The Unfulfilled Promises of Meritocracy

On the frustration of a stratified India, its meritocratic institutions, and educational mobility

The modern Indian republic was established on a principle radically forward for its times—that you have as good a chance as I do. This promise is based on the idea of an egalitarian world of equal opportunity, marked by the death of aristocracy to give rise to its very antithesis: meritocracy. Meritocracy is a principle at the heart of the Indian constitution, where the draw is not from the hand of privilege but from merit, by which everyone deserves their winnings. Simply put, it equates merit with hard work and skill, variables that are unreserved and available to all. As simple as this road to success sounds, it is hardly so. The very principle that aimed to quell privilege and patronage has now become synonymous with it. In the United States, the racial wealth gap has made many Americans question the very Dream their nation was supposedly built on. In England, there appears to be a burning case for the abolition of ‘independent schools’ that reek of privilege in comparison to ‘state schools’. 

But what of our India, a nation that seeks equity as much as equality, constitutionally and legally? 

Nehruvian India, in establishing its democratic republic, was concerned about its equity share within the country’s institutions. While discrimination of all manners were abolished in the Indian constitution, there were further efforts to eliminate the gap between the privileged and not, especially as the nation’s caste and class hierarchies intertwined. The state recognised the principle of equitability as the means to enable a justified and equalising meritocracy, resulting in the policy of ‘reservation’. ‘Reservation’ allowed for a selective number of seats to be set aside in all higher public education structures, public employment sectors, and legislative institutions for equal representation and social mobility. Though this was a visionary and farsighted effort, it was also hollow.  

To rise to the level of any of these equitable opportunities, primary education was required—a struggle on financial and social lines for the very people for whom ‘reservation’ was formulated. Omprakash Valmiki’s Dalit autobiography Joothan is a testament to this historical fact. He notes the struggles of education for the marginal, with dropouts all across the path, as he becomes his community’s only educated member. Financial means were certainly not steady for what seemed at once to be a necessity and a luxury. On this uneven field, a large number of middle-class families created a new generation of public school-educated workers, who rose higher in social class while the lower classes dipped. As a result, ‘reservation’ as a means of equity, decelerated, and the meritocratic ladder to social mobility itself lay crumbling. In 2009, however, the government passed the ‘Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, making education not only a fundamental right but accessible without fortune. 

But it was far too late. This long-overdue act had been hurdled by a new obstacle: the rise of private education. The liberalisation of the Indian economy spawned the rise of private school education that padded resumes and college applications with extracurriculars, claimed access to a great number of resources that public schools lacked, and most of all, communicated primarily in English—an important feature of the cultural capital of Indian elite. It was thus able to prepare students with elements absent in public schools and add to the merit they were to be judged on in the future, gained in a way not possible for all—through privilege and wealth. Education essentially became a business and a profitable one too. The last two decades have seen an exodus-like shift from public schools to private schools. An India Today article notes that between 2011 and 2015, the number of children attending government schools fell by 11 million, while the figure rose by 16 million among their private counterparts. Further, private schools stayed restricted to urban spheres of the country, which caused students in rural areas to suffer. Isn’t it all bound to happen when the national finance budget cuts educational funding by 6%? Free education from government schools allows students to reach public colleges and universities to gain social mobility but does not equip them with the supplementary skills they will also be evaluated upon. Moreover, this year, the budget has nearly erased government-funded loans for public universities and colleges. This shift to the private in primary and secondary education now seems to be mirrored in the world of higher education. Numerous private universities have begun to share the space of elite public institutions in the last two decades.

Yet, the one field that remains thoroughly resourced and bright is technological and scientific education. Specifically, technological engineering. The ‘IIT Dream’ has been embodied and enmeshed in the Indian public sphere, with iconic tales of rigidity and rigourousness. It remains a source of social mobility as students from all backgrounds receive a chance at bettering their quality of life. Or does it?

