Posted by: Vikram | May 20, 2013

Behind Middle India’s Celebration of the Meritorious Marginalized

Auto-driver’s daughter tops national CA exam“, “Hawker’s son clears IIT-JEE“, “Bidi labourer’s daughter clears UPSC exam“. April-May is the exam result season in India, and one invariably finds news headlines about such fantastic individual accomplishments. Indeed, clearing such demanding exams is a major accomplishment, and to do so with all the odds stacked against oneself is nothing short of remarkable. However, the response of the India’s middle classes and elites to such news deserves some scrutiny. It is one thing to be inspired by such achievements, but quite another to hold these rare events as triumphs of ‘merit’, as opposed to something else (aka reservations).

First, even if the triumph of ‘merit’ claim had any statistical backing (it doesnt, as we will see in a bit), being asked to clear extremely competitive exams to simply achieve a decent middle-class existence is not exactly fair. The workers that entered the middle class on the back of the automotive and other manufacturing industries in the US, and the factory workers moving out of poverty in modern China did not have to clear any competitive exams. These hyper-competitive exams are really the gateway to the elite and upper middle class worlds, sometimes the poor can get in through sheer grit and brilliance, but it is mostly a gateway to which only the middle classes have access.

To see this, we need to see where the vast majority of the people who clear these exams come from. 56 % of the successful IIT candidates came from the CBSE board, whereas only 5% of the total student body is enrolled in that board. Indeed, the CBSE board schools have traditionally been reserved for employees of the Central Government, although now they are the board of choice for the general middle class. Based on anecdotal observations, if we consider the set of students enrolled having a parent employed in a Government service (which cannot be more than 10% of the population), the vast majority of the successful candidates of the IIT, CA and UPSC exams will have such a background. So yes, the one odd poor student clears the exam, but the 99 other clearers are from the middle classes with educated parents.

So why does the middle class celebrate the achievements of these marginalized students ? After all, for most of the year,  it shows nothing but disdain for their ‘vernacular’ and ‘regional’ culture, and seeks to sequester itself from them by building gated communities and barricading public spaces for its own use. The answer is perhaps related to the mythologies of hard work and perseverance that middle classes around the world construct around themselves. Be it America, Brazil or India, the not quite elite and definitely not poor sections of society seek to create a discourse that legitimizes their own position of relative privilege in the society. By pointing out the ‘merit’ in the achievements of these marginalized students, the middle class is pointing to its own ‘merit’ and pointing to the ‘non-merit’ness of the reserved candidates, and the remaining poor.

More broadly, this celebration of merit is also a subtle endorsement of the status quo, notwithstanding how clearly unfair it is to the marginalized. The middle class is telling the marginalized, “Look its possible to move up the ladder, you just need to work hard enough.” Perhaps, it is time for the marginalized to tell the privileged sections, “If only the contractors who employ us to build your houses, paid us the salaries that we are due, factory owners compensated us fairly for the limbs we loose making your appliances and toys, doctors and teachers provide us with the essential services that both you and we paid taxes for, there would be fewer poor to ‘celebrate’ the achievements of.”


  1. Hi,

    I just want to add that a more apt description of the class( and the culture and the media) that you are talking about will be ‘urban upper-caste middle class’ imo. Second, it is this class that benefited the most under the Nehruvian state-capitalism and now it is this class that has virtually seceded from India. ( In Arundhati Roys terminology)

    And recently there has been a huge slowdown in job market and all sort of young educated guys ( even engineers and MBAs) are roaming jobless. There was a recent report in Tehelka on how the so called ‘demographic dividend’ has turned to be a ‘ticking time bomb’.

    PS : I always wonder how you are aware of all these minute details ( barricading et al) living in the States.

    • I agree with your comment about the middle class being better described as ‘upper caste middle class’, in fact, I would add the qualifier English speaking as well.

      I am afraid that the difficult job market for Engineering and MBA graduates was always on the cards, it is probably only getting exacerbated by the current slowdown. There is just an overwhelming over supply of such graduates, the root of the problem there is how our system creates a hierarchy of degrees and strait jackets young people.

      About the minute details, most of it is inferred from readings, being there first hand would improve my understanding of course.

      • Education primarily serves 2 purpose. First, utilitarian ie get a job, decrease the amount of dowry etc, Second, for an all round development of human being as a member of society etc. In my view the dominant view of education in the mindset of Indian Middle Class is the utilitarian one, ie just to get a job. Basic change in this mindset can solve many problems.

        Regarding English language, I dont exactly know what your views are but I agree that it should be added as a qualifier for the middle class. Having said that the role of English in social mobility/ upward mobility can hardly be under estimated, especially for people coming from the (so called) lower caste rural background. Its bigger social equalizer than corruption imo, What your take??

