The Indian government is contemplating measures to provide more jobs for the country's lower castes and disadvantaged groups in the booming private sector. The proposal has kicked off a massive controversy in Indian industry.
At a recent seminar organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on business leaders to enlarge job opportunities for the lower castes and other underprivileged groups.
"I urge you to assess the diversity in your employee profile and commit yourself voluntarily to making it more broad based and representative of our nation at large," he said.
The prime minister was referring to a pledge made by his government when it came to power two years ago to reserve jobs for the lower castes and other disadvantaged groups in the thriving private sector.
For centuries, "Dalits" or untouchables were at the bottom of India's caste system, which divides society into groups based on occupation. Many Dalits, members of other lower castes and India's ethnic tribal groups remain mired in poverty.
India already has quotas for these groups in educational institutions and public sector jobs to help bring about social equality.
But this is the first time that the government is asking the private sector to participate. So far it has pushed for voluntary affirmative action by business leaders. But the government warns that it will introduce legislation for quotas if the private sector fails to respond.
Industry leaders have staunchly criticized the move, saying quotas kill merit and hamper competitiveness. They say any such move will be a setback to industries that are learning to compete in a global economy.
The country's top businessmen say they are ready to give training and scholarships to the poor, but jobs must be given on merit alone.
The controversial proposal has reignited debate on the benefit of quotas.
Supporters say reserving jobs and seats in educational institutions is necessary to improve conditions for the lower castes, because poverty and centuries-old discriminatory practices prevent them scaling the economic ladder.
Critics say quotas do little to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups, and have denounced the idea of private sector job quotas as a political measure to win votes.
P.V. Indiresan, a former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, accuses the government of failing to provide good quality primary and secondary schools for the lower castes so that they can compete in the open market for jobs.
"All political parties without exception have found out that so long as people are poor and illiterate they vote in large blocs, they become vote banks. Once they are educated their vote gets splintered among various groups. So there is a vested interest among the politicians not to educate people," he noted.
Since coming to power, the Congress-led government has introduced a controversial law requiring private schools to reserve more than 20 percent of seats for the lower castes and other poor groups. It also proposes nearly doubling the number of seats reserved for these groups in the country's premier engineering and management universities.
The lower castes make up about one-quarter of the country's population. Other socially and economically disadvantaged groups add up to another quarter.