Dr.Bhushan Amol Darkase
Merit, the discussion about merit in India is remarkable; it is crucial to understand its various aspects. When talking about merit, one must first know its philosophical nature. After examining the definitions of merit, it is clear that it consists of two parts in particular, ‘the quality of being good or worthy.’ The other definition is, ‘worthy of praise or reward.’ But if we don’t look at it from different angles, the meaning will be completely one-sided.
What social and individual factors make merit just or unjust?
Merit holders believe that winning a competition or achieving success is entirely due to their intelligence or hard work & that is why they deserve praise or reward and even go so far as to believe that such a design is morally justified.
In a society where there is equality of opportunity, even in such a society, it is questionable whether such a belief will make a society just.
But this ideological mentality among the winners in a society where there is inequality of opportunity is akin to mistaking fake glitter for meritoriousness. This is because those who win the competition think that their success is self-made and self-fulfilling, which is an entirely wrong idea.
Indian society is uniquely unequal where religious ethical, moral and legal philosophy sanctioned graded inequality of the caste system relentlessly works to weaken ‘a part of society’. And by a part of society, means the depressed classes, which Ambedkar defined as a “part of Hindu society, but a part apart.”
For thousands of years, few exploitative classes/castes/groups have amassed a specific social, cultural, and economic capital. Not to consider this capital would be pure hypocrisy.
A person requires the facilities such as, e.g., educational accessibility, access to healthcare for a dignified way to live in society. In a community with rampant inequality, certain castes with social, cultural, and economic capital can easily pass on these benefits to subsequent kinship close groups. In an unequal society that cannot meet even the individual’s basic needs, the motto of ‘as long as their intelligence or talent takes them’ or ‘we can do it if we try’ is nothing but balderdash.
Many would argue that this is true in an unequal society & that inequality would be eliminated if equal opportunities were provided. But in the book “The Tyranny of Merit,” the philosopher Michael Sandel argues that even in a society where there is equality of opportunity, stratification, even on merit, will be morally or politically unsatisfactory. Because those who win think that their success is self-made and self-fulfilling, and this feeling creates a ‘Hubris of Winning.’
According to the philosopher John Rawls, ‘natural talent’ is also distributed arbitrarily & unintentionally in society. In this way, he argues,”that it is not wrong to assume that a person does not have the exclusive right on the arbitrary advantages they carry; the society also holds some claim over such incidental facilities.”
Some may question this, but according to John Rawls, a person’s willingness to try also depends on his natural abilities, skills, and the variety of options available to him, as well as happy family and social circumstances.
The point is, success is not self-evident and self-fulfilling. It involves many uncertain and contingent factors that no one can control, so successful people must not consider this victory entirely as their undisputed accomplishment.
It will help him not to forget his contribution to society & strive for the development of society as a whole with due consideration for those who are left behind in this competition due to some uncertain and contingent factors.
Merit may eliminate some of the contingent and unpredictable elements of social inequality. However, it still fails to stop the contingent and arbitrary factors such as natural talent, ability, and quality that particular society considers worthy.
It is one thing to eliminate unequal educational accessibility, but addressing unequal natural endowments (intelligence and ability)is an entirely different and challenging question.
The author John Rawls offers a solution, Rawls writes, ” an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only in terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.” Society should be arranged “so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate.”Winning belongs not exclusively to them but also to those who lack natural and other contingent endowments.
If we take a glance at the data on elite behavior and basic educational facilities in India—India has only 97 IITs, NITs, IIMs, and Indian IT institutes —(IIITs), where only 3 percent of students study. The remaining 97 percent of students go to 655 institutions (half of which are funded by public funds) for higher learning.
More than 50 percent of the central government’s fundingfor higher education has gone to only 3 percent who study at IITs, IIMs, and NITs. The remaining 97% of students receive less than half of the total government funding for higher education.
According to Ritika Chopra’s article, “After 20 years, where are the board toppers?” Over half the toppers (from 1996-2015) live or work abroad; most are in science and technology. IIT is his favorite graduate pit-stop. More than half of the toppers (48 out of 86) chose engineering as a degree, six out of ten completed engineering education at IITs. 36 percent studied their first degree at IIT, 65 percent studied engineering as their first degree from IIT.
From the information in the above two articles, it is understood that some elite institutions (only 3% of students) get massive money from public funds, and the meritorious students from these elite institutes go abroad by studying on government public funds. How can society have no share in their success when they get more than 50% of government funding.
Now let’s look at a different piece of information, the critical findings from the research conducted by IIT-Delhi researchers are as follows,
The upper-caste villages are twice as likely to get secondary schools as Dalit villages. The study showed that the country has just about one secondary school for every 10 SC-dominated villages and 12 ST-dominated villages. In SC-majority villages, the probability of getting a new one drops from 75% at the primary level to 9% at the secondary level. The most significant decline in SC-dominated villages is in Gujarat – from 94% at the primary level to 4% at the secondary level. In India, SC- and ST-dominated villages have a 9% chance of getting a public school, while non-SC / ST villages have a 17% chance.
The study found that students living in villages with high ST population travel not only because of the unavailability of public schools but also because of the remote location of these villages. However, for SC-focused villages, the unavailability of public schools seems to be the main reason for long-distance travel.
This means that there are fewer public schools for SC / ST children, and they have to travel long distances due to the unavailability of these schools.
Once a student completes elementary schooling, the decision to move on to the secondary level is influenced by several factors, such as distance from school, increased family subsistence, apathy informal education, and discrimination in the school environment.
The study states that “there is a systematic bias against socially and economically backward castes in the provision of public schools.”
In his book ‘An uncertain glory, Amartya sen points out that basic education has a powerful effect on our quality of life, economic opportunities, political voice & security, tackling health problems, perception of range & reach of human & legal rights.