      • Shwe, I agree that the middle and lower middle classes have a primarily utilitarian view if education. The question is, how do we bring about a change in such deeply held views which are reinforced by state policy. I think the key is to start working at the school level itself, expose young students to different kinds of jobs and career paths.

        Regarding English, I think it both equalizes and stratifies. But the good thing is that it is equally distant from all our languages and free of their discriminatory baggage.

  2. Regarding IIT JEE, one can have a look at the report by IIT Kanpur for JEE -2012 at

    From this report :
    “Of all the candidates who were offered admission, 61%, 27% and 12% candidates were from the cities, towns and villages, respectively. ”

    It is clear that only 10% are coming from rural areas.
    “CBSE board students performed better than the state board students as they constituted 38% of the
    qualified candidates which is higher than the 30% registered in GE category. State board students made
    up about 40% of the qualified candidates against 51% of registrations. More than 90% of the registered
    candidates came from state boards and CBSE with ICSE contributing another 4%.”

    This substantiate the point by Vikram that most of the candidates getting selected are from CBSE schools. In fact, I am no longer get carried away by success stories of poor marginalized people. Even in one or two get selected in exam, it does not change the situation of whole marginalized people.

    Sometime people argue that a number of jobs coming in India. This argument is on the basis of their observation of cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad i.e. metro or semi-metro cities. But their argument fails when we see the reports on the jobs in India. I attended few lectures on Economics in which the teacher pointed that in the last 10-15 years we are witnessing jobless growth. Since 1991, the number of personnel employed in govt sector is decreasing. This is more or less compensated by jobs in private sector.

    Vikram, Govt has opened the multi brand FDI in India. I like to see an article about it from you which analyzes all pros and cons of it. I am myself of opinion that it will result in tremendous job loss and will satisfy only the moneyed middle class.

    • Thanks sanpatel90. We are indeed witnessing jobless growth. The sad story is that it doesnt need to be that way. We have a huge shortfall in skilled labor in areas ranging from medical care to primary education to aircraft maintenance to automotive engineers. But our education system, with its ‘weed out’ mentality simply does not match interests to employable skills.

  3. Each class will try to perpetuate and better its claim to resources, even if such articles were not published. Such stories are neither necessary nor sufficient for the Indian middle class to feel good; MNC jobs and big bucks are both necessary and sufficient. So why are such stories printed? Partly for the same reason as there are Olympic games for physically challenged people. But Indian mainstream media prints plenty of drivel without any definite nefarious purpose. Such articles are nowhere near the really serious reasons why one should never touch an Indian newspaper on a day one wants to be calm, collected, and achieve something.

    • Welcome tp. The thesis here is that such stories are highlighted by the media to reflect their own legitimacy, and by extension, that of the current system. MNC jobs and big bucks are aspirational items, not legitimizing ones.

      Your comment about why the Olympic Games are also held for disabled people is quite off the mark in my opinion. But that is a matter for another discussion.

  4. Good Writeup Vikram.

    To be rich in an unjust society is a disgrace hence the middle class has renamed itself aam admi is enjoying the subsidies while benefits of government schemes are not reaching to the poor class. The whole middle class has been built on some sort of subsidized education or tax relief. Even infrastructural support, cheaper land and electricity has been well utilized in developing strong base of middle class. And to become an education superpower we need to values equality more than excellence in earlier stage.

    • Yes, yayaver, the Indian middle class has basically been built of large scale state led economic and government activity. Only in the last decade or so, has there been a genuine non-state dependent middle class, but even they depend on the state for higher education, security and infrastructure.

  5. Vikram,

    You say, “…but even they depend on the state for higher education, security and infrastructure.” If I cannot depend on the state to provide security and infrastructure, then what does the state do? I recognize that higher education is not an essential state function.

    So, recognizing and applauding a genuine achievement is a manifestation of ulterior motive? Is there anything the middle class can do that you would applaud? Start supporting Maoists? You are not very far in the continuum from Arundhati Roy.

    Yayavr–if you think middle class Indians are “rich” your definition of rich must be very different. It is the extreme poverty in India that makes the so-called middle class in India even middle class. Anywhere else they would be poor.

    Broadly, the attitude of the middle class is hardly the biggest problem facing India. Heck, the middle class do not even count because they hardly come out to to vote and the politicians are not beholden to them. 65 years of failed policies and the persistence of vast and blinding poverty and you guys are concerned why the middle class is not blindingly poor as well. Bravo. I can see a bright future for India.

    • Welcome Srini. I did not say that the middle class (or any class for that matter) should not depend on the state for basic needs and infrastructure. I only meant to point out that despite the (quite widespread) feeling among the new middle classes that the economy has grown ‘despite’ the government, the situation is more complicated than that.

