Friday, June 05, 2009

Discrimination debate hots up: Government set to act

The Government appears set to legislate on the Equal Opportunity Commission. The President's address to the Lok Sabha promised to 'set up an Equal Opportunity Commission'. The Minister for Law and Justice, Veerappa Moily, mentioned the possibility of 'US-model affirmative action' provisions in the private sector, although he did not appear to have used the word 'diversity'. [Update: Here are the excerpts from the interview with Moily - he sticks to 'affirmative action', and steers clear of any talk of 'reservations'. The US reference makes it clear he had 'diversity' in mind.] The Minorities Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, while repeating the President's promise of an EOC, also seemed aware of the distinction between 'reservations' and 'affirmative action'. Mayawati, on the other hand, has criticised the President's address for being silent on quotas in the private sector. It may be noted that Mayawati already has a policy in place which imposes contractual affirmative action obligations on companies that her government deals with, an idea very similar to the one recommended in the Diversity Bill. This concept of 'buying social justice' is discussed here.

The issue of prohibition of discrimination and diversity promotion has been discussed on this blog in the past, but given this renewed and apparently urgent focus of the government, it needs revisiting. These are encouraging soundbites, but the current draft Equal Opportunity Commission Bill (Menon Report) and Diversity Bill (Kundu Report) have some loopholes. I had made the following points in this article in the Economic and Political Weekly:

1. There is no need to for separate commissions for Equal Opportunity and Diversity. Multiple commissions will only increase turf wars between bodies dealing with related matter. There should be a single Equal Opportunity and Diversity Act.

2. Diversity and Equal Opportunity should be linked not only institutionally but also conceptually. The single Act must provide that the diversity-gap for any employer/educational institution/housing society should be relevant to (but not determinative of) complaints of discrimination against them.
[It may be noted that diversity obligations will cover only three grounds (sex, religion and caste), whereas Equal Opportunity is a broader concept applying to a much wider and open-ended list of grounds. The conceptual connection between them can therefore exist only in case of sex, religion and caste.]

3. Housing cannot be left out of the Equal Opportunity Bill, as is the case at present. This is one sector which needs urgent attention, as has been previously debated on this blog and elsewhere.
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