Last week two men came to help us with some work at home. Like many others who eek their living on a day-to-day basis they were picked up from the chowk or road side where they sit from the early hours of the morning in the hope that someone would come by and give them work.

Both had lost their jobs in factories, as many do in Delhi, but had refused to lose hope. Over a cup of tea they shared their story in a dispassionate way. Hazari the elder of the two hails from Bihar and has five children. His wife does not work and it is his measly 3000 rs that keeps them going. All his children go to school and his elder daughter is in class IX. His dream is to ensure that she completes her XIIth.

Hazari belongs to one of the reserved classes but has no idea of what that simple appartenance can get him. He has never heard of reservation and has never availed of any of the sops doled out regularly. His day-to-day survival does not give him the luxury of taking time off to get the required papers ratifying his social or economic status. Yet Hazari refuses to give up his dreams for his children, the very reason he left his home to come to this soulless city.

It was poignant to see that this conversation was happening at the very time when heated debates on reservations are once again dividing the nation and the fate of the creamy layer is being veted. This man like many others in our land was just busy surviving and holding on to his dreams. He is already a winner as he has beaten many odds. In a city where children drop out with alarming regularity, his daughter has held on and made it to class IX.

As I mused on about this innocuous meeting, I came across a news item stating that an IIM alumni body had gone to the Supreme Court questioning the validity of a 56 year old caste-based reservation system. What caught my eye were two quotes of from Jawahar Lal Nehru. The first reminded us of his dream of a ” young and vibrant nation, free from the vices of caste and communal divide“. The other went on to state: ” I dislike any kind of reservation. more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything that leads to inefficiency and second rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second rate we are lost“.

A mere glance at today’s India 60 years after freedom shows that Nehru’s vision has been long forgotten. The debate on the creamy layer is sufficient to show that the very purpose of reservation or affirmative action has been defeated. While the battle rages about the 27% OBC reservation in institutes of higher learning, 6 decades of Independence have not been able to enforce the right to primary education.

It stands to reason to believe that for any affirmative action to be honest, excellence has to begin at the very bottom of the ladder: ie in state run primary schools. Our tiny experience at pwhy has proved beyond doubt that children from underprivileged backgrounds can be stellar performers if given a little help. To cite just one example, Farzana a two times failure in class VII got 83 % at her Xth Boards. Sadly as debates go on, the state of municipal schools in India’s capital city seem to be getting worse by the minute. A mind boggling number of potential aspirants to higher learning drop out of schools because somewhere down the line each one of us has failed them.

The IIM alumni effort is one in the right direction. It is time to define the validity of a reservation policy that seems to be doing more harm than good, as it is fracturing our society with impunity. Any affirmative action has to be time bound. Otherwise it will lead to impairing rather than helping. Alas, as long as such policies provide fodder to vested interest, solutions will be difficult to find.