He has spent a lifetime poring over issues of justice and jurisprudence, but Dr G Mohan Gopal still remains, at heart, a student of the law and a believer in the wisdom and the vision of India’s constitution. These perspectives inform the views and values of the director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, New Delhi.
An academic of high standing, Dr Gopal is an alumnus of Harvard Law School, where he also completed his doctoral studies, and has worked with the World Bank and many Indian government organisations in a variety of capacities. In this interview with Christabelle Noronha, he speaks about the logic and the necessity of private sector affirmative action programmes, based on caste, for sure, but also on gender, religion and region.
How real is the danger of social and economic inequality undermining
India’s growth agenda?
Can this kind of outlook result in economic setbacks for the country?
If you had asked the question in 1857, when the civil war began, whether it would be a setback from an economic standpoint, the answer would have been yes. But America was prepared to fight a civil war to secure the freedom and equality of a small number of African-American slaves. What that country was actually doing was laying a strong foundation for social justice.
I think that’s what India, too, will do. But I believe this can be managed without sacrificing growth. Unlike in the 18th and 19th centuries, we have a world today that is far more sensitive to issues such as social justice, equality and sustainable development. The United Nations has just adopted a set of guidelines on the applicability of human rights standards to the private sector and businesses. It is an important set of principles. There is almost no option for India but to pursue growth in a manner that is compatible with the interests and concerns of its poorest and most excluded people, and not exclusively cater to creating more wealth for its already wealthy citizens.
Are you in favour of private sector affirmative action programmes,
where jobs are reserved for people from the scheduled castes and the scheduled
I think it is necessary to be aware of the social discrimination that people from the scheduled castes and tribes face. We have to ensure that these people do not have to suffer discrimination in an economy where the private sector is going to be the main generator of employment. It is essential, in the circumstances, to set aside a due share of employment opportunities for people from the scheduled castes and tribes.
We must not forget that, as per the 2001 census, the scheduled castes and tribes of India add up to 240 million people (180 million from the scheduled castes and 60 million from the scheduled tribes). Based on these figures — and the numbers would have increased substantially by now — they would have been, if they were part of a separate country, the fourth largest nation in the world. It is vital, then, to ensure that these people get their due share in the new economic order; we need to make a conscious effort to do this through programmes of affirmative action such as the one the Tata group is trying to put in place and expand.
Where do you think India features, as of now, on any index of development
and social justice?
India stands relatively low on the index of social justice, particularly in the context of gender and caste, because we have, as we all know, the largest number of excluded and marginalised people in the world. But at the same time, the India of today — through its constitutional democracy, through the essential messages of its freedom movement — is in a much better position than any other country ever has been in terms of having a platform for social change and revolution that is constitutional and peaceful.
The main challenge here is to let the constitutional processes take their own course. We should not impede the social vision of the Constitution of India or undermine it. If this social vision is implemented in good faith, the result will be a peaceful and constitutional social change. But if we continue to attack the constitutional vision for social justice, then I think we will jeopardise everything, including growth.
Do you see the emergence of a sociocultural revolution through
One explanation for why such violence takes place is the failure of development, or the lack of its capacity to deliver. But that is only a symptom. Why is it that we cannot deliver with development? The reason is social injustice and the continued discrimination against those who are excluded. Unless we can provide an equal voice to all our people, regardless of their current economic or social station in life, we will cease to be a functioning democracy. We must recognise that a lot of the violence that is going on is because of our failure, at the most basic level, to address the social injustices that prevail in our country.
What role do you see industry bodies and the private sector playing
to change this reality?
Economic growth has to be seen as an instrument that helps improve the welfare and well-being of all Indians, not just of the minority that happens to be in positions of power. Democracy means having to accept decisions that may not be conducive in all ways to achieving corporate growth and objectives. But corporations are subordinate to the overall social, economic and political goals set by this country through its constitution; they must accept and work through those mechanisms that are granted by the constitution to achieve their goals.
Corporate houses should be concerned about the increasing inequality of wealth and consumption that is being seen in India today. They should be much more sensitive about how they distribute the benefits of the wealth they generate to shareholders, management, and the general public; they need to be much more sensitive towards the poor, particularly in relation to natural resources and land; and they must strive to build a consensus around how to develop and implement their commercial strategies, rather than use the power of the state to ram their interests down the throats of the common people of this country.
The affirmative action initiative by corporate India — is this
merely to change perceptions or do you see it as something more substantial?
Are minority communities likely to benefit from such affirmative
How important are societal attitudes in the success of affirmative
What should the government do, in terms of policies and legislation,
to promote affirmative action in India?
How do we go beyond divisions and create a unified nation, or is
this too much to expect?
Ultimately that’s what this is all about: a fight to get control of finite resources. It is for this purpose that some people create all these divisions and subdue other human beings. The rest of us have to fight back and defang all these ideas and ideologies that are employed to weaken and divide us from one another.