Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the UPA government is widening its minority welfare agenda even as it anxiously waits for a Supreme Court decision on the legality of the 4.5% reservation for backward minorities, a politically significant step it had taken in December 2011.
In a letter HT has seen, the Centre has asked its top law officers and the law ministry to speedily move the top court to set up a Constitution bench, which will examine the government’s decision to create a 4.5% share for minorities within the 27% quota in government jobs and education for other backward classes (OBCs). The policy was struck down by the Andhra high court in May 2012.
The minority affairs ministry is also preparing to create an equal opportunities commission (EOC), the much-delayed statutory anti-discriminatory panel recommended by the November 2006 Sachar panel, which found Muslims suffering from stark disadvantages.
“The law ministry cleared the EOC proposal last week. We hope to bring a bill soon,” minority affairs minister K Rahman Khan told HT.
Khan’s ministry has also decided to bring another bill to give Wakf properties the status of public premises as defined in the Public Premises Act, a move aimed at freeing them from illegal occupation.
Wakf is an Islamic endowment for charity, usually in the form of prime real estate. According to a Rahman Khan-led parliamentary report, Wakf could generate over R10,000 crore in potential revenue. Yet, of the 400,000 hectares of Wakf property, nearly 300,000 remain encroached, often by government entities.
The equal opportunities commission, like those in many multi-ethnic Western countries, will have the powers of a civil court to investigate discrimination in jobs and employment. It is in step with the 12th five year plan proposal for measures to reverse discrimination felt by Muslims, a key problem hindering social equality in India’s growth.
The Sachar report, ordered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, found India’s roughly 175 million Muslims at the bottom of a range of indicators, from literacy and income to healthcare access.
For instance, according to round 3 of India’s family health survey, births to Muslim mothers are much less likely to take place in an equipped medical facility and they are least likely to take iron and folic acid tablets during pregnancy.
The skewed indicators led the UPA government to launch ambitious schemes, mainly to improve infrastructure and educational opportunities in so-called minority-concentrated districts.
Although no official study has been carried out to estimate how much progress has been made, a study last year by the think tank Centre for Equity Studies, which surveyed three such districts, found the programmes floundering due to poor outreach.
The government has now made a key change in how the schemes are administered. It will target village-level blocks, not districts. Moreover, any district with a minority population of 15% shall now be eligible to be counted as a minority-concentrated district for development, down from 25%.
Before taking over the minority affairs ministry, Rahman Khan was among a group of MPs who had petitioned the plan panel for this change to enable better targeting of minority clusters.