U. of Delhi Infuriates Faculty Groups by Reserving Some Teaching Jobs for the Lower Castes
By MARTHA ANN OVERLAND
The University of Delhi, one of India's premier universities, decided last week to set aside a significant number of teaching positions for members of India's lower-caste groups. The move is a victory for India's "untouchables," who face deeply ingrained discrimination, but faculty groups are angry, charging that the policy will bar thousands of qualified applicants from teaching jobs for years to come.
The decision, by the University's Executive Council, which includes faculty members and administrators, was made in order to comply with India's constitution, which requires that 22.5 percent of all government jobs be set aside for low-caste and aboriginal candidates. The ruling applies only to entry-level (assistant) professor posts and nonteaching jobs.
The university, however, has had a hard time attracting people from lower-caste groups to fill the positions. Of the 7,000 faculty members employed by the University of Delhi and its affiliated colleges -- all of which are government-supported -- only about 150 are from the lower castes that are known in bureaucratic parlance as "scheduled castes and scheduled tribals."
That means that roughly 1,400 jobs need to go to candidates from the low-caste groups, says Shyam S. Rathi, the president of the powerful Delhi University Teacher's Union, which is leading the fight against the ruling. With no new jobs being created, openings will occur only when someone retires or resigns. Mr. Rathi argues that it could take 7 to 10 years to reach the point where 22.5 percent of teachers are from a scheduled caste.
"This is going to cause a crisis in academia," Mr. Rathi says. "No one is going to apply for admissions to postgraduate courses. Why would anyone go for further study when there will be no teaching jobs for a decade?"
Cherukuri R. Babu, the pro-vice chancellor of Delhi University strongly rejects the claims made by the Delhi University Teacher's Association, calling their numbers "highly exaggerated." Instead, the quota applies only to departments that have at least seven people, and so smaller departments would face no pressure on hiring.
What this really illustrates is that the ruling hit a little too close to home, says Shyman Menon, the information officer of the University of Delhi, who has been scrambling to counter the claims of the teacher's unions. "Affirmative action is fine as long as it doesn't touch the middle class," he said. "They don't bother about it until it affects them, and then it hits them like a raw nerve. Now they feel as if their place in society is being threatened. These are the people stirring up the trouble."
Discrimination against untouchables, who are also called Dalits, is forbidden by India's constitution. But 51 years after that document was adopted, the caste system still enslaves much of the country. In some villages untouchables are not allowed to drink from wells reserved for the upper castes. On paper, all children have the right to go to school, but the economic reality, which is greatly determined by caste, means most Dalits will never have that chance.
Huge disparities between the castes remain, says Apok Jamir, a member of parliament who is from a scheduled tribal caste.
"We do welcome the university decision that will benefit scheduled castes, but the whole cultural setup is such that there is inherent discrimination," Mr. Jamir says. Most students from his constituency can't even think of pursuing higher education, let alone becoming professors, he says. "The problem is that the disparity starts right from the beginning."