Social Science Baha

Locating Affirmative Action in the Concept of Equality

Neera Chandhoke

We can draw a significant lesson from the manner in which affirmative action policies in India have been conceptualized and implemented. The notion of compensation on grounds of ‘harm done’ or brute luck, is simply inadequate, if it is left to stand on its own. Though the general feeling at the time of forging the Constitution was and continues to be that those who have benefited from history should be willing to pay the costs, over time this consensus has been watered down. the idea that ‘we’ owe something to ‘them’, in abstraction from a consensus on why people are owed restitution for historical wrongs, divides society along the axis of ‘we-ism’ and ‘they-ism’, and dissolves solidarity. Over time younger generations have begun to raise the following questions: how long should we pay compensation? Arguably, affirmative action policies in India have been embroiled in controversy, and the beneficiaries of these policies have been subjected to animosity, because these policies have been instituted in a political space not informed by a generalised consensus on what human beings are due that is equality of status, or by a moral and political consensus that poverty represents a violation of the right to equality. This paper argues that redistribution has to occur in two stages. The first step is that all citizens have the right to basic goods on non-market principles (assurance of income, free education, subsidized or free food, free health, accommodation, and political and civil rights) which will free them from poverty. Secondly, the state should engage in additional measures to remedy harm done to the doubly disadvantaged. Affirmative action policies are an addition to politics of redistribution, not a substitute to them.