Budgeting for minorities
Although historically aware of its disadvantaged sections and their special needs, India has decisively switched from ‘appeasing’ Muslims — its largest minority — to budgeting for them.
Two things in recent years have helped institutionalise minority budgeting. One is the creation of a minority affairs ministry by the Congress-led UPA government in 2004 and, as a result, yearly budgetary allocations made to it.Two, a high-level government survey in November 2006 that proved disadvantages faced by Muslims, followed up with another one that recommended reservations.
Till now, an unproductive Hajj subsidy worth Rs 390 crore — which goes in bankrolling the pilgrimage through discounted airfare — had been the flagship largesse.
Even though government-funded religious travel is not unique to Muslims, the Hajj subsidy has often been singled out as unfair.
The Centre underwrites a part of the travel costs of the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, the abode of the Hindu god Shiva.
Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government proposes concessional Hindu pilgrimages to the temples of Udupi, Dharmasthala and Saudatti in the southern Indian state.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the Congress party-led government subsidises the cost of travel for Christians visiting Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestinian Authority. A subsidy is also being planned, according to media reports, for Manasarovar Yatra in China.
Why should government fund religious jaunts? Either because we are a welfare state unlike any other or it is a game of votes. Perhaps, both.
Deploying tax revenues for affordable healthcare, education and employment may be good economics but in an ancient holy land, spiritual well being seems to deserve importance too. But competing populism has definitely crept into it.
Show me an economically underprivileged Hindu who will find fault with government help to make a dip in the holy Ganges a reality? Or a Muslim quibbling over a lifetime visit to Mecca, courtesy government help?
However, there is a growing demand from Muslims themselves for the Hajj subsidy to be scrapped. While it gives Air India 150,000 assured passengers every year (that’s the total number of seats on all Indian carriers criss-crossing the country on any given day), helping it keep afloat, the grant has been turned into a stick to beat Muslims with. No Muslim asked for it in the first place.
Muslims are now calling for global and national open bids: whoever offers the cheapest tickets gets to fly away with 150,000 prize passengers. Fair enough.
“If the Hajj subsidy is withdrawn, it won’t hurt us. If scholarship are cut, that would,” Asaduddin Owaisi, Hyderabad MP from the All India Majlis-eIttehadul Muslimeen party, told the Hindustan Times last year.
There is a less obvious side to the Hajj subsidy. The subsidy itself seems responsible for Muslim backwardness, given that it has enabled governments to use it as a signature grant and avoid more basic financial interventions.
However, the recognition that minorities can be predisposed to experiencing disadvantages due to their numerical inferiority itself has made planning and budgeting for them an integral part of most developed countries.
Almost all of Europe and the US make special allocations of one type or the other for their minorities.
Why do Indian Muslims need a helping hand?
The country’s Muslim population is 150 millions, making it the state with the second-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia. Indian Muslims experience serious disadvantages, low literacy and high poverty rates.
Their literacy rates are well below the national average, while poverty rates are only slightly higher than low-caste Hindus, according to the November 2006 Sachar Committee report.
Muslims, mostly Sunnis, make up 13.4% of India’s population, yet hold fewer than 5% of government posts and make up only 4% of undergraduates in universities. The report also found that, despite being self-employed at a far higher rate, Muslims trail other groups in terms of access to credit.
Yet, they can influence elections, using their voting power to extract concessions from parties who woo them.
Muslims are not uniformly disadvantaged. Those in south and west India have been historically wealthier. In the north, Muslims were thrust into abject poverty at once when their wealthier counterparts left for Pakistan during the 1947 Partition.
Muslims in rural areas are less poor than in urban areas, where their poverty rate of 38 percent is higher than any other population’s, including low-caste Hindus.
Although no formal Muslim caste system exists, three groups of Indian Muslims –ashraf, ajlaf, and arzal — indeed function as such. More correctly, there is definitely a Muslim class system, if not a caste system.
The ashrafs, thought to be of Arab ancestry, form the upper class among Muslims, while the ajlafs are thought to be previously Hindus who converted to Islam to escape the Hindu caste system. A third group, the arzals, correlates to the lowest caste among Hindus.
The Sachar Report has provided exhaustive data on socio-economic conditions of Muslims.
The Sachar report has been controversial, not just for highlighting Muslim marginalisation but also because of its very mandate. Hindu nationalists — led by the BJP — criticized the report, tainting it with an old brush –- that of appeasement.
While it offers clear proof of Muslim marginalisation, there have been debates about how to combat Muslim unemployment rates. The BJP is averse to solutions focusing directly on Muslims but would prefer general poverty alleviation.
