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Perspectives on Muslims in India: Sachar Committee Report and its Aftermath

Rakesh Basant
March 14, 2011

In March 2005, within six months of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government coming to power, the Sachar Committee, was set up to analyze the conditions of Muslims in India and suggest ways to ameliorate their socio-economic and educational conditions. The cabinet approved the recommendations of the committee with alacrity and the Ministry of Minority Affairs was made the nodal ministry to monitor implementation. However, the report has failed to spark a rigorous analytical debate among the politicians, academics, and the civil society regarding the issues facing Muslims.

While the UPA fully embraced the findings and the recommendations, the right-wing parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) labeled it as another divisive ploy of the parties in power. The findings of the report, however, did not show either of these in a very good light. The UPA constituents – supposedly supportive of Muslim development from the time of independence – had to swallow the fact that the conditions of Muslims in India are quite bad. The BJP, on the other hand, was faced with the facts about Muslims being quite poor despite the “appeasement” policies of the Congress party that they have been harping against.

The central government and some states have been “implementing the recommendations of the committee” in a piecemeal manner. In fact, every policy measure that can potentially affect Muslims is being attributed to the Sachar Committee, irrespective of whether or not it had a place in the report. Typically, community specific recommendations, which were quite minor in the overall framework of the report, are being focused upon and actually enhanced. As a result, the main recommendations, which were not community specific, are getting sidelined and even being re-cast as Muslim-specific. For example, the Sachar Committee Report had proposed an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) on the lines of the UK’s Race Relations Act to provide a remedy against discrimination. It was made abundantly clear that the EOC should cover all under-privileged groups that could potentially face discrimination, including Dalits, women, and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The Group of Ministers (GoM), however, recently decided that the EOC should exist only for minorities, which is being touted as an implementation of the Sachar Committee Report’s recommendation. It is another matter that EOC, as currently envisaged as an “advisory” body, may turn out to be a toothless entity.

It is difficult to understand the politics of such decisions. On one hand, such actions would make the BJP’s claims of minority appeasement seem more credible to voters in the majority community. On the other hand, why should the government lose a chance to project such a policy for all under-privileged groups and argue that it will help increase its participation in the emerging economic opportunities, given that development seems to be emerging as an important plank for political mobilization?

The UPA has not only picked up recommendations in isolation, but has also highlighted the community-specificprograms and its implementation in its election manifesto and other communications. Obviously, the government does not recognize its role in the overall state intervention strategy that the Sachar Commitee Report envisages. For example, while promotion of the Urdu language is welcome, the report gives equal importance to the employability of persons who study in schools and colleges. The issue of employability is also critical vis-à-vis any policies with respect to Madarsas, apart from the fact that less than four percent of children in the school-going age group attend them. It would be unfortunate if the perspective on Muslim education gets dominated by Urdu and Madarsas.

Apparently, the mainstreaming measures recommended by the Sachar Committee had much less political utility than promises of community-specific benefits and programs. If one goes by past experience, these large numbers of minority-specific programs that are not only under-funded but largely uncoordinated, are unlikely to have a significant impact on minorities. More importantly, a more progressive policy of mainstreaming efforts that might sharply bring out discrimination and under-development of the minorities gets bypassed. Furthermore, as a negative externality, association of minorities with vote bank politics gets perpetuated. The benefits that can accrue to minorities, if they are able to effectively participate in mainstream programs, are enormous, not only due to the potential reach of these programs, but also due to significantly larger resource outlays.

It is important to recognize that mainstreaming would require a significant change in the nature of politics. Most issues critical for Muslims, such as education, security, political participation, and employment are decided much more by state governments than by the national government. The central government can, at best, “advise” state governments to do certain things (e.g., enhance participation of minorities in Panchayats) or increase the financial outlays of centrally-sponsored schemes, but not much can happen without the support of the state level machinery. On paper, Data Bank, on the conditions of various socio-religious communities and their participation in government programs and other economic activities, has been created along with an Autonomous Assessment and Monitoring Authority to periodically evaluate the situation. Both of these were central to the Sachar Committee’s recommendation. However, there is no clarity on how detailed data from different states would be collected to undertake this exercise systematically.

