India: Are Reservations Adequate to Foster Diversity and Inclusion?

Global HR

​It is beyond dispute that in different parts of the world—India included—discrimination continues to exist, although constitutional provisions and a number of other laws explicitly prohibit such actions. Several factors such as race, caste, gender, economic status, religion, complexion and other aspects of physical appearance, mental abilities, sexual identity, education, linguistic skills, etc., are used to make distinctions between people that lead to various decisions. Sometimes, the inferences made are limited to an individual’s mind, but often they influence decisions that impact someone else’s life.

In India, this challenge is visible right from the primary school level and continues until the individual’s retirement and perhaps death. Educational institutions have been directed to ensure affirmative actions to reduce the inequalities in access to and the right to education. This takes the form of reservations of seats based on specific criteria. The government as well as public and private-sector organizations have reservations based on various considerations. Certain constituencies too have been identified as “reserved,” which means candidates must come from a specified caste/tribe, etc.

There is no doubt that families, organizations and countries can progress on all fronts only if there is broad societal representation. Countries that are able to achieve this will develop faster—not just in terms of economic indicators, but also in equally critical areas such as healtheducation, justice, environment, women’s safety, child welfare, etc. But are reservations sufficient to achieve this lofty objective?

Reservations Do Not Account for ‘Intersectionalities’

I believe that our experience so far in India does not support the notion that reservations are adequate or even the best option. They may be necessary, but are far from being an effective solution in practice because of the reality of “intersectionality.” An individual may not qualify for a reservation based on caste, but what if s/he comes from an economically weaker section of society? Which criterion gets primacy between caste and gender? Unless a priority is determined, it is likely that caste-based reservations will benefit men more than women (from the same caste).

Even in the corporate context, reservations largely manifest during the intake of talent at the entry level. At more senior levels, the talent pool is largely skewed towards males, who benefit from privilege in various forms (including not being impacted to the same extent by parenting responsibilities). In turn, this reduces the likelihood that women will be able to break the glass ceiling. There are shining exceptions of women who have overcome all odds, but that is more due to their individual abilities, hard work and possibly the good fortune of having excellent mentors and visionary leaders than to an environment that consciously recognizes and empowers merit, irrespective of other criteria.

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion Needs More Than Just Reservations

A multipronged approach is needed to address the issue of diversity and inclusion. The central government (and state governments as necessary) needs to formulate national or state policies across sectors in order to consciously recognize and address the realities of the multiple intersectionalities that prevail in our society. While some of these elements may be conscious individual choices, most of them are “historical” or the result of factors outside an individual’s control. This means reservations must account for various elements that can co-exist and not treat them as discrete. This is easier said than done and may require experiments to figure out what works best. But, in order to reap the benefits of our demographic dividends, we must act now.

However, formulating policies is not enough, as is evident from so many other facets of our society. The key lies in ensuring that the policies are complied with not just in letter, but also in spirit. Multiple stakeholders need to be consulted, so that different views are factored in. Indeed, this is where diversity and inclusion must begin.

Private and public-sector organizations are key stakeholders in an attempt to raise diversity and inclusion in India. These organizations must consciously train their people at all levels to value diversity of thought, opinion and lived experiences. This means changing how meetings are conducted (e.g., by giving everyone the opportunity to speak and not pushing the leader’s views and opinions down everyone’s throats). It means coaching leaders to encourage diverse talent pools to make decisions around promotions, key projects etc. It means walking the talk and rejigging the organization’s rewards systems to recognize and reward diversity that translates to business value.

“Diversity” should not be limited to gender; it must cover as many elements as possible, including, for example, generational differences. This will become an increasingly important area. It means ensuring that offices are built/modified to provide access to people with disabilities and appropriate amenities. Business/HR leaders must rethink their visions to consciously bring out elements of diversity and inclusion. Genuine efforts must be made to eliminate gender pay gaps, even if it means a hit to the P&L (profit and loss) account. All this is not something that can be easily legislated, although some indicators can perhaps be brought under the environmental, social and governance (ESG) umbrella.

The problem is complex, and so it does not lend itself to simplistic, formula-based solutions. All stakeholders must have alignment in their thinking so that there is concerted action in various spheres. This alone will enable the world to ensure that diversity and inclusion moves from the ivory towers to the realm of daily life.

Shuva Mandal is an attorney with Fox Mandal in Mumbai, India. © 2022 Fox Mandal. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.

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