      The gist of this post is not an ‘ulterior motive’ per se. To put what I am trying to say in another way, the middle class thinks that the current exam-based entry system can address the inequalities in our society, and that those that got left out cant have too much to complain about. India’s inequality problems will take much more than that to solve, and in fact, such exam mania mostly ends up reproducing inequalities rather than alleviating them (see the CBSE-IIT connection for example).

      I applauded the middle class when it participated in the Lok Pal movement two years ago and I applaud it if it goes out to vote (which is quite rare unfortunately). I would applaud it even more if it broadened its point of protest to more issues beyond corruption, issues that affect the most marginalized of India just as much, if not more, than corruption.

  6. A number of questionable claims:
    1. “time for the marginalized to tell the privileged sections, “If only the contractors who employ us to build your houses, paid us the salaries that we are due, factory owners compensated us fairly for the limbs we loose making your appliances and toys, doctors and teachers provide us with the essential services that both you and we paid taxes for…”.
    In case you did not know, burden of income taxes are borne by the middle class, not the poor in India. Of course, sales taxes are paid by everyone but even there, the middle class consumes more goods which means their share of the sales tax is higher.
    2. Yes, the middle classes dominate the higher ranks in all entrance exams. But this is true largely of all categories – even the reserved ones.
    3. If you make it more “equitable” (a misnomer to begin with), all you do is displace those who are already in the middle class with others who aspire to get in. After all, without education, the middle class won’t really remain in the “middle” for long, will it? So one set of entrants take the place of another who were deprived of their chances on class grounds. I don’t see how that marks a net gain except for the vicarious pleasure of seeing some well off folks stripped of their prospects.
    4. Ideally, not just entrance exam performance but other life experiences ought to be taken into account during the admission process. Thus, if someone scored lower but also had a part time job as a restaurant server, that should count for something in his/her application if you believe (like I do) that that is a better indicator of future potential than academic merit alone. But that sort of individualized assessment doesn’t exist. So absent such a system, we do what? Replace them with caste/communal quotas? Mediocrity with the right caste qualifications will outsmart the meritorious? Those who rise through merit have worked hard and know their stuff. That should count for something. What is the basis for believing that those chosen primarily on ground of social indicators of deprivation will match expectations? There is a point to all that investment in education and the returns should exceed it if it has to be justifiable. But oh, I forget, educational outcomes, I suppose are not that important to you, only “equitability”.

    • Welcome Satish.

      1) Of course, the middle class and elites pay more taxes, this is true of most civilized countries. But the poor do pay their share of taxes. I am unable to understand your precise point here, should essential services only be provided to people who pay taxes above a certain limit ? That would be against the Constitution (which now requires children to be educated), and its directive principles.

      A society in which basic services are provided only in return for contributing revenues to the authorities cannot be called a nation.

      2) Yes, I agree. Despite the ‘creamy layer’ regulations, reservations only provide a mechanism to overcome social disadvantages, not economic ones. But the social disadvantages remain widespread, so reservations need to stay in place, to provide balance to the ethnic composition of our higher education and government institutions. The creation of a Dalit middle class and elite is still far from complete.

      It must also be noted that a lot of economic disadvantage correlated strongly with social discrimination. Dalits, STs and Muslims are much more likely to be poor than the upper castes.

      3) I am sorry but I dont understand your assumptions here. All the middle class folks I know who did not get into the IITs and civil services, are comfortably middle class. Most are just as well off as the folks who went to the IITs. Is there any evidence of downward mobility among middle classes in India ? Of a significant section of the middle class moving to a lower middle class status ? Not at all, in fact, the living standards of the middle classes have improved dramatically at a personal level over the last 20 years. It is only in the overall urban environment that there has been a deterioration due to rapid population growth, increase in crime and corruption.

      4) I agree with this point in principle. The admissions process should be far more flexible and broad based. Unfortunately, trust in institutions is extremely low in India, the desire for change is also minimal in this regard, and so we are unable to move beyond the exam based entrance paradigm.

      If you indeed factored in conditions other than exam scores, you will find that the Dalit child is much more likely to have worked as a waiter, or even a farmer, lived in tough conditions than the urban upper caste child.

      Education outcomes are extremely important to me, which is why I have bee writing extensively about the our entrance exams, IITs and India’s higher education set up in general.

  7. Another report confirms that around 80% of selected candidates in IIT are from three boards : CBSE, Andhra and Punjab.

    “More than 8,000 out of 9,700 – or over 80% came from just three school boards: the CBSE, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab state boards. More than 5,500 students come from the CBSE board. Then, there are close to 1,800 of them from Andhra Pradesh and another 750 from Punjab.”

    The analysis will be complete when we know the percentage of total students in 12th doing it from CBSE board. This way we will have an idea that though only x% students in 12th study in CBSE but they get y% of seats in IIT.

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