The Sachar Committee report had clearly said the Muslim community needed targeted interventions to bring them socially and economically on par with the mainstream. But that doesn't seem to be happening.
Each year, a fresh but weary harvest of young boys migrate from Baruliya — a village of mud and thatch homes of mostly Muslim residents, in Darbhanga district of Bihar — to seek work in small factories or as domestic help in cities and towns scattered across the country. Some save a little money to send home, but most can barely fend only for themselves. There are boys and young men who return to their families once or twice a year; others leave never to return, lost to their families for all time. For their parents left behind, the only work to be found is in the fields of landowners. Even this work is uncertain, dependent on whether the rain falls, when it falls and how much: there can be drought and there can be floods, or both. For farm employment, they are paid wages of little more than Rs. 50 a day. In lean months, the adults also migrate to bidi factories across the state.
A dusty, two-hour drive from Kolkata is another Muslim settlement in Diamond Harbour — part village, part slum. Most residents pull rickshaws in Kolkata, or labour in farmers' fields closer home. The women earn at most Rs. 50 a day, in home-based embroidery or tailoring. There is no drainage, sewage disposal or piped water. Their hovels are surrounded by slime. Only a fifth of them have ration cards, but even these are almost useless because the shop selling subsidised grain rarely opens. The residents believe that education is the only path which can lead their children to a better life. But they are convinced that life will be only worse, not better for their children. This is their life's only certainty.
Our travels to districts with a high Muslim population in three states, Bihar, West Bengal and Haryana — demonstrated to my colleagues and me how little recent government initiatives had altered significantly the conditions of penury and settled despair of poor Muslim households. The high-level committee of 2006 — chaired by Justice Sachar and appointed by India's Prime Minister to examine the conditions of Muslims in the country — had suggested many ways to reverse their cycles of poverty, low-end employment and poor educational attainments, and secure for them a better future. We tried to understand why the recent slew of official initiatives has so far failed to illuminate the lives of millions of India's largest socio-religious minority.
There are extraordinarily low budgetary ambitions of programmes for socio-economic development of a historically disadvantaged community of 177 million people. The per capita Plan allocation of resources for minorities in 2010-11 was as paltry as Rs. 797, below even allocations for Scheduled Tribes of Rs. 1,521; and Rs. 1,228 for Scheduled Castes. Religious minorities, including Muslims, constitute 19 per cent of the population, but budgetary allocations for schemes designed for them is a little over five per cent of total plan allocations.
The Government's major flagship programme in response to the Sachar findings, the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme (MsDP), identifies 90 districts in which Muslims are 25 per cent or more of the population. In these districts, officials prepare area-development programmes, mostly for augmenting infrastructure. They are not required to — and are often actively discouraged from — actually targeting expenditure to Muslim dominated villages, hamlets or urban settlements. As a result, although money from this modestly funded programme is spent in districts with higher proportions of Muslims, we found that the projects mostly are neither located in nor benefit the Muslim populations.
Muslim women and men, rich and poor, of all ages, in villages and in towns who my colleagues and I encountered in our travels were unanimous about one thing: the single most important and valued contribution that they wanted from government was education, in government institutions with both Hindu and Muslim children. Muslim settlements have few government schools, and those that exist lack facilities and staff. They also require for older girls exclusively girls' schools, and residential hostels for both boys and girls. If this deficit is to be addressed, those Muslim villages, hamlets and urban slums which lack schools at various levels should be identified, and schools opened and equipped with buildings, teachers and facilities.
In Mewat district in Haryana — with 80 per cent Muslims in a state in which they constitute barely five per cent of the total population — there are less than 5,000 Muslim students in secondary school. My colleagues visited a Muslim village and found the primary school with ‘a dilapidated building, barren courtyard and dingy classrooms'. But instead of spending MsDP funds to upgrade this school, the government preferred to spend it on a neighbouring, wealthier non-Muslim village. This pattern was repeated in all the other districts we visited. In Darbhanga, in 2009-10, 66 new primary schools were opened, ostensibly for enhancing access to children from minority backgrounds. Curiously, only seven of those were in minority concentration areas. Programme projects were to build additional classrooms for schools and hostels, but these had few Muslim children enrolled and mostly in areas with few minority habitations.
Officials we spoke to shared in private that they were actively discouraged to map and target their plans to Muslim settlements. In any case, this is not mandated in the scheme instructions. There appears at all levels a reluctance, once again, to boldly target services to this disadvantaged community, for fear of accusations of ‘appeasement'.
For Government's attempt to close the vast livelihood gap of Muslims in 24 Parganas, we found that only 2.2 per cent minority BPL households have been covered by the self-employment SGSY scheme, and less than 1 per cent of the households have actually received bank credit. Likewise, in MG NREGA, although Muslims constitute 36 per cent of the population and 45 per cent of the job card holders, they account for only 13 per cent of the wage employment generated under the programme.
There are grave problems also with the institutional machinery created by government to deliver these modest initiatives. In districts, we encountered officials who were de-motivated, untrained and often carried mainstream prejudices against Muslim people. They prepare plans without ever consulting the intended recipients: Muslim youth, women and impoverished workers. In state capitals, minority departments were typically marginalised, under-resourced and under-staffed. At the apex in Delhi is the union Ministry of Minority Affairs. It faces role confusion similar to other Ministries such as for tribal, women and child welfare. These ministries tend to have a self-image of being marginalised to the side-lines in the hierarchies of power. They have modest budgets because they are not primarily implementing, but advocacy departments. They should monitor and advocate for the disadvantaged group with each central Government department and state government. But for this responsibility, they neither have the clout, nor the motivation.
Instead, as acutely observed by the lead researcher of our study, Sajjad Hassan, ‘...there seems excessive anxiety to dissociate schemes for minority development from the minorities... Government has been unable to cut through the tired, and by now defeated argument that schemes specially for Muslims are potentially socially disruptive, and hence best avoided. If anything, social cohesion is best promoted by engendering equity, something that requires tailor-made targeted interventions for those left behind by the development process... In practice, the programme has been reduced to an area-scheme, that misses everyone'.
If governments are to assist millions of indigent people of Muslim faith in India out of poverty and exclusion, the answers are so not hard to find. The Sachar Committee Report itself lists many solutions. Government must create a separate budgetary sub-plan for investment exclusively on development programmes for Muslims, in the way that governments have done for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. It must spend the greatest part of these earmarked resources in building schools and technical institutes which are located in or near Muslim habitations, and to provide stipends, scholarships and residential schools to make it feasible economically for impoverished parents to send their children to school and college rather than to work. Textbooks and the school environment must be egalitarian and respect diversity. The doors of banks should open to people of minority faiths, and disadvantaged castes, and traditional livelihoods of small producers protected. Diversity should be actively promoted in the work place – public and private – and in habitats. Discrimination should be legally and resolutely resisted.
The burdens of history cannot be shed in a day. But we can surely walk that path if we walk together.
Keywords: Sachar Committee