Not by Haj subsidies alone

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

The government must initiate purposive and comprehensive affirmative action for Muslims if it is serious about implementing the Sachar Committee report.

MORE than a year after it was submitted, the Prime Ministers High-Level (Sachar) Committees report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India remains largely unimplemented notwithstanding the governments Action Taken Report (ATR) on it, placed in Parliament at the end of August.

The government has no doubt announced numerous discrete measures, such as a token 20,000 national-level scholarships for students, corporations to fund Muslim-run enterprises and development of artisan clusters. But these steps are modest, even paltry. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced that he would earmark 15 per cent of the countrys development budget for the religious minorities, including Muslims.

But very little of this promise has been translated into action. This makes one wonder if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has really summoned up the political will to implement the Sachar report, especially its recommendations for affirmative action in favour of Muslims.

The UPA should not be apologetic about these recommendations and allow itself to be cowed down by the Hindu Rights propaganda about Muslim appeasement. The Committee not only acquitted itself ably by marshalling data and analysing it well, it conclusively established that without affirmative action for Muslims, it would be impossible to harness Indias social and economic potential and build an inclusive social order that respects diversity and plurality.

Indian Muslims are in many ways historically disadvantaged and face systematic discrimination and exclusion. They fall behind even Dalits and Adivasis in improvement in literacy rates, and access to healthcare, education and basic civic facilities. Their representation in government employment is abysmally low. And their political representation is sinking to the point of their disenfranchisement.

This situation is totally unacceptable and calls for serious, focussed remedies such as aggressive promotion of education, especially for Muslim girls, creation of employment opportunities, urban renewal and public service provision programmes targeting grossly neglected Muslim settlements, special recruitment drives in government and police services, and other measures of Muslim empowerment.

In contrast to these stand the small, piecemeal steps the government has announced. They do not together add up to the One Big Thing, or a well-directed, powerful and visible thrust, necessary to dent the structure of discrimination, deprivation and exclusion suffered by Indian Muslims.

Without the One Big Thing, it would also be difficult to make an impact upon our largest religious minority and convince it that a programme of empowerment with a grand inclusive agenda has been launched. The rather extravagantly named Prime Ministers 15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities deals with the Muslim question only partially and peripherally.

Most sadly of all, the full Planning Commission meeting on November 8 rejected a proposal for a sub-plan for the religious minorities, to be integrated into the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. The draft plan is soon to be discussed by the National Development Council (NDC).

The sub-plan proposal was made by the Eleventh Plan working group on empowering the minorities chaired by Zoya Hasan, political scientist and member of the National Commission for Minorities. It recommended allocation of funds under different heads broadly on the basis of the Muslims share in the population (for programmes that are divisible).

The reasons for the Planning Commissions rejection of the sub-plan are unclear and unconvincing. It did not question the concept of a sub-plan per se it has approved sub-plans for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) , or even cite special difficulties in implementing one in respect of Muslims.

The implicit rationale was that a sub-plan based on a proportional allocation of funds would attract political opposition; it might backfire and eventually prove counter-productive. For instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might question its constitutionality.

This is a weak argument because the Constitution itself mandates affirmative action and state intervention to promote social justice and equality. Besides, the Ranganath Mishra Commission recently clarified that Dalits from all religious communities, including Muslims, are entitled to reservations for the S.Cs under the Constitution.

At any rate, there is a growing danger that some of the valuable suggestions that have emerged from the Sachar Committee might fall by the wayside. These include institutional reforms and general policy initiatives and actions, and more importantly, specific strategies for promoting education amongst Muslims, including measures to reduce school dropout rates, an easier admissions process in higher and vocational education, better hostel facilities and teacher training; enhancing access to credit and government support programmes; improved employment opportunities and conditions; and support for community initiatives.

Meanwhile, one of the few things the UPA government has to show by way of its concern for Muslims is the rising subsidy paid to Haj pilgrims in keeping with its commitment to promote the welfare of the Muslim community. This year, about 1.1 lakh people are expected to make the Haj pilgrimage under the governments scheme by paying a subsidised fare of Rs.12,000. (The fare has remained unchanged since 1994, and the government dropped a recent proposal for raising it to Rs. 16,000 in view of skyrocketing fuel prices.)

This year, the Haj subsidy will rise by about Rs.50 crore to a little under Rs.400 crore. Although this is a tiny amount, and benefits less than one-thousandth of Indias Muslims, it probably represents the largest single head of expenditure by the Central government on Muslim welfare.

Consider another number. Of all the schemes announced recently for minority welfare or empowerment, only one has a sizable financial mass. This is the Planning Commissions proposal to provide scholarships amounting to Rs.1,800 crore to a total of 25 lakh students in Classes VI to X belonging to the minority communities.

This is several multiples of the measly Rs.80 crore provided in the current budget of the Ministry of Minority Affairs, which has remained unspent in the absence of a specific pre-matriculation scholarship scheme. But at Rs. 360 crore a year, it still works out lower than the annual Haj subsidy.

The irony of all this is not lost on enlightened and liberal elements in the Muslim community. Indeed, some of them, like Muslims for Secular Democracy, demand that the Haj subsidy should be abolished altogether: the secular state should not favour the adherents of any faith by financing their religious rituals and practices. It stands to reason that the principle be extended to all religious festivals, practices and events, including the Kumbh Melas and Christian, Sikh and Jain festivals and rituals.

At any rate, the governments ATR makes much of the plan to target 90 minority concentration districts for the provision of basic amenities and employment opportunities without saying what these amenities are. More important, as the Sachar Committees former member-secretary Abusaleh Shariff points out, these districts will only cover 30 per cent of our Muslim population. Shariff argues for a taluq- or block-based approach rather than a district-based one. The ATR is also silent on universalising education, promoting higher learning among Muslims, and improving their representation in government and public sector undertakings.

Since tabling the ATR, the government has set up two committees, one to construct a diversity index, and the other to propose an equal opportunities commission. This may turn out to another instance of tokenism. The diversity index is a worthy academic exercise but has little bearing on defining the priorities of sorely needed affirmative action for Muslims.

The equal opportunities commission is presumably meant to recommend remedial action against diverse forms of discrimination faced by different groups of people. This by definition is a much broader agenda than protecting the rights of or empowering religious minorities. It cannot be a substitute for the imperative of comprehensive, large-scale affirmative action.

If the UPA government is serious about implementing the Sachar Committee report, it should do at least one of three things: flesh out the Prime Ministers 15-point Programme and make it statutory; spell out in a transparent fashion time-bound expenditure and physical achievement targets for the promised 15 per cent budgetary allocation for the minorities; or better still, revive the proposal for a minorities sub-plan within the Eleventh Plan.

Going by recent reports, the draft Eleventh Plan is likely to be revised at the instance of the Rural Development and Welfare Ministries. Once opened up, it should be amended to accommodate a thoughtfully formulated minorities sub-plan too.

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