“Government efforts are just window dressing for Muslims”

In conversation, Sajjad Hassan, Centre for Equity Studies

trithesh

Trithesh Nandan | January 15, 2013


Sajjad Hassan
Sajjad Hassan

Sajjad Hassan was serving as secretary (planning) in Manipur when he finally took the bold decision to quit the prestigious Indian administrative service (IAS) in 2011. He was happy working with people in Tamenglong district at the beginning of his career, but the secretariat was a different ball game. Before quitting the service, he had taken a sabbatical and completed his PhD in politics from the London School of Economics. In 2008, his book, ‘Building Legitimacy: Exploring State — Society Relations in Northeast India’, was published by Oxford.

Later, he joined the New Delhi-based advocacy organisation, Centre for Equity Studies (CES), whose director Harsh Mander, too, happens to be a former IAS. Coordinating research at CES, Hassan has prepared a report on the condition of Muslims in India: ‘Promises to Keep: Investigating Government’s Response to Sachar Committee Recommendations’ (reissued in September 2012). His conclusion: the steps the government has taken on the panel’s recommendations are like window dressing for the largest minority group.

In an interview with Trithesh Nandan, Hassan discussed the findings of the report. Edited excerpts:

Which book did you read the last?
The book written by Patrick French – India: A Portrait, which talks about the changing India.

Do you think India is changing?
Yes, of course, India is changing. It is changing for good. It is important that parts of India that are not changing should change for good. That’s the real concern.

Are Muslims in India changing as much as the rest?
First, it would be wrong to say that the Muslim community is not changing, or not benefitting from the changes. There is definitely a forward movement of the Muslims along with the rest of India. The problem lies with the poor Muslims because they have specific debilities which could be due to a poor access to education, services and livelihood.

What is your assessment of the government’s response to the Sachar committee recommendations?
After the Sachar committee report, there has been a serious attempt to address problems (of the community). There is a realisation that something concrete needs to be done. Earlier there was no such realisation, as there were no data and evidence. The Sachar committee gave certain directions for developmental steps.

The CES report is an attempt to evaluate the promises the government made after the Sachar committee report. We found there were a lot of policies and programmes for the Muslims but a great effort was still needed to improve the delivery mechanism. There are issues with the design of the multi-sector development programme [MsDP, a welfare programme targeting 90 districts with more concentration of minority community] and the 15-point programme for welfare of minorities. Initially, it started with the Muslim community and later it covered all other minorities. Developmental locations vary with each of the minority groups. The actual target is not focused as every minority community has a specific barrier. If you talk about education of Muslims, there are specific barriers which could be due to a variety of reasons: poverty, tradition and lack of access to, or even prejudices in, schools.

If you build schools in the minority-dominated districts, you assume that all these barriers will be overcome. But that doesn’t happen. In both the programmes, MsDP and the 15-point programme, most of the money is spent on building infrastructure. It will benefit minorities indirectly. My point is that if you want to do it, do it directly addressing those concerns.

The budget is very limited. The issue of attention is big. In the three states that we visited for this report (Bihar, West Bengal and Haryana), planning or monitoring at the state or district level was very weak. In some cases, it was non-existent. Implementing agencies were not even aware of the 15-point programme – forget implementation. Even if they knew about it, they did not know the details. So there is a long way to go. Just making a programme is not the solution.

You mean to say that money meant for the welfare of the minority doesn’t reach the beneficiary.
There is a general problem of poor spending of any budget. However, that varies from state to state. Some states do spend more because the governments there give more attention. The social welfare department implements the 15-point programme. How much attention it gives to the minority programmes is a real concern. West Bengal has a separate department for minorities, but other states might not have such dedicated departments. There are multiple problems which result in either poor spending or (benefits) not reaching those who should have been beeneficiaries.

Are our institutional mechanisms weak?
That’s what I meant. There is poor attention from the top to check whether money is actually spent, planning done properly or inputs taken from the community. If you talk about the 15-point programme, there is no separate budget. Only 15 percent money of different programmes is spent for minorities. Our inter-department coordination is anyway weak and monitoring is a real concern. What you need is different government departments putting heads together for planning, implementing and monitoring.

On the face of it, it seems that the ministry of minority affairs is doing a great deal. But as the nodal ministry it has to look at the final outcomes delivered by different ministries for the minorities. Our research showed that the ministry was reduced to implementing MsDP and scholarship schemes rather than guiding an overall plan relating to minority affairs. Government efforts seem to be a window dressing for the community.

You talked about the need for inputs from the minority community. What does Muslim community want from the government?
It depends on who you talk to in the Muslim community. It is not a homogenous community, so there are different aspirations. For poor Muslims, it becomes slightly more complicated because there are historical reasons for the lack of education and poor access to it. If poor Muslims get quality education, that itself would solve a great deal of problems. The second thing is livelihood, which is not only employment in the government or private sector but also self-employment. Do they have such opportunities? Do they have access to credit or link to markets? These are bigger problems. If you look at drinking water, sanitation and health services, much needs to be done.

There is no dearth of leaders from the community. How come they are not articulating these issues?
Because the way the community has been structured in India, there is an element of identity which distracts attention. If you focus more on poor Muslims then you will bring development issue upfront. The lens is not blurred. The leaders generally talk about the identity issue. That’s the problem. It is important for the government to tackle developmental issues rather than trap Muslims in the identity crisis. If you trap them in identity, then it is unhelpful.

Mewat, barely 100 km from the national capital, is one of the three spots you chose for the study. What did you find there?
It was very disappointing. It is a Muslim-dominated district of Haryana which is pretty good on economic indicators but poor. However, there are concerns about the gender ratio in the state. You see so much of inequity, which is really disturbing. One doesn’t know how to explain. Because Mewat is below the radar, it hardly catches anyone’s attention. There are lots of stereotypes like Muslim women don’t want to step outside (their homes). But is it a fact? No, it is not. All these stereotypes justify the government’s inaction. There is little attention given to counter such stereotypes. The place needs attention, monitoring and direction from the government.

What about in Darbhanga in Bihar and 24 Pargana in West Bengal?
We saw similar trends. Attention by district officials and state governments can make a huge difference.

Will reservation in government jobs help the Muslim community?
Frankly, I don’t want to jump into this debate. If it were an ideal world, I would say absolutely no. Enabling them to compete is ideal. But when we don’t have that, you need a system where you can equalise opportunities. In that way, reservation is an accepted policy to improve things.

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