The main findings of the public report on basic education (PROBE) and ‘Pratichi Trust’ reports show that even the poorest and the most deprived people give much importance to education. People are reluctant only when the schools are located at a considerable distance from where the parents work.
As mentioned in the IIT-Delhi study, the ST, SC-focused villages are the ones where the population of students has to travel long-distance for school availability. All the rigmarole just to reach the school facility, where the quality of education imparted requires a further evaluation.
Amartya sen’s points out the utter dismissal state of educational quality, in his own words, “The fact that Indian educational system is extraordinarily diverse, in a peculiar way, with a comparatively tiny group of children from the privileged classes enjoying high-often-outstanding-educational opportunities, and the bulk of the population being confined to educational arrangements that are, in many different ways, poor or deficient.” 
Those who cry for the sole economic criterion of stratification need to look hard because the major strata that belong to below poverty level & poor category are STs, SCs, OBCs, and Muslim minorities.
The study was done by Satish Deshpande based on the data of monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) (1999-2000).
Findings showed that the poorest or BPL class: the lower castes have a huge proportion of their population here, while the upper castes have a relatively much smaller proportion.
In the year 2000, STs, SCs, OBCs, and Muslims together accounted for 91 percent of the urban BPL population and 88 percent of the rural BPL population.
The median and 90th percentile data of the monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) NSSO (55th round) in 1999-2000 shows that only STs, SCs, OBCs, and Muslim groups were below national average MPCE with STs, SCs affected severely.
In 2011–12, the monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) was about Rs 1,297 for SCs, followed by Rs 1,518 for OBCs and Rs 2,239 for Others, with the corresponding all-India average being Rs 1,645. The MPCE of SCs was only 58% of higher caste incomes, 85% of OBCs, and 79% of the national average. In 2011, compared to 12.4% of the Others and 25% of the OBCs, 30% of the SCs were poor, with the corresponding all-India average figure being 23%. The incidence of poverty among the SCs in 2011–12 was more than double that among the Others (NSS 68th round).
The 1994 and 2005 panel survey data of the National Council of Applied Economic Research found that at least one-third of the average income difference between the high caste Hindu and SC/ST households was due to the “unequal treatment” of SC/ST attributes (Borooah et al. 2015). 
The inherent attribute can not be a cause of a Dalit’s poor status; the lack of resources and traditionally forced unfreedom in low-wage, low-mobility occupations are the main reasons for the cause of economic deprivation in Dalits.
So it is nonsense to say that certain castes lack merit; the drastic differences such as traditional economic deprivation and prejudiced discrimination in educational facilities presented above can only be explained on the ‘group concept’ of exclusion.
The ‘group concept’ [explains that all individuals from a group are excluded due to their social identity, irrespective of their economic standing within a social group, thereby making the discrimination neutral to financial status.]
In Anand Teltumbdes’s words, “When traditional deprivation continues to be inflicted with full force on their customary victims, what more evidence is needed against the claim of a purported secular meritocracy? Tellingly, the champions of meritocracy descend into full-blown casteism soon enough, with victim-blaming. It is as if the most deprived and vulnerable sections of the population have conspired to remain in poverty, for the perverse satisfaction of defaming the country and holding back its progress.”
The general rot of all-pervasive caste prejudice determines the availability of economic, social, or cultural resources.This is an attempt to suggest that in India, inequality of opportunity still depends on various aspects of which caste is the most important past and present.
In Satish Deshpande’s words, “Any individual member of any caste may do well or not depending on his or her abilities and resources, but when we speak of rates of representation for whole communities with millions of members, all such inter-individual differences are averaged out. If genetic explanations are ruled out—as they have been for a long time—the only reasonable explanation is in terms of the social mechanisms (whether intentionally or accidentally created) of systematic discrimination.”
The population of specific castes determines whether there will be a school in a village or not. In that case, those who gossip about merit are either fools, or they know that it is necessary to maintain the existing caste hierarchy.
There is a need to realize that unnecessary hubris is being created around the veneer of merit, and such an outlook harms society.
Plato described it as a “noble lie,” that “Even though untrue, certain inequalities perpetuate civic unity by persuading citizens to accept these inequalities as legitimate.” Unencumbered merit despite the enormous inequalities is a similar ‘noble lie.’
Merit begins as an ideal reality but transforms into a claim of how things are. When making reality an ideal, it is vital to consider whether such a reality is an ideal in itself or just a mirage.
Merit, of course, can be a stepping-stone to bridging the gap between the two ladders, basically a sign of dynamism, but it would be wrong to interpret it as an exclusive deal of equality.
1] The Tyranny of Merit- Michael Sandel
2] IITs, IIMs, NITs have just 3% of total students but get 50% of government funds by Kritika Sharma, The Print, July 30, 2018
3] 20 years on, where are the Board toppers? Over half are abroad, most in science and technology, Ritika Chopra’s, The Indian Express, March 23, 2021
4] ‘How the caste decides where the school will be set up, Chandrama Banerjee’s, The Times of India, February 4, 2021
5] An uncertain glory- Amartya sen, Chapter 5, The Centrality of Education
6] Contemporary India- A sociological view, Satish Deshpande,Chapter 5
7] Untouchability in Rural India Ghanshyam Shah, Harsh Mander, Sukhdeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande, Amita Baviskar, Chapter 1
8] Prejudice against Reservation PoliciesHow and Why?, Sukhadeo Thorat, Nitin Tagade, Ajaya K Naik; Economic & Political Weekly, February 20, 2016
9] Republic of caste, Anand Teltumbde, chapter 1
Dr. Bhushan Amol Darkase is an Assistant professor in VDGMC Latur
and has an M.D. Dermatology, Fellowship in Diagnostic Dermatology