Q is for Queues and for Quotas
In a classroom that I was observing, the children repeatedly tried to thrust their completed work at the teacher. She dealt with the chaos by checking the copy directly in front of her eyes, pleading with the others to wait, reprimanding a specially aggressive one (who may have been first, was ignored, and now was aggrieved.)
Later I went to buy tomato ketchup. While the shopkeeper turned back to the shelves to get me a different brand to what he had proferred me first and I had turned down, a father and son arrived. They stood next to me, discussed their shopping list and the father loudly asked for a packet of savouries and a juice. The shopkeeper froze in his tracks, seemed to forget me and my ketchup order, and began to locate the snack and the juice. It took some time because they also turned down his brand of first choice and debated among themselves, the brands, the sizes and the prices. The shopkeeper kept serving them.
At several other times when similar scenarios have been enacted I have raised my voice in objection, "Kindly serve us according to our place in line." I have had to speak more aggressively still, "Excuse me, I was here before you." Or even, "What is this nonsense? Why can't you finish with one customer and then turn to another?"
This time, with the ketchup purchase, I didn't say anything. I was content to observe, trying to digest the logic of it all.
The simple logic was: adults in India cannot do things in turn because it is not "natural" to do so. "Natural" is to want to be ahead and to push and shout to achieve that. Waiting in line has to be taught and learnt in school. Such a concept is not taught in Indian schools and Indians have never learnt it in their formative years.
There are queues at railway stations, at least to buy tickets, though not to board the train. There are queues at airport counters and to board the plane. But there still are not in banks, unless that bank has a number system. There wasn't a queue at the Punjabi Grill in Terminal 3 at Delhi Airport. There isn't one in the fancy sweet shop I go to. Ksheer Sagar strives to be so state of the art that they have magnetized cards the server hands the customer and the customer presents to the cashier who magically reads the blank card and pronounces the amount to pay.
All that, and no queue! At the counter, the bigger sized humans with the louder voices—mostly males, let's make no bones about it—grab the attention of the otherwise quite polite white-capped servers behind the counter. Several people who come after me are regularly attended to before I successfully catch the server's eye. True, I waste a little time observing and I purposefully do not raise my voice.
I complained to the Ksheer Sagar managers, in an uncharacteristically timid way. The managers looked blank. Their fleeting expressions read, "What the heck? A trouble maker?" I offered them some theatre classes to make their shop run more democratically and not in this old-fashioned feudalistic way. They shrugged and turned to their cash registers.
Learning about queues is part of the larger lesson to be learnt about rules. It is a non-issue in Indian society. It is grossly misunderstood to be not an issue of teaching and learning but of morality and ethics. If I were to discuss it with, for instance my C.A. who prides himself on being a Renaissance man, he would probably say something to the effect of, "You see, what can we do; we have excellent rules in our country but people just do not follow them." It's always the "implementation" that is blamed, and it's always the "others" who are not following the rules.
I intervened in the class I was observing and made the children wait their turn. The teacher looked confused. The children welcomed the structure and also got time to do some of the many interesting things they can do in spare moments rather than compete in a boring way with their class-mates. The invaluable lessons of fairness and equality were dawning on them.
A queue is just the right arm of democracy.
As for the word "quota," it makes some of us shudder. It implies the absence of equality and of free competition.
The definitions are innocent enough. According to Merrian-Webster, a "quota" is a proportional part or share assigned to each in a body; a specific amount that serves as a minimum or maximum.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a "quota" is a number, amount, or share that is officially allowed or necessary.
In India, there have been specific quotas for certain groups of people since independence, for government jobs and admission to certain educational institutions. The Mandal Commission Report, or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Report, was adopted by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990. It provided reserved quotas for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) up to almost 50% of all seats. This policy was not welcomed by those not thus protected and two kinds of agitation started. The earlier one was by upper and middle castes against the reduction in educational and employment opportunities for those not on the SC, ST and OBC lists. The second, later agitation was by different castes and caste clusters to be included in the Other Backward Castes list. There was also a disgruntlement against the policy by sections of the Indian citizenry for the reason that, as they claimed, the standards of training and service would fall if people were given opportunities simply according to quotas.
There is no question that the whole experiment of "Reservations," as it is called, is a politically ambitious one, based on the undeniable history of inequality in India that had produced a gross under-representation of lower castes and Dalits in all positions of power. The reactions to the policy and the distortions that followed were difficult to foresee. Inequality is perhaps worsening as we speak, even as many youth are now getting the opportunity to study and to work that they did not have before. Ajay Navaria's Hindi novel Udhar ke Log is a story of young Dalit men who are bureaucrats, Police officers and academics, all thanks to accessing higher education through the quotas offered their communities.
I remember my surprise when the Maulana I was studying Urdu with revealed that he was an Other Backward Caste as well. He showed me a printed list of all the castes thus included and there was his: Muslim Kayasth.
Now, that is the stuff of comedy, if not farce. Islam believes in the equality of all. Kayasthas believe that they are God's gift to humanity, being the cream of the intellectual and educated classes. And the well-intentioned politics of Affirmative Action in India had put "Muslim Kayasthas" on its list!