The race of the engineering discipline is accompanied by a wide array of ‘coaching centres’, that have become quintessential to the Indian educational field. To prepare for the entrance tests to enter these institutions, there exist other institutions that help, which, yet again, are accessible only through money, almost as luxury. As a simple Google search will tell you, no guaranteeing ‘coaching institute’ will ask for less than Rs.50,000, a fortune in a country ranked 72nd among 106 countries for the highest average income per month. It is important to note here that India’s middle class, obsessed with this ‘IIT Dream’, differs in statistics from other nations. It constitutes a relatively select portion of society, making 28% of the country’s population. But do not be misled by that number, for it amounts to about 600 million people. Of course, those from higher sections of society have washed their hands off these Indian systems to be educated in Ivy Leagues or at Oxbridge; but a large portion of the country with considerable wealth and privilege still depend on India’s elite educational institutions. 

The entrance tests are the means to evaluate merit among the applicants from all classes and backgrounds. Although as we saw with IIT,  test-taking does not occur in a vacuum, dependent on the variables of effort and ability, but over an uneven plane of reality. The wealth-infused capital of coaching institutes provides their students with a unique frontline in the specific skill of test-taking, where many can get left behind. It is no surprise that recent reports reveal a deficit as great as 60 to 90 per cent among the reserved positions of the country’s ‘elite’ institutions. Our meritocratic systems are competitive, worshipping superiority over excellence. As Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School says, “Unless you’re either super talented or super lucky, if you’re outside of the elite, probably hard work is not gonna be enough”. To access the gears and tools that have become so essential in this process of mobility requires several privileges, not only of finance but urbanity, a strong primary education, and academic affluence. These blocks are piled on top of another, brewed to disadvantage those who lack the foundational bricks. 

Amidst this gloomy picture, there are some hopeful images. Numerous lower castes and class members have gone up the ladder. The Union Public Services Commission Exam, a common public cause for social mobility in India, has witnessed many Dalit achievers. However, this fact has resulted in two narratives opposing the uncovered layers of meritocracy. One weaponises it against the oppressed, formulating a case for the abolition of reservation. If the “supposedly oppressed” are high on the charts, why must we need reservation? Such is the question posed by a great many who, blind to their generational privilege, believe that social disparity is dead; that we live in a world of promise where chances are equal, achieved only and solely through effort. Which leads us to the second narrative that places the onus of a low position on the stupidity of the unprivileged, essentially asking “if they can do it, why can’t you?” It is clear that the history of generational oppression has not made a playing field equal, and while our predecessors did recognise this in ways, they also failed to level it. 

You have as good a chance as I do, they believed. 

Opening this piece with that sentence has a more forceful import than one would expect in the Indian context, especially as the equitable meritocracy seems to be threatened. Writing this piece sitting within the comfort of my privilege—elite education, cultural capital, private property—is ironic. But at the same time, it does not reduce one’s humanity. Here, to recognise is to realise. Meritocracy is beginning to resemble more and more the very system it aimed to overthrow, almost dangerously. While India provides the opportunities, they remain haphazard, available in certain positions and empty in others. Meritocracy, though egalitarian in theory, is just that. For its essential existence, one needs the bubbles and vacuums that theories are set in, where the field is devoid of contours. While equity, brought by policies like reservation, remains an answer to the myth of meritocracy, it has hardly begun its process. The principle’s flaw lies in its continuance to cling onto a very capitalistic metaphor—life is competitive. And whether you have a chance as promising as I do, we are still on a track, running against and chasing one another. But why must it be so? Why are we graded at all, pit against one another in an endless race? Rather, we must cease investing lives with wealth, money, and status. A person’s evaluation must arise from their character. Not some vague definition of merit moulded by advantages and head starts over hard work and skill.

Tanmay Pandya
Tanmay is a sophomore in Sociology at Shiv Nadar University, India. He prefers to spend his time making art and watching home makeover videos.