Monday, February 25, 2008

Positive measures needed to ensure social justice in Kerala

CAN the administration implement with a sense of commitment the Paloli Mohammed Kutty Committee's proposals to improve the condition of Kerala's Muslims? The question needs to be raised as both the Centre and the State have a record of indifferent handling of matters of social justice.

Since 1951, the Constitution has included a clause which empowers the authorities to make special provisions for socially and educationally backward classes of people. Yet, it was only in 1990 that the Centre granted the benefit of job reservation to these sections. In 1996, a Planning Commission sub-group reported that the representation of minorities, especially Muslims, in the all-India and State services "is very low and bears no relation to their population, and there has been no purposeful action to remedy this imbalance."

In Kerala, Muslims are a recognised backward class and have enjoyed the benefits of reservation for decades. Yet, the Narendran Commission, set up in 2000 to study the working of the reservation system, found that they had received fewer jobs than they were entitled to by virtue of their population.

All this shows that those who are responsible for formulation and implementation of policies do not act with due diligence. Unless they take positive steps with a sense of commitment, social justice will remain an elusive goal.

The present effort to address the problem of Muslim backwardness began with the appointment of a committee, headed by former Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar, by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to study the social, economic and educational status of the community and recommend measures for its advancement.

At the time of the 2001 Census, India's Muslim population stood at 138 million. While this was only about 11 per cent of the total, the country has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are the largest Muslim countries after Indonesia. Citing a wealth of data, the Sachar Committee, in the report submitted to the government in November 2006, said the "community exhibits deficits and deprivation in practically all dimensions of development." It added that mechanisms to ensure equity and equality of opportunity should be such that "diversity is achieved and at the same time the perception of discrimination is eliminated."

The Centre later announced a 15-point programme to promote the welfare of the minorities and to empower them. It seeks, among other things, to increase the educational opportunities open to them and provide them with an equitable share in employment and economic activities.

Muslims constitute 24.7 per cent of Kerala's population. Data gathered by the Sachar Committee show that the State's Muslims are better placed than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, but even they suffer from deficits and deprivation. It points out, for instance, that their share of government jobs is only 10.4 per cent. In the State's public sector undertakings, their share is just 9.5% at the higher levels and 11.1 per cent at the lower levels.

The committee headed by Local Self-government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty was set up by the State government last year to examine the Sachar Committee report and formulate specific proposals to address the problems of the Muslim community. The leading newspapers, Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi, editorially endorsed the committee's proposals.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is not represented in the State Assembly, was the only party to oppose them openly. Its State president, PK Krishnadas, called for rejection of the report, saying the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the government, was trying to appease the Muslims with an eye to the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The reaction of the BJP, which has been endeavouring since long to build a nationwide Hindu vote bank, was entirely predictable. The party had opposed the setting up of the Sachar Committee. It raised a furore when the committee sought from the government information on Muslim representation in the armed forces. When the committee's recommendations became known, it dismissed them as politically motivated.

Judging by the experience of the separate provisions made for the Dalits and the other backward classes, the proposals to create a Department of Minority Affairs and establish a separate development corporation for Muslims may not yield the desired results. They can at best help the political establishment by creating a couple of ministerial level offices with all the paraphernalia that goes with them. --Gulf Today, February 25, 2008.

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