Has the minority affairs ministry outlived its utility?

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 21, 2013 22:17 hrs

New Delhi: Should the ministry of minority affairs be wound up?

It depends on who you ask.

If you put the question to bureaucrats in the ministry and members of the ruling party, the answer is an obvious no.

And, if you ask the opposition parties and some intellectuals, the answer is a definite yes. Last week, Planning Commission Member Abhijit Sen kicked up a storm when he lashed out at the ministry for not doing enough for Muslims who comprise 13.4 per cent of the country's population, according to the 2001 census. His remarks assume significance in the backdrop of the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar of Uttar Pradesh.

The Muslim vote will be important in the coming assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. The general elections too are round the corner. For instance, 35 Lok Sabha seats have more than 30 per cent Muslim population. On 38 seats, Muslim population ranges between 21 per cent and 30 per cent, and on 145 seats, their population is 11-20 per cent, says a news report. Sen's outburst came at the launch of Social Development Report 2012: Minorities at the Margins. The report, authored by Zoya Hasan and Mushirul Hasan, has picked gaping holes in the government's initiatives to reach out to Muslims. The authors have bluntly attacked the ministry of minority affairs for its ineffectiveness.

"The Muslim issue is serious in the country and politicians are reluctant to push for it. This is now left mainly to the ministry of minority affairs, which might not be the best way," says Sen. "If you want to provide health and infrastructure to Muslims, this ministry can provide a certain amount of money but it can't implement it. This has rendered the ministry ineffective in its approach, as it has to largely depend on other ministries and even more on the states."

The ministry came into existence in January 2006, after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance split the ministry of social justice and empowerment to exclusively look after the wellbeing of five minorities: Muslims (13.4 per cent of the population), Christains (2.3 per cent), Sikhs (1.9 per cent), Buddhists (0.8 per cent) and Parsis (less than a lakh). In the 11th Five-year Plan (2007-2012), the government allocated Rs 7,000 crore to the ministry, of which it claims to have spent Rs 6,824 crore. The budget for the 12th Five-year Plan (2012-2017) has been more than doubled to Rs 17,323 crore. However, the report by Zoya Hasan and Mushirul Hasan says that during 2007-2012, the states failed to utilise half of the allocated funds. Some states spent only 20 per cent. The ministry of minority affairs passes on the money allocated for various schemes to the states, which are then responsible for spending it. In this case, while the ministry may have passed on almost the entire money, the implementation by the states has been tardy. That explains the discrepancy in numbers. "Their report is based on data till 2010," says a high-ranking ministry official dismissing its findings. Efforts to reach Zoya Hasan and Mushirul Hasan over the phone remained futile.

In its infancy, the ministry continued to work on the lines of its parent ministry. It almost remained dormant until the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee on economic, social and education of Muslims was tabled in Parliament in November 2006. The Committee was appointed in 2005.

Its key recommendations were:

set up an Equal Opportunity Commission to look into grievances of deprived groups like minorities, create a nomination procedure to increase participation of minorities in public bodies, increase employment share of Muslims, recognise degrees from madarsas for eligibility in defence, civil and banking examinations, and provide financial and other support to initiatives built around occupations where Muslims are concentrated and that have growth potential. The government accepted most of its recommendations.

With the Sachar Committee report, the ministry brought about some changes to its thinking and started redrafting polices, which are now being denounced as ineffective by activists and intellectuals.

As of today, the ministry's primary task is to run scholarship schemes, create more educational institutes and universities, provide inexpensive loans and develop the skills of the minority communities. The new report has raised serious questions over the implementation of scholarship programmes like the Maulana Azad National Fellowship Scheme. Another scheme, the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme, too has come under severe attack from activists. The government is desperately trying to dispel their apprehensions that benefits of this scheme were not corned by the largest minority community.

The ministry provides cheap loans through the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation. It gives education loan at 6 per cent interest, which is almost half of the market rate of 12 per cent. The rate for term loans too is significantly lower as compared to what banks charge. Last year, the corporation disbursed loans to the tune of Rs 370 crore.

But the average ticket size of the loans remains small. The National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development, an autonomous body, surveyed 2,800 beneficiaries and found that almost 50 per cent people received a loan of less than Rs 50,000, while 43 per cent were given loan ranging between Rs 50,000 and Rs 100,000. Still, the loans were found to have a positive impact on the income of the families. But, as Sen points out, the ministry is handicapped: it can't run schemes on its own, and has to depend on either the state governments or non-government organisations for it. Then there is no foolproof method to ensure that the money is spent correctly and there are no leakages.

Senior bureaucrats in the ministry defend the attacks. "It is an unhealthy criticism of the ministry. We are new and things started to take shape just one year back. In the next two years, we will be able to gauge the impact of our schemes on the ground. We are in the process of appointing independent monitoring agencies to assess the work," says a high-ranking officer in the ministry who refuses to be identified. "We are being criticised because people do not know much about our work."

The ministry has now sent a detailed list of its work to Sen, the prime minister's office and newspaper offices. It plans to communicate its work through media advertisements. For this, it wants to rope in actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Irrfan Khan and Sania Mirza as brand ambassador. Athlete Milkha Singh and pugilist Mary Kom have already consented to become brand ambassadors. The ministry is also in talks with the Dalai Lama and Boman Irani to represent their respective communities of Buddhists and Parsis.

Lt Gen (retd) Zameer Uddin Shah, the vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, says the ministry, especially Minority Affairs Minister K Rehman Khan, has been pro-active in the work of establishing six minority universities across the country. "The minister is working under constitutional constrains. He is treading a middle path. He is working gently without rubbing the majority the wrong way. If he does it bluntly, there will be reaction from the majority," he says. "The ministry has to work without much fanfare."

Perhaps for the very same reason, the new report cites "minority appeasement" as the reason behind the failure of the ministry. Naresh Gujral, Member of Parliament of the Shiromani Akali Dal, says the ministry was indeed created to appease Muslims: "It was done for vote-bank politics. This creates more communalism and breeds friction."

A former secretary of the ministry feels that it should not have been formed in the first place as the social justice and empowerment ministry was already performing the same tasks. "If they talk of scrapping the minority affairs ministry, then by the same yardstick they should scrap social and tribal ministries. These ministries have been there for ages, so by now they should have been done with the beneficiaries," argues the officer. "Since they have created an exclusive ministry, peoples' expectations have risen. To their credit, the ministry has done extremely well in the education sector."

With elections likely to take place soon, experts know there is little danger of the ministry being scrapped.

More from Sify: