A meeting was organised by the Planning Commission on May 15, 2007 to discuss the Muslim concentration district initiative that was partly recommended by the Sachar Committee. Almost everybody in the meeting had reservations about the scheme. Some wanted to convert it to Muslim concentrated talukas (MCT) initiative for sharper focus and coverage, while others were unhappy with the non-coverage of Muslims located outside these districts, forming a much larger proportion. Still others argued for an approach that takes into account the inequalities across socio-religious communities in different regions. But apparently, none of these arguments was taken note of and the Cabinet subsequently accepted the proposal. This makes one wonder if some more due diligence is not required before such policy initiatives are accepted for implementation.
The Cabinet has approved the Sachar Report. Ministries have been asked to implement its recommendations. An expert group will flesh out the structure and functions of the Equal Opportunities Commission and another will work on an appropriate diversity index to promote diversity in living, educational and work spaces. A data bank on the conditions of various socio-religious communities and their participation in government programmes and other economic activities will be created along with an autonomous assessment and monitoring authority to periodically evaluate the situation.
Urdu will be promoted in a big way and 90 minority concentration districts (MCDs) will get a special development package. An inter-ministerial group will be set up to monitor the implementation of a comprehensive programme for the development of skills and entrepreneurship among Muslims. And finally, recommendations of the A.A. Fatmi Panel, set up to review the Sachar Committee recommendations on education, will also be implemented.
As a member of the Sachar Committee, I should be very pleased about all this, and I am. But I am also disappointed. Our report has been discussed widely, but the discussions have been more "political" than analytical. Politicians of different shades have said what they were expected to say about such a report. I expected the report to spark a more rigorous, analytical debate among politicians, academics and civil society. I wish to reiterate the point made in the report that without better implementation of general developmental programmes meant for all communities, inclusion of the minorities cannot be achieved.
The first step, therefore, is to ensure that minorities, wherever they are eligible for general beneficiary programmes, get their fair share, and minority locations are not bypassed by area specific programmes for infrastructural and other services. Apart from better monitoring, detailed information on the socio-religious-economic (caste, religion, income) profile of beneficiaries and regional patterns of service provision needs to be collected and made publicly available. Collection of such information on a regular basis is bound to put some pressure on the implementation agencies to be fairer and reduce discrimination. Therefore, formation of a data bank and monitoring authority is most welcome. But in order to make it work, collection and reporting of this information by the implementation authority will have to be made mandatory by the government. Modifications will be required in large data collection exercises including those undertaken by the Census of India and the National Sample Survey Organisation.
Such an exercise entails significant changes at the national, state and sub-state levels. I hope that government is aware of this significant requirement as both national and state level agencies will have to buy this idea. Without this data collection exercise, neither the data bank nor the monitoring authority will serve any purpose. Civil society that can play the role of a watchdog, given the right to information, will also be ineffective.
The other concern relates to the possibility of picking up individual recommendations in isolation without recognising their role in the overall intervention strategy that the Sachar Report envisages. For example, promotion of Urdu language is most welcome, but equally important is the emphasis our report gives to the employability of persons who study in schools and colleges.
The issue of employability is also critical vis-à-vis any policies with respect to madrasas, apart from the fact that a very small (less than four) percentage of children in the school going age group attend them. It will be unfortunate if the perspective on Muslim education gets dominated by Urdu and madrasas.
I would have preferred some more critical evaluation of our policy recommendations. This is not to suggest that I do not stand by our analysis and recommendations. I do. But I know that a sincere, purposive and dispassionate analysis of different policy options can lead to more effective policy instruments. For example, the discussion in the Planning Commission convinced me that we could have made our recommendations about Muslim concentrated areas somewhat more nuanced.
We recognised in the report that apart from potential discrimination (which could not be empirically documented for want of data), the conditions of minorities are relatively poor because they are poor and are generally located in very backward areas.
A 3-Pronged Approach
Therefore, while we ensure better implementation of programmes meant for the poor and for the provision of amenities etc., a three pronged approach as a short-medium term solution instead of MCDs could have been considered:
1. Make additional funds available to backward regions (districts/taluks) to be spent in most backward areas within the region with an explicit proviso that minority or Dalit households or areas are not bypassed.
2. Make additional funds available in regions where the degree of relative deprivation among Dalits and minorities is very high. These regions may not necessarily be backward regions. But when combined with point 1, backward regions with higher relative deprivation will get more benefits. Census data on amenities and education of socio-religious groups can be used to calculate relative deprivation. This will require some additional tabulation of household and house-list schedules which the Sachar Committee was not able to undertake due to non-availability of data. These additional funds can be earmarked for locations (taluka or lower) where the Dalits and/or minorities are concentrated. Insofar as the other poor staying in these localities, they will automatically benefit from these "additional" efforts. Similarly, individual beneficiaries can also be targeted.
3. Have a provision of incentives whereby additional funds are made available to the regions that perform better in terms of bridging the gap between the Dalits or Muslims and others.
This approach may seem complicated but if our system is able to deal with awards of the Finance Commissions, it should be able to handle some version of the three pronged approach enumerated here. One will have to work out the modalities and the formulas in such a manner that the resource allocation arrangement is transparent. Any exercise of earmarking additional funds in the manner described here will make sense only if the amounts allocated for this purpose are substantial, as else, the potential impact is unlikely to be of any consequence. Therefore, it may be useful to figure out if schemes can be consolidated to make larger allocations through such programmes.
In fact, pooling of resources meant for minorities and Dalits for such targeted interventions and supplementing them with additional funds may provide the scale that is required to make significant changes in specific locations. One realises that such efforts require more decentralisation of effort than is usually envisaged, but are certainly desirable.
This is just one example of the way fine-tuning of recommendations could have been done. I will be very happy if similar debates on the other recommendations of the Sachar Committee also take place. These may or may not lead to changes in the recommendations but at least the decision to adopt various policies will be more informed, and the wider implications of accepting recommendations will be fully recognised. I will be the last person to undermine the relevance of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee, or to doubt the intentions of the government. But a word of caution is always useful.
Rakesh Basant is a Professor of Economics at IIM, Ahmedabad. He is currently located at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
(Courtesy: The Asian Age, June 5, 2007)