Why have we been debating reservations right from the 1950s and not made them redundant yet? Its only because the supply of educational opportunities continues to remain limited and scarce. If there were enough high quality insitutions (schools, colleges, IITs, IIMs, and institutions of all other kinds), no one would need to clamour for reservations or endlessly debate the percentages. But as long as the supply is restricted, there is no alternative to reservations - indeed they are necessary.
This scarcity of educational opportunities is of our own doing. Our successes in the food and telecom sectors in addressing scarcities are pointers to what could have been in the education sector. There's no reason why we can't replicate the success in the education sector too.
The Food Sector experience
There was a time when we were not able to grow enough food in the country to feed all our people and had to go with a begging bowl asking other countries to send us food. At that time, food had to be rationed so everyone would get a basic minimum quantity. Thanks to the Green Revolution, we now produce enough food to feed everyone and more, though there may still be logistical and quality challenges in getting the food to one and all. Today's ration shops are only in name - they've now morphed into a distribution channel for subsidised food to the economically weaker sections of society.
Not only do we produce enough for ourselves, today we have enough of a food surplus to be able to export agricultural produce of various kinds. The government did not take on the responsibility for producing all the food by itself - it relied on private citizens and organisations who produced the food for profit. Despite private for-profit involvement, there has been no profiteering in this sector. If anything, profiteering was rampant in the ration era where food was diverted from the ration shops to the black market.
The Government plays an important regulatory role in terms of ensuring food quality by enforcing the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954 and also setting up and managing the ISI and Agmark Standard for quality and purity of food products.
The Telecom Sector experience
There was a time when getting a phone line meant a waiting list of a few years. The lucky ones were able to jump the queue through special quotas for doctors, government officials etc. Thanks to the new telecom policy which opened up the telecom sector to private investment, today, every one in India can think of getting oneself a mobile phone at a very affordable price for the handset and very attractive schemes for monthly usage. Indeed the prices of both mobile handsets and the monthly plans have been consistently dropping. While both state-owned BSNL and the private telecom operators are for-profit organisations, making profits, there has been no profiteering in the telecom sector.
The Government plays an important regulatory role through the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to regulate both private and the state owned telecom operators. TRAI lays down the standards for provision of telecom services and enforces those standards to ensure that the telecom operators provide a minimum quality of service to customers.
Lessons from the food and telecom sector
The factors that led to expansion of supply of food and the provision of telecom services to the entire population and the shift from a rationing scenario to a siutation of plenty were simple.
- The Government relied on private participation to produce food / provide telecom services to augument the government's own efforts to expand supply.
- The Government allowed the private sector to get involved on a for-profit basis to make it attractive for private sector participation
- The Government devised and enforced regulations, which were aimed at regulating the quality of the food/telecom service.
The Opportunity Revolution
The Opportunity Revolution should be based on a set of simple principles
- Our fundamental mission must be to provide educational opportunities for all our citizens right from the primary level through to higher education. That is the end to aim for, and all possible means to achieve that end must be used.
- The Government clearly does not have enough financial resouces to provide education for all citizens all by itself. So the Government must actively invite private sector participation at all levels to augument the government's own efforts.
- The private sector must be allowed to operate on a for-profit basis. That has worked very well in both the food and telecom sectors and could work well in the education sector too. Allowing for-profit involvement in education is likely to result in a huge amount of private sector investment in education to rapidly expand the supply of eductional opportunities.
- The Government must regulate the quality of education provided by both the state-run institutions as well as private sector institutions. The Government must NOT aim to regulate the growth of the education sector, indeed it must encourage unprecendented growth without compromising on quality. All educational institutions must be required to obtain quality ratings from independent rating authorities like CRISIL, ICRA or CARE. Educational institutions must be held responsible for any fall in quality below minimum published standards and subject to penalties, just like in the food and telecom sectors.
- The Government must ensure that all educational institutions operate transparently in terms of their finances and publish detailed financial and other academic information and make it available to students, parents and the public at large to enable them to make informed choices on which institutions to attend.
- The Government must allow the educational institutions the freedom to set their fee structures and not insist on capping the fees at figures like 20% of operating costs, as has been suggested.