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The Aftermath of Affirmative Action Policies: A Call for Effective Monitoring to Ensure Justice for All

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In India, at least ten people died in a series of violent demonstrations organized by members of the Patel caste in the region of Gujarat in August. The protests were directed against a government quota reserving roughly 50% of public sector jobs and university spots for people from former lower-castes. Affirmative action (AA) programs and policies exist in many parts of the world not only to stop discrimination but to provide minorities and formerly marginalized groups with equal opportunities. A frequently used definition of affirmative action is: “…any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.

Over the years AA policies have been adopted with the aim of raising the standard of living of those whose rights were previously forsaken. This commentary offers a brief comparative analysis of AA policies in India and South Africa, and it discusses their both perceived and observed effects. It argues that AA needs to be undertaken in a balanced manner so as not to result in a reversal of opportunity structures. To this end, we assert that monitoring systems play a crucial role by assessing the necessity of such policies, and amending these in light of changing social dynamics.

Comparing AA Policies and their Impacts

While in general many support legislative measures meant to correct historical injustices and raise the level of economic development of former victimized groups, there aregrowing debates today concerning the effectiveness of AA policies.  Arguments about the counterproductive nature of affirmative action policies are discussed below employing two brief case studies from India and South Africa.

Although officially the Indian caste system was constitutionally abolished in 1950, much informal social stratification remains. The quota-based affirmative action in India goes back to the nineteenth century when reservations were made for members of certain tribes to ensure their appropriate representation in public office. The objective of the system is to ensure equal opportunities for disadvantaged former lower castes, which make up approximately two-thirds of the total population. As only those categorized as “Other Backward Castes (OBC),” “Scheduled Castes,” and “Scheduled Tribes” can benefit from the reservation system, former upper caste members remain outside the measure and compete for the remaining jobs and university seats.

In the recent violent protests, the Patels – considered one of India’s most prosperous communities – demand that the caste quotas to be removed or they be classified as OBC to benefit from the reservation system. The inter-group resentment sparked by the government’s AA policies and expressed so vehemently in the violent protests and destruction in Gujarat pinpoints potential problems with the measure.

Particularly less affluent citizens who belong to the former upper-caste experience frustration in competing against, and losing out to, those perceived to be less qualified rivals belonging to ‘privileged’ lower castes.

In general, there is widespread support for the AA policies amongst lower-caste members. Existing data show that in India inter-caste wage gaps have indeed declinedthe past decades. In the public sector, members of the lower castes were estimated to hold over 11% of the positions in 2011 as compared to 1.6% in 1965. Despite the positive statistical evidence of the impact of AA policies, concerns remain about potential deepening of precisely the social divisions which AA wants to bridge.

South Africa’s fairly recent AA policies aim at remedying the impact of marginalization of its black population. With the end of Apartheid in the early 1994, discriminatory laws and practices were gradually abolished, and affirmative action was introduced, most noticeably the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law in 2003. Here again, the solution to decades of discrimination and unequal opportunities was seen in introducing racial quotas to the workplace, thereby reserving a certain percentage of jobs for blacks and other non-white groups (E.g. Indians, Chinese who arrived in South Africa before 1994).

While the measures – generally supported by the public – helped give access to employment and education to formerly underprivileged groups, the policy has also received much criticism for intensification of stereotypes with often not enough educated black people present to fill quota positions.  However, existing data show that the interracial wage gap has decreased since AA reforms were introduced. The income disparity gap between white and black workers reduced from 61% in 1993 to 35% in 2010.  Despite the aforementioned positive impact of the BEE, the impact of South Africa’s AA policies on interracial relations has been less substantial. Colonial land distribution injustices have not been redressed, half of all land reforms have failed, and recurring attempts more frequently fuel conflict than reconcile groups. Moreover, critics argue that AA policies have caused unintended side-effects such as the development oftokenistic employment of black South Africans by some firms, since high quota fulfillments entail economic advantages for entrepreneurs.

Optimizing AA Policies through Enhanced and Creative Monitoring

As with all types of legal measures to combat past injustices, AA policies are far from perfect. However, there are measures which can be undertaken to enhance their effectiveness and prevent their potential of them being conducive to future conflicts between groups.  Below are two – albeit not exhaustive – recommendations to this effect:

  • To prevent redressing past injustices from turning into reversed discrimination, adequate monitoring systems (AMS) that reassess AA programs and allow for adjusting policies to meet current needs should be put in place. Such systems could provide for periodic independent and evident-based research concerning the aptness of particular policies. In the Indian case, AMS would have to regularly review the impact of caste-based development tools, such as the socio-economic situation of poor Patels falling outside the government system. In addition to targeted monitoring of existing AA legislation, AMS could further comprise of mechanisms to identify shortcomings, and optimize programs as well as initiate new policies to prevent inaction as in the case of the much-needed land reform in South-Africa.
  • As an integral part of the increased emphasis on monitoring to improve the implementation of AA policies, we propose an international platform for sharing best-practices. A global or regional gathering of stakeholders could be useful for sharing experiences and know-how, and for developing new ways to deal with and learning from past discriminatory practices. Such semi-formalized exchanges might, moreover, advance the evolution of a more effective monitoring culture and new networks that explore innovative ways of assessing and maximizing the normative impact of AA measures. Through the building of collective knowledge (including through comprehensive data bases), an international platform would furthermore increase national capacities for effective affirmative action regardless of the individual country’s experience.

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