Havells And The Hot Air Debate Of Merit Versus Quota

Merit is an accident of birth. So if you want a fair society, you need quotas.

If you have seen this advertisement of Havell’s fans and not felt a niggling sense of WTF, then you have been numbed by the false definitions perpetrated by the accepted lexicon of upwardly mobile yuppy benightedness.

Cool sentence no? I always wanted to sound like a real columnist. But it’s too damn hard. So here is what I’m saying: the TVC by Havells India, commenting on quotas in educational institutions, is shockingly foolish. So much so that it seems Havells has taken it off YouTube, but since they weren’t smart enough to say no to the idea in the first place, let’s revisit it.

[video type='youtube' id='A1TrevAyvvc' height='365']

A girl and her father are in line for college admissions. There are two stacks of admission forms. One says “quota” and one says “general”. The father reaches for the “quota” form. The daughter pulls his hand back and grabs the “general” form and a full feeling-ke-saath voiceover pronounces something about “nahi chahiye mujhe seedhi” (I don’t need a ladder) and getting there on one’s own strength, while radiating an aura of deep, meaningful pop profoundness.

The ad suggests that merit as a concept excludes quota. And if one includes quota or reservations in an admission process, then it is no longer about merit. This idea displays such a horrible ignorance of language, society, context and history that I sincerely hope Havells fans ki creative team ki hawa badlegi and they get an education (no doubt in general category because they are self-respecting and strong like that).

But before I hate on the sitting duck creative team whose primary job it is to make advertisements that get our attention and sell a product and not necessarily dissect or examine pop culture attitudes, here is what NDTVand Times Now think is smart debate or discussion.

No matter how much the two rivals trash each other and take the aesthetic or confrontational higher ground, scratch the surface and the fundamental attitudes are the same. And they are not the only ones – google “quota vs merit” and check out the long list of tv shows and articles by well-respected big media and you’ll see most pose merit and reservation as mutually exclusive.

Before I go on, it’s important to clarify that there is a legitimate discussion that needs to be had regarding how and on what grounds reservations or quotas are implemented. But that discussion is only possible when one doesn’t see quota as an intervention that is separate and distinct from merit.

So let’s sort this out once and for all.

First, what is merit?

Let’s go to the Oxford Dictionary for this one. Here is what it says: “The quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”.

This is how the pre-loaded dictionary application on my Macbook defines the word:

merit |ˈmerit|


the quality of being particularly good or worthy, esp. so as to deserve praise or reward : composers of outstanding merit.

  • a feature or fact that deserves praise or reward : the relative merits of both approaches have to be considered.
  • Brit. a pass grade in an examination denoting above-average performance : if you expect to pass, why not go for a merit or a distinction?

So merit is about being good or worthy or achieving a grade. How is our goodness or worthiness determined? I expect most will agree that our worthiness (in this context) is determined by the sum total of our intellectual, cognitive, analytical and creative ability. These attributes (especially the first three) are largely functions of our privilege since what we eat, the nutrition we receive, the education or tuitions we have access to, where we are socialised, what we are exposed to, where our guardians can afford to send us for holidays, etc determine how we turn out.

To this please add the swagger of confidence or entitlement that influences what we actually achieve. Because we aim for what we believe is within our reach. Thus, if you were to go back to the top, it is fair to conclude that merit is a function of where we are born, what we have access to – nutrition, education, socialization.

Which makes merit largely (not entirely) an accident of birth.

It is important that those who have negligible or no access to the factors that shape “worth” or “goodness” are given that access. This is the only way we can have a level playing field, which is where any social and economic system works best whether you are a lover of markets or of state control. Only then is there fair competition, based on merit, determining admission to colleges or schools. This concept is more relevant in India, whose civilizational history of inequality, exploitation and prejudice would outdo most others in the world. Thus, in a society like ours, merit is not just consistent but actually incomplete without quota. It makes the system fair so merit really can determine where we end up in life and not be merely a privileged entitlement. I could fill a tome on this subject, but I’m hoping the people reading this know enough history on account of their merit-based education to get the context.

The “quota vs merit” discourse is a fundamentally-flawed debate. The framing is terrible. While I have no doubt every single person in NDTV and Times Now is there on what they believe is merit and not because their daddies or mummies knew someone who knew someone who knew the editors or owners, the fact that they were able to apply for the jobs they have is as much a function of “merit”. Access and exposure is built into the merit equation and we are so used to it that we see it as one entity. Social access has been swallowed up by “merit” and sits comfortably in its belly. If someone were to come into the picture with an antacid called “quota”, it is viewed as a wart or a cancerous tumour that threatens the smooth, bloated hybrid of access and opportunity that has come to be defined as merit.

And that, my dearies, is bullshit. The kind that hawa badlegi Havell is promising us with that ad for the fan it’s trying to sell us.

Personally, I’ll pass on their silly fan because I can afford an air-conditioner. Several actually, on account of my immense earning capacity because of, you know the brilliance of “merit”. It has nothing to do with the circumstances I was born into. Right?

This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.

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