All government outlays to pull a community out of backwardness can look like appeasement, given the zeal for competing interests of political leaders vying for power.
Has budgeting helped?
India’s 2010-11 budget has given 50% higher allocation to the minority affairs ministry — up from Rs 1,740 crore to Rs 2,600 crore.
Cash flow to minorities — from bank loans to scholarships — peaked during 2008-09, according to government data, as Muslims appeared to be slowly overcoming a strong bias of banks in lending.
Public sector banks, which would turn down Muslim loan applicants because they were considered “credit risk groups”, have disbursed a staggering Rs 82,864 crore in loans to minorities during 2008-09.
Since the Reserve Bank has now turned its focus to 121 backward minority districts with high Muslim population, as identified by the minority affairs ministry, Muslims got a chunky pie of the credit share.
Banks now have to compulsorily service Muslims in backward areas after the Reserve Bank added minorities to its list of other priority lending sectors, like agriculture and small-scale businesses in July 2007.
“We will be able to see the results shortly if not immediately,” Planning Commission member Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, who heads the minority sector, says.
Cash constraints are now easing, with banks achieving lending targets set for minorities. In 2008-09, the Reserve Bank’s target was that 13% of loans under priority sector lending should go to minorities and banks were able to lend 12.4%. This was better than 2007-08, when the target was 10.6% and actual sanctions 9.6%. Priority sector lending accounts for 40 per cent of total loans, according to the federal Reserve Bank of India norms.
Banks also opened 524 branches in minority concentration districts in 2009 and nearly 6-lakh minority students got scholarships. In 2008, 523 branches were set up.
The UPA government has earmarked a whopping Rs 7,000 crore for minority welfare under the 11th Five Year Plan that concludes in 2012.
The government now plans to install national-level independent monitors to track back how Rs 3,780 are being spent for minority welfare under the “flagship multi-sectoral development programme”, in which lawmakers will have a say for the first time.
The multi-sectoral programme, which helps set up anything from a school to a water pump, applies to 90 districts countrywide where minorities make up more than 25 per cent of the population and lag behind significantly on crucial socio-economic parameters.
The government’s approach is such that creation of assets in these districts should also benefit the majority communities as well. UP, Assam and Bihar have the largest number of minority districts, with 21, 12 and 6 districts respectively.
These districts were selected on the basis of 10 indicators, ranging from literacy to the number of inoculated children.
The government hopes evaluating schemes with a fine-toothed comb and involving area MPs, an idea of minority affairs minister Salman Khurshid, are moves that would customise the multi-sectoral scheme.
The government feels a quick appraisal is important to ensure rapid implementation of schemes. “These national-level independent monitors will report back two things: are schemes being implemented in the right way and right place, according to Khrushid.
The scheme, in its second stage now, is also called being called a top-up phase because money from the minority affairs will be now poured into schemes of other ministries so that minorities benefit.
The Planning Commission is also evaluating massive spending on minority welfare as it prepares for mid-term appraisal of the 11th Five-Year Plan.
Planning Commission member Hameed is set to personally travel to five regions for first-hand feedback from beneficiaries.
Lessons from Congressional Black Caucus
Some historic measures for minority welfare, including an exclusive ministry, helped the Congress sail through the last general elections for a second term in power.
However, Muslim lawmakers, whose numbers are dwindling over time, have seldom used parliamentary mechanisms creatively to ensure Muslims get a fair deal. A problem with Muslim leadership is that political leadership has often overlapped with religious leadership.
Divided along sharp party lines, India’s Muslim lawmakers seldom get a chance to work in unison. However, they could take a leaf out of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Caucus helped highlight the plight of US minorities with a two-step process: by the congressional budget process called the Humphrey-Hawkins debate and by moving alternate budget resolutions.
The struggle of minorities in the US helped them integrate into society and as their clout grew, Congress became more responsive to their needs. Geographical concentrations of some minorities in the US have led to their greater representation, though it is far behind their share of the population.
In the 2001-2003 Congress, for instance, African-Americans comprised 12 percent of the population, but just 8.3% of the House members; Hispanics made up 13 % of the population and just 4.4 % of the House; and women represented 51 % of the population but just 13.6% of the House, and 13% of the Senate.
America’s annual budget project to thrash out budgetary solutions to address backwardness of minorities is a lesson for both Indian minority lawmakers and those opposed to minority-specific solutions, like the BJP.
A beginning has been made but just a fraction achieved. After all, every change for the better begins with a small minority.