Almost a quarter of India’s 370,000 beggars are Muslims, newly released data from the 2011 Census show, reinforcing that the community still lags behind on most counts despite the country’s rapid economic growth.
Muslims, the largest minority who make up 14.2% of India’s 1.25-billion population, come out pretty much at the bottom of most socio-economic indices, even a decade after a high-level government probe into their historical disadvantages led to policy actions. India has the second-largest Muslim population globally, after Indonesia.
“There is a high level of destitution and disparity. But (it is) not surprising,” said Amitabh Kundu, a development economist who led a committee to evaluate the policy impact on the community.
Talk of Muslim development is often polarising and evokes sharp views in the political sphere. But the landmark 2006 report by the Sachar Committee, which was commissioned in 2005, showed the community faced disadvantages.
The report found high poverty and low literacy levels among Muslims. Despite the community being highly self-employed, their access to credit facilities was very limited.
At that time, less than 5% of Muslims held government jobs. Their living conditions were comparable, and on some parameters, worse than other backward categories such as Scheduled Castes, the report showed.
“All these point to discrimination,” Kundu said.
A raft of development programmes unveiled to reverse these indices hasn’t plugged the gap, although there has been some progress. Government employment is up from 5% a decade ago to 8.50% in 2014-15, but that’s way below their share in the population.
Higher education indices for 2014-15 put the gross enrolment rate at 13.8% for Muslims, compared to an all-India figure of 23.6%.
Within their community, the literacy rate of Muslim adult males is 81%, compared to 91% among Hindus, 94% among Christians and 84% among Sikhs, according to a 2013 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation.
Muslim population inside jails is going up too. Of the people lodged in Maharashtra jails in 2013, 31.09% were Muslims. The state average was 19.06%.
Policymakers say it is time to revitalise programmes flowing from the Sachar Committee recommendations.
“We submitted our findings on this. The government hasn’t rejected it, but hasn’t taken any step to implement it either,” said Kundu, who was tasked by the previous UPA government with evaluating the progress of minorities.
The Kundu-led committee had said reservation for all Muslims looked difficult given constitutional hurdles.
It had recommended reservation for the most backward Muslims counted as Scheduled Castes because “if the Constitution doesn’t allow reservation on the basis of religion, it also doesn’t allow discrimination on the basis of religion either”.
Inequity at the level of the district skews the picture even more.
There are many “versions to it” linked to “occupations, education levels and also social identities expressed in terms of religious and caste affiliation”, said Abusaleh Shariff, the former chief economist on the Sachar Committee who now leads the US India Policy Institute.