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Poor Minorities!
By John Dayal, New Delhi

Lack of political will and database, and abundance of plain, unabashed bigotry lead to an increasing economic disempowerment of minorities. Angularities re-surface in formulation of 10th Five year Plan.

At first glance, one does not know whether to laugh, or to cry. It is an official document, after all. Says a paper presented at the meeting of the Sub Group on Minorities set up by the Planning Commission as part of the exercise of formulating the tenth Five year Plan for the country.

‘In general, the economic activities pursued by the minorities (in India) as distinct groups may be summed up as:
a) Of the total Muslim population, more than 70 per cent live in the rural areas. However, a slightly higher percentage than the national average are urban dwellers and are engaged in traditional trades, handicrafts, petty small businesses, non-agriculture labour etc.
b) The Christians are normally inhabiting the urban areas and are engaged in running institutions, hospitals and small businesses
c) Sikhs are mainly engaged in agriculture, transport business, hotel/restaurants, fabrication businesses and small trades
d) Buddhists are normally engaged in traditional activities such as handicrafts, agriculture labour and carrying out petty trades, businesses
e) Parsees are generally rich and are mainly in service and have their own businesses establishments. However some Parsees near Surat in Gujarat are reported to be very poor.’

The statements presented to the Sub Group are preceded by a disclaimer - barring the case of Muslims in which a few academic works are available, there is no study to fall back on in the case of others. Nonetheless, the Planning Commission may end up going by perceptions gathered in the stereotype of Hindi films than by any pretence at socio economic demographic sampling. The bureaucracy drafting the all-important recommendations apparently did not know that a substantial number of Christians lived in the tribal belt stretching from Gujarat in the west to Jharkhand in the East, and that southern Dalit Christians were essentially a rural and semi rural product much as the Christians of Gurdaspur district in the Punjab. The hospitals and schools were run by the Church (read Bishops and congregations) and not by poor Christians as proprietary firms, and the small businesses were only in areas where the community had a substantial district or taluka level base, as in Goa, the Bandra region of Mumbai, Mangalore, or in the Travancore and Trissur areas of Kerala apart from the smaller three of the seven states of the North east. It would be safe to predict that the Tenth Plan, as and when it is made, will carry little more than a pious promise to the minorities. Nothing substantial.

Those who think of nothing but the worse from a government headed by the Sangh Parivar (the same Parivar whose head Kuppahalli Sudershan is forever demanding that the Indian Church further Indianize itself even as his party's government opens up India to a foreign commodity invasion under the WTO flag) have something with which to substantiate their paranoia. Read this from another paper, written in its final shape by an official of the National Commission for Minorities and submitted at the same Sub Group meeting: ‘At times, the government feels seriously handicapped in dealing with matters concerning minorities in the absence of their truly elected representatives. Barring the Parsee Anjuman and the Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, no other minority in the country has a forum with a mandate from the community, which has given rise to the mushrooming of organizations claiming to be representatives of the respective communities. There is therefore a need to ensure that a representative/elected body of each of the recognized minorities is evolved, which could assist the government in formulating policies directly affecting them.’

This paragraph raised a mini storm at the full meeting of the Sub Group, because it had never been raised at any of the special committees of the Sub Groups that were charged with discussing specific areas of social, economic and educational concerns. Patently a trial balloon floated at the behest of the government (of which the current National Commission for Minorities thinks itself to be a loyal wing at all times), it sought to divide communities further, and making a presumption that was both illegal and unconstitutional.

The Constitution does not recognize, much less demand, that each community ‘elect’ its own parliament or panchayat. The majority, Hindu, community also does not have an elected body to represent the religious community. This is why the RSS claim of representing the Hindus is so effectively challenged and denounced by other Hindu groups, and that is why Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Bal Thakarey and K. Sudershan find themselves repeatedly rejected by the sadhus and other congregations of the faithful among the Hindus. They at best remain political groups representing their own membership. The Constitution recognized only constituencies delimited for assembly and parliamentary segments on the basis of demographic regions (for Lok Sabha) based on population distribution, and on a similar pattern within each state for the assemblies.

In the Lok Sabha, the only ethnic or racial Sub Group that finds a reservation - of two seats -- is that of the Anglo Indians. The two representatives are nominated by the government at the behest of the ruling groups. Even among the Anglo Indians, these two members are not elected by universal franchise of the racial group. They certainly do not formally or Constitutionally represent the Indian Christians. It is legally possible for an Anglo-Indian to be a non-Christian, an atheist or agnostic. Race and religion are two separate issues. The Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee is exactly what its name suggests, a committee to manage places of worship. And the Waqf Board, with government representation, manages trust properties.

The government was of course right that there was no economic data on various religious sub-groups. Much of the blame for this lies with the government itself. Barring a broad district level demography in which it gives the numbers of persons belonging to various religions, the government has never really fully published religious data. Its sample surveys remain almost entirely ignorant of stratification within religions. Experts have pointed out that in census data, the figures on religion are among the last to be released, and that too in general terms.

It suits the government not to study and publish the incidence of poverty among the religious minorities. The studies sponsored by an emerging enlightened group among the Muslims more than confirms that poverty levels among the poor of the minorities - leaving the rich Sikh farmers of Punjab and Udham Singh Nagar and the businessmen of Delhi and Mumbai out of it - are comparatively more than the poverty levels in a national average. This is disturbing news, for it means that in the process of marginalization, the minorities seem more prone to be left out of the development process.

