By Abusaleh Shariff
May 20, 2014
Muslim deprivation is embedded in broader developmental challenges.
Whenever the Indian electorate has been told that the country is doing well economically, it has displayed disbelief. This voter scepticism has not spared even the largest of national parties. The relatively successful economic performance of the last decade could not be projected effectively by the UPA. BJP/ NDA strategists were quick to take advantage of this and claim that the economic success was, in fact, failure.
At the same time, the notion of growth associated with Gujarat — fast, large, corruption-free and inclusive — also dealt a blow to the UPA and drew people. The impact of higher income growth has been the craving for much higher income growth. This is the new kind of “income growth trap” that the consumer is falling into. Compare this with the classic “poverty trap” that India is so familiar with. But the hard times for the poor have not been left behind. They lie ahead as the higher income trap gives the rich a natural advantage.
This is also the time to reflect on a virtuous strategy to engage with the new government, especially in the context of the Muslim community in India. This election polarised the two major parties to such an extent that the BJP cast itself as the party of Hindutva, while the Congress was made the party of Muslims. Such religious polarisation is detrimental not only to democracy but to development. The political leadership should have no role in promoting or even supporting a religious identity. It is a fact that all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation, are part of India’s culture and ethos, and there can be no discrimination between them.
The Indian Muslim mindset, however, is still rooted in victimhood, prioritising physical safety, security of life and property (rightly so) and the protection of a social identity. Their vision that India is a democracy, to which they contribute much with their presence and participation, is not yet fully articulated and understood.
It is hard to find a political leader at any level of government, but especially at the national level, who could present the positive face of the Muslim community and their role in nation building. It seems unfair that even after 67 years of independence, one has to speak for the country’s largest minority, made up of more than 170 million Indians. But it is important to note that they are as diverse as the dominant community of India, if not more so. Electoral polarisation has given them a pan-Indian identity, but in effect they do not have one. And there should not be an independent and exclusive approach to address their exclusion and deprivation.
Certain issues should receive some attention from the newly elected government and from civil society, and an action plan should be formulated. There will be tremendous pressures from certain economists to undo a lot of the good done by the previous government. But the new government must not lose sight of the poor and excluded. In fact, the internal rate of return on the national investments suggested below may generate more wealth than even corporate investments.
There must be an unprecedented effort, at the organisational and social levels, to create public institutions and make them accessible to all communities. These include elementary schools, high schools and colleges. It is essential that at the local level, population ratios are reflected in the enrolment and continuation rates in public educational institutions. While the future lies in promoting quality private education, a public-private partnership, under the watchful eye of civil society, also holds great promise. In this context, it would be critical to have district-level estimates of development, labour absorption and human development indicators across India.
Healthcare in India is also appalling. The inertia of public health institutions has prompted the privatisation of preventive and promotive healthcare, and will push poorer communities and those living in the rural hinterland into extreme stress. The new government must come out quickly with healthcare reforms that are integrated with women and child nutrition and adolescent health programmes.
The last decade was marked by mass employment schemes in rural areas, such as the MGNREGA. The outcomes of this programme have been less than desirable. However, given the rapid pace of economic growth anticipated during 2014-19, it is essential that the national government launch programmes to develop skills and retrain the labour force. Such programmes must be integrated with cash transfers as well as micro-business development strategies and involve women and youth. Organised economic activities are sucking out the small educated labour force from local economies.
Skill development and entrepreneurship programmes will generate a large pool of productive labour locally and help drive the economy. This can be done in five to ten years. Integrating the large segments of the labour force in northern India that are involved in traditional, artisanal manufacturing and trades will benefit the households and the sectoral economy alike.
I sincerely hope that the new government will adopt these initiatives as national missions and not dismiss them as state-level issues.