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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Economic reforms and Muslims
By Saeed Suhrawardy

So far, Indian Muslims have restricted their sight to a share in government jobs. The main demand of their leadership has been reservation for the community. Muslim organisations have set the limit to the number of jobs they require. That is according to the ratio of their population to the total population of the country. Unfortunately, government and public sector jobs represent only a part of the total employment potential of the country. Their approach to the non-government employment area is not very clear. That is because no field or deskwork has been done on the subject. No guidance has been available so far about the employment trends in the domestic and international market.

The demand for reservation in government and public sector jobs may look attractive. But who shall assure its political acceptability? That requires consensus and political will among the leading political parties of the country. There is nothing in sight that may ensure that. For all practical purposes, there is no certainty that the dream shall ever materialise. Even if the demand is met that shall not ensure employment for the community as desired or expected. You may reserve jobs for members of a community but who shall ensure that suitable candidates with required qualifications and experience shall be available. That is the experience with reservation of jobs for Scheduled Castes and tribes. Certain jobs are reserved for them but candidates are not available. The jobs remain vacant and make them redundant. That means that mere reservation of jobs for any particular section cannot ensure their suitability for their satisfactory performance. 

So, is there an alternative in sight? Looking for crutches from the government for onward march shall not lead us anywhere. For improving employment prospects of the community, we should become self-reliant. So far not much has been done in that direction. You cannot compel any institution or organisation to find or create jobs for you. However you are at liberty to create new jobs, improve the jobs, you are already doing. You may expand the market base of your economic activities. The community may grow horizontally or rise vertically on the scale of their trades and professions. 

That has to be done within the frame of generally accepted thesis about economic progress of Muslim community. We have to concentrate on the areas, where Muslims are in sufficient number. We have to devote our attention to the trades and activities in which the bulk of the community is engaged. Their efforts for educational advancement lack clear perception of the present and a flawed vision of the future. The constructive effort of the community should have an integrated programme of educational effort suiting the needs of the economy. That shall require understanding and competence that is scarce at present. With that perspective the study and analysis of government policies becomes imperative. In that context it is essential to understand the implications of the ongoing economic reforms in the country.

Admittedly, the government has the power to control and influence the economy. But government is not the whole economy. There is an area that remains more or less independent of the control of the government. The market has its own its mechanism and dynamism. In the long run it is market that influences the policy of the governments. The defiance of the market forces led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Acceptance of market as the ruling force of economy has contributed to the growth of the economic might of China. 

Employment situation of a country is influenced by the demand and supply of skills and services. Any study that confines itself to only government policy and ignores market forces shall be one-sided. The right and effective approach for Muslims to employment should be comprehensive. That should cover both the government and non-government sectors.

That makes one thing very clear. So far we have looked towards the government and state agencies for the solution of our problems. We have ignored the role of market in providing remedies for our economic ills. With that in view, it is essential to study the implications of economic reforms. In that process the role of the government is shrinking and the role of the market becomes more and more important. We are moving away from mixed economy, with public sector commanding heights. The ongoing privatisation has reduced the role of public sector. There is less state control on the market now.

The situation has advantages and disadvantages. There are fewer licenses and permits. There is less red tape and interference of bureaucracy. But the story ends there. While economic reforms provide you freedom for initiative, but it also increases competition in the market. 

Technology, fashions and cost etc determine survival in the market. For example computer has replaced manual typewriter as the main office machine. Computer literacy has become essential for office jobs. In a competitive market management skills become more important. For survival in a competitive situation, one must move from less profitable to more profitable areas. Improvement of quality should be a continuing process. Better and cost-effective technology should be adopted at the earliest. Changes in consumer preferences should be kept in view. Fashions bring in new products that replace the inferior and less popular ones. Keeping all the eggs in one basket has great risks. If one depends only a single product, change in its market shall make survival difficult. Constant renovation and diversification become a constant exercise.

The so-called free market economy creates an illusion of ‘freedom’ that conceals the risks that are lurking beneath. Competition kills the small and backward operating in local and regional markets. Unfortunately Muslims have managed to survive in such industrial units without reservation of jobs in government and public sector. So free market comes as a great threat to their economic survival. By and large their strength lies in productive skills. Their weakness lies in cost management, inferior traditional technology, market research and designing. Their educational backwardness inhibits their progress in these fields. It is that weakness that leads to their exploitation by the middlemen. Their dependence on outside agencies for marketing their products reduces their position to that of ‘hired labour’.

There has been lot of breast-beating about the lot of Muslims in central and east India and south and west India. The community cites the situation of Muslims in west and south India as an example of self-help. But no initiative has been taken by affluent Muslims to explore opportunities in poor backward areas with substantial Muslim population or trades patronised by Muslims.

Muslim organisations have risen to the occasion in times of adversity to help their unfortunate brethren. However their talent for crisis management is not visible for evolving a strategy for the economic uplift of their community.

Let me not discourage those who would like to contribute their mite for the cause. The situation may be dark and discouraging. But there are silver linings in the dark clouds looming on the horizon. We are lucky to have a vast domestic market for a variety of goods and services. There are many outside the country have set their eyes on the potential of that market. If we can produce goods with matching or better quality at competitive cost, the sky is the limit for growth. There is sufficient bank credit available, for creditworthy people. With comfortable foreign exchange situation, there should be no difficulty in importing required goods. Likewise, if you can produce exportable goods, you shall be helping your country and yourself by exploring markets abroad. Although Gujarat tragedy was a dark patch in shining India, but there are advantages to be exploited now, that were not there earlier. Let us get organised for the voyage to a better and brighter tomorrow.


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