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India: Muslims worried over slowing economy

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Will efforts to boost prospects for India's Muslims survive a downturn in growth?

By Udayan Namboodiri

New Delhi: Signs that India's economic engine is slowing have made for unwelcome news across the country. For Muslims, however, the trend is particularly worrisome, as their community has been lagging behind even in prosperous times.

India's Muslim population is the world's second-largest, after Indonesia, and accounts for around 13% of all citizens. But a landmark 2006 report, released by the government-appointed Rajinder Sachar Committee, found they have significantly lower educational levels, incomes and job prospects.

Sharp disparities remained even as India enjoyed several consecutive years of robust growth over the past decade. But the global economic downturn stalled the momentum, and this month Reserve Bank of India Governor Duvvuri Subbarao acknowledged publicly that the "potential for India's economic growth has come down".

Last month, the government confirmed that the growth rate had slumped to just 6.5% between April 2011 and March 2012, compared to 8.4% year-over-year for the same time period.

Between January and March, the economy stagnated at just 5.3% compared to 9.4% for the same period last year. What's worse the industrial sector, regarded as the biggest job generator, reported negative growth.

"Mr Subbarao's statement, read in conjunction with those coming from the finance ministry, reflects the serious setback that India has received in its dream of being a global economic power," the government's chief economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, told Khabar South Asia.

Belt-tightening puts affirmative action at risk

With the prospect of austerity measures looming for India as a whole, Muslims are bracing for the impact. According to a political leader whose party swept into power in Uttar Pradesh two months ago with wide support from the Muslim community, there is a growing sense of vulnerability.

"Austerity always hits the poorest of the poor, and repeated government-sponsored studies have shown that India's Muslims belong to that bracket," Shahid Siddiqui, a senior Samajwadi Party leader, told Khabar.

"Even without austerity they suffered poor representation in organised sector jobs, and their traditional occupations were hit hard by competition from Chinese imports," he said.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) leader and eight-term member of Parliament Hannan Mollah said programmes to lift the community out of poverty are at risk.

"The slowdown is sure to lead to cutbacks in government projects, especially those attuned to minority needs," Mollah said. Improving minority prospects, he said, depends on grants, microfinance programmes and "soft loans", that is, low-interest loans provided by the government at low interest rates.

"In an austerity situation, these may be hit," he said.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim leader from the southern city of Hyderabad, sees a "dwindling share of Muslims in the Indian economy".

"The global economic slowdown, compounded by the eurozone crisis, will hit India's export sector hard," Owaisi told Khabar. "Muslims make up a sizeable chunk of the export sector's workforce, and if these firms lose markets abroad, Muslims will lose jobs."

Government committed to moving forward

The administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insists it is still committed to closing the gap. It points to concrete steps taken during its tenure, starting with the Sachar report.
Singh was in his second year of power when he asked former Judge Rajinder Sachar to lead a committee tasked with providing empirical evidence of the economic deprivation of Muslims.

When the committee's report found that Muslims hold a disproportionately low share (5%) of public sector jobs, the government decided to take urgent action, introducing quotas and other measures.

Salman Khursheed, Minister for Minorities Welfare, is proud of the work the government has done.

"The last three years saw a significant rise in government recruitment of minorities," he told Khabar. "Our intervention led to a steady increase in the number of Muslims in government jobs. From less than 5% in 2005, it went up to 8.3% in 2008 and 9.24% in 2010."

Whether the Singh administration's track record will be enough to reassure Muslim voters in turbulent times is in doubt, however. During the Uttar Pradesh election Singh's Congress Party pulled out all the stops in an effort to gain support from this key constituency, accounting for 22% of the state population.

Instead, Muslims largely deserted Congress for the Samajwadi Party, which says it will do a better job of safeguarding their interests.

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)
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