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Caste is a birth lottery disease. Social lottery may be a remedy

Indulge in a thought experiment. There is a bag with 10 balls, of which eight are blue and two are orange. If we pick one ball randomly a hundred times, basic statistics tells us that we should get a blue ball 80 times and an orange ball 20 times. Instead, if it yields an orange ball nearly every time, would you not be suspicious about how the balls were chosen or about the neutrality of the picker?

In an abstract sense, this is what Indian society is experiencing. 80% of Indians belong to the oppressed backward and scheduled castes, religious minorities and tribals (blue balls). The remaining 20% are the privileged ‘forward’ castes (orange balls).

Data reveals that more than three-quarters of all senior professional positions in India are taken up by people from the ‘forward castes’ who constitute only one-fifth of the population. This cannot be a mere statistical oddity. Like the thought experiment above, when people from the privileged castes are being picked in far greater numbers for professional positions than those from the oppressed groups, the very process of choosing people can seem suspect.

Of course, choosing coloured balls randomly from a bag is not the same as choosing people for professional positions and one cannot expect the same theoretical laws of statistics to apply in both. But it is understandable and natural that when the outcomes are so skewed, the ones left out will feel cheated and discriminated against.

The process of choosing people for professional positions in human society is an evolved system of meritocracy. Human societies have developed and refined the process of sorting and picking people through an elaborate system of merit, assessed through grades, tests and skills. Just as the different colours of the balls in the thought experiment were determined right at the beginning, people’s identities are determined in a random and natural manner through a ‘birth lottery’. Society has no role to play in who is born into which caste. Theists may even deem it as a ‘divine lottery’.

When people’s identities are merely a random ‘birth lottery’, then how is it that society’s outcomes are skewed so inordinately? It surely cannot be the case that one’s birth is specifically designed (by God?) in a manner that only those with lower ‘merit’ are placed in backward caste families and those with higher merit are born into privileged families? So, if we accept that which family one is born into is not determined by one’s merit levels, then the next question — is merit determined only by genes and biology?

Even if genes have a role to play, it still cannot explain such a large skew in merit-based outcomes over several generations. Else, there would be no ‘rags to riches’ stories which are endearing only because they overcame a bad birth lottery and genes. Could it then be the case that the system of sorting people from top to bottom on some merit score is, perhaps, not as perfect as we think it is?

There is now a school of thought that advocates tweaking meritocracy in society to include a ‘social lottery’ system. The philosophical idea of a lottery is fairness and equal opportunity to all. If a merit system is producing seemingly unfair outcomes for several generations and exacerbating disparities of a ‘birth lottery’, then a potential remedy is a counter ‘social lottery’, that some countries have tried.

In Netherlands in the 1990s, there were roughly 5,000 students that wanted to study medicine and become doctors, but there were only 1,800 medical college seats available. Until 1972, the admission to Dutch medical schools was freely accessible for all applicants that completed schooling and desired to become doctors. When the number of applicants increased, the Dutch government restricted the total number of seats based on future physician needs. Instead of a pure test-based merit system of admitting students, the government designed a ‘social lottery’ system. The applicants with some basic minimum qualifications were entered into an admissions lottery and picked randomly. The students selected through this process were given admission and the rest rejected. So, rather than the traditional method of sorting applicants by a merit-based evaluation system, Netherlands’ future doctors were chosen by the luck of the draw after ensuring some minimum qualification.

Contrary to popular fear, this ‘social lottery’ system did not produce inferior doctors in Netherlands, compared to other countries with a strict merit-based admission. Netherlands is ranked among the top three in Europe in healthcare quality and has the lowest mortality rates of all from treatable causes.

Essentially, this Dutch experiment shows that choosing future doctors through a lottery produces similar (if not better) results than countries that choose future doctors only through merit. This offers some profound lessons to ponder over:

1: The ‘merit’ system may not be as necessary to produce efficient outcomes as perceived.

2: A ‘social lottery’ system not only produces similar outcomes but has the added advantages of perceived fairness and an equal shot for all.

3: The merit system, while not superior to a social lottery system in achieving outcomes, may actually perpetuate and exacerbate disparity across class and caste, since meritocratic success is driven by access to wealth and social networks.

To be absolutely clear, this is not to even remotely recommend discarding the entire system of merit in society. Stark inequality across caste lines has been explained away with the alibi of merit. But such an extreme skew is not sustainable for too long and may lead to social unrest. It is thus prudent to reassess the merit argument objectively and honestly. There are examples from other countries to evaluate and pilot. After all, the disease of caste is determined by a ‘birth lottery’, and perhaps the best medicine for it is in a ‘social lottery’.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:07 IST)

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