Apart from the purposes of better monitoring, detailed information on the socio-religious-economic – caste, religion, income, gender – profile of beneficiaries and regional patterns of service provision needs to be collected and made publicly available. Collection of such information on a regular basis is bound to put some pressure on the implementation agencies to be fairer and thereby reduce discrimination. In order to make it work, collection and reporting of this information by the implementation authority will have to be made mandatory by the government. Modifications will be required in large data collection exercises including those undertaken by the state agencies. Without such a data collection exercise, neither the data bank nor the monitoring authority would serve any meaningful purpose. And the civil society that could play an important watchdog role, given the right to information, would also be ineffective.

The other casualty of the politics around the Sachar Committee Report has been that several empirical and analytical insights of the Report have gone largely unnoticed both by academics and civil society. In particular, despite their relative poverty, lack of education, and poorer public provisioning of facilities, infant and child mortality among Muslims is lower than in other communities and the sex – female to male – ratio is higher. Moreover, both these sets of indices have been improving faster for Muslims than for others in recent years despite the slower rates of improvement in other development indices. Recent studies have found some useful clues to the puzzle of Muslim children exhibiting a survival advantage, which provides newer insights on the status of women in different communities. Muslim mothers are taller (indicating long-term health) and are less likely to be undernourished at the time of birth. Son preference seems to be lower among Muslims than among Hindus, which could potentially explain Muslim advantage. Moreover, despite no significant differences in access to public health services, a higher proportion of Muslim mothers tend to seek treatment for diarrhea, which is one of the leading causes of child death. This may be partly due to lower work participation of Muslim women and the fact that a large proportion work at home. Moreover, the data shows that Muslim women are not less autonomous than Hindu women in areas such as healthcare access and the use of women’s earnings.

Interestingly, even after one controls for the effect of all these factors and other variables that capture endowment and other differences, the Muslim survival advantage remains. Given this, one may need to explore the effect of child rearing and other practices on mortality differences in different communities. The issue of intra-household distribution of resources – especially food – also needs to be explored. The possibility of lower gender biases in such distribution among Muslims is consistent with the differences previously noted, and with the facts that the sex ratios at different age groups are better among Muslims and the incidence of low birth-weight babies is among the lowest in the community in several regions of the country.

In the context of this evidence, should we not broaden the discussion on “gender injustice” vis-à-vis Muslim women? Gender issues among Muslims are usually identified with Muslim personal law. Such a focus not only results in the exclusion of general gender-related concerns in education and employment that Muslim women face on a continuing basis, it also disregards a completely contrary picture that emerges from the analysis of sex ratios and infant/child mortality rates. Should we not use these insights to broaden the scope of the discussion on the status of women in different communities?

While these insights help broaden the scope of the gender-injustice debate, several other findings of the Sachar Committee Report can help break myths about Muslims that relate to falling fertility rates and the increased use of contraceptives. Unfortunately, while civil society has made little use of this wealth of data, the government has gotten caught in narrow community-specific initiatives. Making the Ministry of Minority Affairs the nodal agency for implementing the Sachar Committee recommendations was a grave error, and has probably gotten in the way of mainstreaming this process. Most of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee favor general programs with better inclusion of all under-privileged groups including Muslims rather than Muslim-specific programs. It is critical that the policy action is not seen only through the “minority lens.” The policy-making and implementation task should lie with a general ministry – such as the Ministry of Home or Finance – to obviate this bias. Anything that can be done to enhance the use of the committee’s findings in the public discourse would be very useful.

Rakesh Basant is a Professor of Economics at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.He can be reached at rakesh@iimahd.ernet.in

 


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