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Quota for eliminating discrimination, not for creating it

Probhash  Amin

Probhash Amin

Wed, 10 Jul 24

Following the Supreme Court's directive to reinstate the quota system in government jobs, the country has once again become heated with protests against the quota. The ongoing student movement is causing daily hardships for the general public. Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself supports the quota system, she abolished it in 2018 in response to widespread protests. Now, the matter has reached the courts, and even if she wanted to, the Prime Minister cannot abolish the quota system again. In response to the students' appeals, the Appellate Division has suspended the High Court's ruling for four weeks. Despite this, the students have declared that they will continue their protests. They assert that their movement will persist until their demands are met by the executive branch. However, given the directive from the Appellate Division, the executive branch has no authority to act on this matter, which the protesting students should understand.

Despite the inconveniences caused to the public, the anti-quota movement is very popular. Most people believe that there should be no quotas. I understand the pain of those protesting against the quota. Bangladesh has a large population and a high unemployment rate. With the increase in the education rate, the number of educated unemployed has also risen. After completing their studies, they rightfully seek good jobs commensurate with their qualifications, and they have the right to protest for that. However, trying to achieve demands by holding people hostage is a form of blackmail. An unjust demand does not become just simply because a large number of people support it.

Before delving into the debate on whether the quota should exist or not, let's take a quick look at the current quota system. Currently, 30% of government jobs are reserved for the children or grandchildren of freedom fighters, 10% for women, 10% for district quotas, and 5% for indigenous peoples. This means a total of 55% of jobs are reserved. Additionally, there is a 1% quota for people with disabilities, which is taken from the 55% reserved quotas. The remaining 45% is open to all. At first glance, it may seem that there is significant discrimination. Whether having quotas or not having quotas is discriminatory is a discussion for another time.

In a democratic country and in this era of the free market, having a quota system seems unnecessary. Equal opportunities should be available for everyone. The most qualified person should get the job. It's simple arithmetic. Why should it matter if someone's grandfather was a freedom fighter, or if they are from an indigenous community, a woman, or a person with a disability? The quota system creates discrimination. Our goal is to build a country and a society where everyone has equal opportunities, without quotas and without discrimination.

However, the reality is that such a country is still far from our imagination. Our society is still rife with discrimination at every turn. The quota system was introduced not to create discrimination but to eliminate it. It has been in place since 1972, nearly as old as Bangladesh itself, to bring underprivileged and backward communities into the mainstream and create an equitable society.

My son attends one of the best educational institutions in the country. He goes to university in a car. He has attended good schools, has access to quality coaching, private tutors at home, notebooks, nutritious food, advanced medical care, healthy entertainment, vacations, a computer, and the internet – the whole world is at his fingertips. But my friend's son in Barkal, Rangamati, has to walk 10 miles through hilly terrain to get to school. The school he struggles to reach likely doesn't have good teachers. He might go to school on an empty stomach and come back to eat whatever is available. There's no nutrition, no entertainment, and perhaps no exposure to technology. He has to fight against nature and poverty. In my view, his score of 60 is more valuable than my son's score of 90. Without the indigenous quota, our sons would always get the jobs, and my friend's son would remain on that hill. I am sure that without the district quota, people from four districts of Bangladesh would get 90% of the opportunities. In fact, most of the positions would be occupied by students from the top 20 schools in Dhaka. Urban middle-class parents are creating a robotic generation of academically successful children through intensive schooling, coaching, and note-taking. Without the quota system, the naturally talented children from places like Dinajpur and Khagrachari would repeatedly lose to this robotic generation. Stories of rising to the top solely by one's efforts and talents are just that – stories. We don't have many Dr. Atiur Rahmans in our country. We need the quota system to bring forward such Atiur Rahmans.

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is a woman, the leader of the opposition is a woman, the Speaker is a woman, and the Foreign Minister is a woman. Does this mean we no longer need the women's quota? One might think so. The status of women in Bangladesh has improved significantly. Women have been empowered. Girls are performing well in schools alongside boys in urban areas. Millions of women are working in the garment industry, keeping the wheels of the economy moving. But all this is an illusion. In rural areas, girls still struggle to go to school. Following the advice of religious leaders like Allama Shafi, parents are eager to marry off their daughters after just a few years of schooling. Then there's eve-teasing, poverty, religious constraints, and superstitions to overcome. So, seeing women like Hasina, Khaleda, and Shirin Sharmin, who inherited their positions, should not lead us to deprive the many Sakinas, Amenas, and Zarinas spread across our rural areas. We want these Sakinas, Amenas, and Zarinas to become magistrates and police officers. Every year after the SSC and HSC exams, newspapers report that some student with a disability achieved good results by writing with their feet. Shouldn't the state stand by such a student and support them to be on par with a non-disabled student? If not, why do we need a state at all? And shouldn't the descendants of those who risked their lives to fight for the country's independence receive some extra benefits from the state?

Over the past six years, the absence of quotas in government jobs has left many women, indigenous people, and persons with disabilities deprived of opportunities. As minorities, their cries have not reached us, while the majority's protests have garnered our collective attention. However, to build a just and humane state, both the state and the majority must stand by the weak and the minorities. Creating a humane state necessitates the presence of quotas. Without quotas, might becomes right, and the weak and the disabled will always be left behind.

One of the most misleading arguments of the quota movement is that quotas and merit are mutually exclusive. It seems that quotas are equated with a lack of merit. This is not the case. To benefit from the quota system, descendants of freedom fighters, women, and indigenous people must meet certain minimum qualifications. Everyone has to compete equally up to the preliminary and written exams. No child of a freedom fighter with just an SSC pass or an indigenous person with a third-class degree is becoming a magistrate. It should be framed as quota versus non-quota. Everyone is meritorious, otherwise, how would they qualify to take the exam? It's a matter of scoring 19 versus 20. When it's 19 versus 20, the child of a freedom fighter who scores 19 will be given preference over my child who scores 20. I even support giving the job to an indigenous person or a woman who scores 18.

Quotas are not unique to Bangladesh; they exist in many countries around the world. In India, the quota is even higher at 60%. Many other countries have higher quotas than Bangladesh. Even in Bangladesh, there are quotas for university admissions. Benefiting from quotas for admission and then opposing them for jobs after graduation is inconsistent.

The 55% quota may seem high. However, there was a time when seats remained vacant due to a lack of eligible candidates under the quota. Later, it was decided that if candidates were not available under the quota, those seats would be filled from the general pool. This significantly reduced discrimination and deprivation. There have been instances when the quota fell to 30% due to a lack of eligible candidates. Many years, the 30% quota for descendants of freedom fighters is not filled. Hence, the notion that quotas deprive meritorious candidates is also incorrect.

I am confident that if a referendum were held now on the pros and cons of quotas, 95% of people would vote for the abolition of quotas. However, the court or the state must stand with the reasonably deprived, even if they are only 5%. The Appellate Division, while granting a four-week stay, has stated that the High Court's ruling cannot be overturned through protests. The Chief Justice has said that students are protesting based on a misunderstanding of the quota issue and has urged them to return to classes. However, continuing the protests and holding the public hostage despite the Appellate Division's stay order is unjust.

Author: journalist and columnist

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