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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Indian Muslims - The Lamb's share

The Lamb’s Share
There’s funds, schemes aplenty, but the Muslim lot is no better. Why?
Abusaleh Shariff


It is essential to begin this essay by emphasising that minorities, including the Muslims, maintain aspirations and seek opportunities for development like any other community in India. Yet an empirical review suggests that Muslims are lagging practically in all spheres of development, including education, employment, income, assets and so on. There have been efforts by both the Centre and state governments to overcome deprivation amongst the Muslims across India, but a quick review of outcomes suggest little improvement. There is a need for durable changes, a recognition that deprivation amongst the minorities/Muslims exists due to systemic causes which can be set right only through broad-based public policy initiatives, not just through special purpose vehicles such as the minority/Muslim-oriented programmes; in fact, it would be best to assist them to strive to access their share within the mainstream line of ministries, departments and programmes.

India, through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment, has made a strong sociopolitical statement of its arrival as a mature democracy, championing multi-layered decentralised governance, sharing substantial powers and a national pool of resources with the states. Further, the enduring canons of governance and economic development are grounded in the principles of socialism, inclusiveness and secularism and fully conscious of regional imbalance.

Like the other main communities of India, the Muslims should have been able to pursue social, economic and educational aspirations within the framework and support of state-provided infrastructure, opportunities and political awakenings. One expects that the ‘diversity’ natural to our population would be reflected in public spheres such as in educational institutions, public and organised sector employment, political systems and governance structures at all levels. Yet, in spite of the fact that practically all social, educational and economic spheres of living are governed and regulated by the states, one finds substantial differences (often unacceptable levels) between varied social groups and across states. Such differentials are prominent in spite of special constitutional provisions bestowed upon the minorities since Independence.

Maintaining diversity in public spheres is a must. If it does not happen naturally, it has to happen via state intervention.

Over 150 million citizens, just about 14 per cent of all Indians, profess Islam as their religion and reside in all parts of India. Muslims are the largest (80 per cent) of all the identified minorities. They reside in substantial numbers and proportions in states such as Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, UP and Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra and so on. There are examples and best practices found within India. Consider the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, all have devised policies favouring Muslims at two levels. Muslims here have relatively better access to quality mass education (both elementary and higher level) and employment; and given the history of relative deprivation of the Muslims, the states have extended the benefit of reservations in a certain measure of fractional-proportions linked to their size and share in the population. Such quotas are enabling Muslim girls and boys to catch up with their peers amongst the Hindus and Christians, both in education and employment. Similar provisions enable Muslims to participate even in the political spaces. AP has made a beginning by promoting a system of ‘co-option’ or ‘nomination’ system to the mandals, zila parishads and municipalities/nagar panchayats (AP Panchayat Act, 2006).

Maintaining diversity in public spheres is essential. When this does not happen naturally, it has to be made to happen through government intervention. Legislation can be one way (the mechanism is to remind the government and the institutions that ensuring diversity is their responsibility). Diversity can also be assured by offering incentives/credits to government departments, institutions, universities and so on. Another means is to provide institutional access to citizen representatives (including those from the minorities) to ensure ‘equity’ in the public sphere. An ‘Equal Opportunities Commission’ will go a long way in both ensuring diversity as a key state objective, and also as an institution to enforce redressal.

The Centre has made some efforts during the past 3-4 years to address various aspects of Muslim deprivation. Under the revised 15-point programme, a special investment programme is on in about 100 minority concentration districts (MCDs); exclusive scholarships have been announced for the first time to cover minorities, both in elementary and at higher levels of education. The RBI is consistently sending memos to public sector banks to increase funding to applicants from the minorities and so on. However, a review of all the above suggest that the MCD programme has not even made a presence in many states like West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Gujarat. The overall utilisation is less than 20 per cent of the total funds earmarked for the programme since inception. Similarly, the scholarship programme, although very popular, is able to cover only a fraction of total applicants. And it appears that the public sector banks have not even taken note of the repeated requests by the RBI, a matter of utmost concern.

The larger malice of exclusion has to be fought unitedly by all ‘regular-line departments’ and ministries at the national and state levels. It also needs collaboration and partnership with civil society and private institutional structures. Will a separate ministry ensure the implementation of the over 300 programmes that aim to alleviate poverty and improve human development, promote inclusiveness of the excluded, whether they be SCs, STs or Muslims?

In the absence of any timeline, programme-specific implementative strategy and clarity on monitoring mechanisms, no results will be forthcoming. It is important to mention here that a flat policy of earmarking 15 per cent of budgetary allocations to favour the minorities is not implementable. Rather, the service delivery procedures must use population shares at the “programme-specified operational levels” such as the district, taluka and block levels so as to ensure maximum coverage and provide a sense of equity. The early euphoria and expectations are dying out. UPA-1 took many initiatives to diagnose the problem; now UPA-2 must ensure that inclusive policies are actually implemented before the people at large become disappointed. I only hope that government procrastination on issues related to Muslims does not lead to frustration.

(The author is an economist who oversaw the writing of the Sachar Commission report.)

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