Thursday, May 08, 2008

An Equal Opportunity Commission?

The Madhav Menon Committee Report on the establishment of an Equal Opportunity Commission submitted recently to the government recommends outlawing discrimination against 'deprived groups' in the public as well as private sector. The 'deprived groups' must be defined on 'grounds beyond their control' and must satisfy an objective (and evolving) deprivation index to be protected from discrimination.

Any doubts about the existence of discrimination in the private sector can be set to rest after reading the empirical findings of this paper by Sukhdeo Thorat, not to mention various other newspaper clippings of individual cases of discrimination, especially in schools and housing societies.

I have reviewed the Bill here and think it is a good first step to deal with discrimination in the private sector. Some of the features of the Bill are summarised:
1. It does not deal with reservations - its only purpose is to outlaw discrimination in public and private sector.
2. There is an open ended, but objectively-determined, list of protected groups, reviewable by the proposed Commission rather than the politicians. Presumbaly, this list will be subject to judicial review.
3. It addresses both direct and indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs when a facially neutral provision has a disproportionate impact on a deprived group - there is no requirement to prove a discriminatory motive for this.
4. The initial focus will be employment and education sector, although there are strong reasons to include the housing sector as a priority sector as well.
5. The enforcement mechanism is weak. There is no attempt to deal with every individual case of discrimination. The Commission is empowered to take up example-setting cases, but its main task is to direct policy and advocacy.
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