The Wilson Quarterly

Strictly Merit, Indian Style

In India, companies routinely assess applicants by considering the educational level of the parents, the employment history of brothers and sisters, and whether the applicant lives in the city or the country. The process often leaves many outside the meritocracy.

The merit principle has conquered India. Human resource managers of Indian companies say that the traditional bases of hiring—nepotism, regional ties, and caste—aren't affordable now that India is becoming an economic powerhouse. But India has its own way of judging merit, write sociologists Surinder S. Jodhka of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and Katherine Newman of Princeton. Virtually every hiring manager the two researchers interviewed emphasized that asking questions about family background was critical in evaluating a potential employee. Such questions would be avoided like the plague by American companies fearful of lawsuits over employment ­discrimination.

A multinational Indian shoe manufacturing company, for example, looks for merit by assessing family characteristics such as the educational level of the parents, the employment history of brothers and sisters, and whether the applicant lives in the city or the country, says its human resources manager. Be­cause it’s impossible to delve very deeply into the character of a job seeker in an interview, “the suc­cesses of the rest of the job appli­cant’s family stand in as proof that the individual . . . is reliable, mo­tivated, and worthy,” the authors ­write.

But the new Indian merit principle still makes it nearly impossible for Dalits, once called untouchables, and other disadvantaged applicants to be hired. The majority of India’s 160 million Dalits are rural, landless laborers whose parents and siblings have not had access to a good education or stable job in the formal ­economy.

The new system also discrim­inates against the scions of the very rich, Jodhka and Newman write. Employers seek workers who are humble. Job candidates from wealthy families “have an inner pride within them which makes them arrogant,” says the human resources director of a car manufacturing ­firm.

The language of meritocracy that has spread around the globe, Jodhka and Newman say, should, at least in India’s case, be taken with a “heavy grain of salt.”

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The Source: “In the Name of Globalization: Meritocracy, Productivity, and the Hidden Language of Caste” by Surinder S. Jodka, and Katherine Newman, in Economic and Political Weekly, October 13, 2007. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/R Barraez D'Lucca

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