Civil service is the most sought-after employment in Nepal. Good wages, job security and guaranteed retirement benefits attract hundreds of thousands of aspirants to sit for the Public Service Commission (PSC) exams every year. People study day and night, buy dozens of books and join coaching classes as steps to pass those few exams that they believe stands between them and a successful life. But the seats are limited and, naturally, not everyone can make it. This breeds sadness which later turns to anger; anger at the way the PSC is structured, the way the exams are administered and for many, anger at the government’s quota system.
We see many people venting online that they or people they know who sat for the civil service exams would have made it if a percentage of the seats had not been reserved for specific castes and communities. Giving away seats to people due to their identity is the death of merit, they argue, to find surprisingly huge support in social media.
Aggression as a response to perceived unfairness is foreseeable. Seeing someone else receive a service you don’t undoubtedly breeds resentment. But making the quota/reservation debate about merit is flawed because merit, as we call it, does not and has never existed.
Merit is heavily reliant on an individual’s access to resources — monetary and social — which are not uniformly distributed in society. Circling back to the issue of public service exams raised at the beginning, buying the many books required and joining preparation classes requires money, money that not everybody has. “That is an issue of economic class, not caste,” some might say. Well, in Nepal, caste often dictates class. According to the national census of 2011, 43.63 per cent of Hill Dalits and 38.16 per cent of Terai Dalits live below the poverty line. For reference, that number is just 10.34 for Brahmins and 23.40 for Chhetris.
Nevertheless, not every Dalit is poor and not every Brahmin/Chhetri is rich. Ten and 23 per cent are not small numbers. So, wouldn’t a quota based on financial background make more sense than one based on caste? Still, no because this is where social resources come in. A poor Brahmin will still be able to travel freely, get rooms easily and most importantly, find people of his caste giving and marking the exams. A Dalit, even if rich, still is not allowed inside all social circles, has to struggle to get rooms to stay in (sometimes, even in hotels) and will be looked at differently by the people who have the authority to hire him/her.
For Nepal’s indigenous groups, there is also the issue of language. Public Service Commission, and other government exams, are only available to be taken in Nepali – a language that is not the mother tongue of 55.36 per cent of the population.
Moreover, harsh as it may sound, reservations are not about uplifting the poor. They are about ending the caste monopoly present in the state’s structures. Up until just a few decades ago, the state explicitly favoured specific caste groups over others for power and status. The results of this are visible for all to see – Brahmins/Chhetris make up 41.3 per cent of Nepal’s civil service despite being less than 29 per cent of the population.
To borrow the words American-born Indian sociologist Gail Omvedt, “Lessening this caste-monopoly helps to create a middle-class section among castes that are largely poor; a fact that is sometimes used as a charge against caste reservations, but in fact, it is inevitable and progressive to the extent that it breaks up the correlation of 'caste and class'. This itself will not end casteism but it may be a necessary condition for doing so.”