It was an unusual, unfettered open-court meeting held on the lawns of the office of civil society group Anhad. And among the participants were Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Minister for Minority Affairs Salman Khursheed, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, and around 40 Muslim civil society groups and individuals — all of them eagerly pressing for broadening the nature and scope of Muslim welfare in the coming Five-Year Plan.
In the normal course, the meeting, held as part of the consultative process ahead of the formulation of the 12th Plan, would have been a behind-the-scenes affair. But with Mr. Ahluwalia agreeing to the suggestion that the discussion be held in the open, questions and suggestions were lobbed at him from all sides. Some of the questions also landed on Mr. Khursheed who had to explain why the programmes of his Ministry — in particular those meant for the Muslim Concentration Districts (MCDs) — had not reached their intended targets.
The Muslims present at the meeting stressed one point over and over: The biggest need of the community was education, which required both a bigger budgetary allocation for Muslim welfare and the earmarking of as much as 70 per cent of the funding for education. They complained that the community would continue to lag behind if funds went to a host of diverse, often meaningless, projects as had happened in the case of the MCDs.
The MCDs were chosen on the basis of a minority population of 25 per cent but the funds, which were at the discretion of the District Magistrates, often found their way to the majority community. Secondly, even in situations where the funding reached Muslims, the spending was on short-term utilities such as hand pumps and wells, which did not serve the purpose of uplifting the community. The Muslim representatives demanded parity in funding and treatment with the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, especially in the award of scholarships. They urged Mr. Khurseed to step up the targets for scholarships keeping in mind the rush among Muslim children to avail themselves of the same.
Mr. Digvijay Singh suggested making the Maulana Azad Foundation the nodal agency for disbursing funds to eligible projects.