have a reservation criterion for domicile students. I feel even Delhi students should be given such an option, especially when DU is such a reputed institution. Since students in Delhi do not have too many options, I believe they must get adequate reservation’. The hope is that the AAP-led government opens the floor to debate amongst all stakeholders.

(Inputs from Varun Bidhuri)
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