The Church too must share in the blame for the absence of a data base or index of poverty, under employment or other forms of deprivation among the Christians of the country. The Parish priest -- and the small community pastor -- does know the poor of his flock; if the religious leadership would merely total up the statistics from the parishes and the small churches, the figures would stun the hierarchy and religious establishment out of its complacency. That, and the denominational divide, is perhaps why no one has really bothered to survey the reality. The results could be inconvenient, if not outright embarrassing.

The ground reality is that the Christian community, on an all-India basis and barring island of affluence or stability, lacks a real middle class that can sustain an Indian church while continuing its commitment to social uplift of all marginalized, it lacks a technocrat, artisan and craftsmen spectrum that can claim to be really self employable and which can absorb state or commercial finance availability by way of loans, venture and bridge capital, and in its large presence amongst Dalit and tribals, it lacks a big or middle level land owning community. The truth is, the Christian community, for the most, is economically fragile. This precipitates its inability both to strengthen itself in Faith, and to join in the struggles of other communities for a better future. Integral empirical surveys - even a sample survey in the Dalit, tribal region, would be an excellent first step to show a mirror to the government and the Christian establishment, and demand new policies, a new argument in favour of Dalit Christians as we formulate an economic agenda for our community in this new century - an agenda not on the alternating doles and rebukes of a mai-baap paternal State or Church.

To come back to the Muslim studies as the only window on the economic plight of the minorities in general, and the data from the loan records of nationalized banks as the only index of state intervention towards capacity building (the main objective), the data is an eye opener. If the Scheduled castes (and this include neo Buddhists too) are the most economically deprived, the Muslims are a close second. According to the study by Prof Abusaleh Shariff, principal economist of the national Council of Applied Economic Research with a 33,000 nationally representative rural sample in 1994, the proportion of income derived from agriculture and allied activities amongst the Muslims is much lower -their share of income is disproportionately large from being artisans, a community both exploited and at risk from the process of globalization in which low cost imports may well replace traditional items in brassware, locks and leather, for instance.

The study also found the Work participation Rate among the Muslims is the least both for males and females, suggesting relatively higher unemployment rates.

In this age of high industrialization, especially in the dawn areas of Information technology sciences and services, there is need also to take a close look at the participation of minorities both in the training stream, and in the management and ownership pattern.

How many Christian Industrial Houses have you heard of? In the case of Muslims, studies have shown their pitiful backwardness in industry. In a group of 2,832 industrial establishments owned by large corporate units, each with sales of Rs. 5 crores or above, there were only FOUR units owned by Muslims. Out of the 6,465 directors in 831 top public limited companies, only 110 were Muslims with only EIGHT being managing directors, and that too in lower echelons of corporate institutions, as reported by Mumbai United Economic Forum president KM Arif. The employment of Muslims in the Public sector was so small as to be a slur on the fairness of government's recruitment policies. In a sample of 73 pubic sector undertakings, both departmental and commercial, the proportion of Muslim directors in the total was 1.20 per cent.

There were few officers or even supervisory grade staff. Not all can be blamed on arguments of poor education among the members of this community.

Recall youth speaking up at a United Christian meeting in Ludhiana, how there were few if any gazetted officers in Punjab from the Punjabi Christian community, which is of Dalit origin.

Institutional glass ceilings and implied disempowerment comes clear again in the pattern of loans disbursed by public banks. The phenomenon of minorities being considered with empathy is itself of recent origin. No official data exists on how much Christians benefit from official loans, but overall statistics conclusively prove that members of the minority communities get much less than their presence would dictate and desire. The National Minorities Development Finance Corporation is currently in the process of a self-evaluation of its finance schemes. The corporation was designed with a corpus of Rs. 500 crore as a follow up of the Prime Minister's 15 Point programme for the welfare of the minorities, but it is a moot question if it has generated any entrepreneurship or self-employment at least in the Christian community.

The data from the nationalized bank sector shows that over the periods of the Ninth Plan and now on the way to the Tenth Plan, life has not changed very much for the major minority community, the Muslims, and for others. In the position of credit extended to minorities. The national average was that though minorities constituted 17.17 per cent of the population of the country, they got only 12.46 per cent of the bank loans at an average of Rs. 18,600. If it were not for states like Kerala, Kashmir, Nagaland and Punjab (in the last two, the local populations of Christians and Sikhs are the dominant community) the figures would have been even more dismal. Even in West Bengal, with a progressive Left government, nationalized bank credit to the minorities is a mere 13.34 per cent for an average amount of Rs. 10,500 while the minority population is as much as 25.56 per cent. Among major culprits are traditional societies of Rajasthan Gujarat ( a lowly 2.99 per cent of finance for a minority population of 9.31 per cent and an average loan of Rs. 21,400) and Andhra Pradesh. Lack of collateral, repaying capacity are culprits of course, but there is no denying that there are in built prejudices at work in the denial of capital to the minorities.

The situation will become worse with the private sector banking infrastructure slowly replacing nationalized and even cooperative or community-based banks. The community based banks, in fact, have been the only bright spot in the entire situation even though their strict norms of collateral, pawning of family jewelry and houses among securities sought, do make them more usurious than other modes of public financing. Globalization of banking and insurance sectors do not augur well for small entrepreneurs, traders and artisans, craftsmen and others. The malaise is deep. It will not do to say that the community must look after its own. No minority community can do so.

The task is to reform the system so that the members of the minorities are at least brought at par with the national averages in economic empowerment, and then encouraged to become self sufficient. New educational and training institutions for professional courses, entrepreneurship development organizations and more venture and bridge capital groups, micro credit societies and cooperative movements are required to reverse the pauperization of communities whose political disempowerment is already a fait accompli.

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