Early in the morning, Mohammad Nadeem, a 25-year-old ‘pakka adati’, big wholesaler, at one of Muzaffarnagar’s fruit and vegetable mandis, briskly sets about selling carrots and oranges. As he expertly sifts through sacks of fresh produce, it’s difficult to picture him hawking peanuts by the roadside. But for five years in this bustling western Uttar Pradesh mandi, Nadeem’s store front was a mere sack-cloth laid on bare earth, where he sold chickpeas and peanuts to passersby. It was only in 2009, when the city auctioned new mandi plots, that Nadeem got his break.
“I tied up with three friends to raise a couple of lakhs and we became traders,” Nadeem says. The career change was unexpected but proved lucrative. “Fruit and vegetable prices fluctuate wildly. Still, it’s going well,” he says. It must be, because the other traders, who watch the rise of ‘newcomers’ like him with envy and surprise, gossip about how those plots are now worth well over Rs 1 crore.
“I tied up with three of my friends to raise a couple of lakhs and we became traders.” Mohd Nadeem, Vegetable seller, Muzaffarnagar.(photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Such freshly-minted entrepreneurs are not the usual fare in poll-bound UP, home to more poor than any other state, lagging on health and education indices and with civic and industrial infrastructure creaking underfoot. Yet, even UP will throw up manifestations of what experts are calling a nationwide change. A series of government surveys and studies show that, over the last decade, the benefits of economic growth have poured into the social sector, nudging the traditionally disadvantaged groups—Muslims and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in particular—closer to the forefront of economic activity.
Such has been the change, experts believe, that on several critical social and economic indices, these groups, for the first time, showed evidence of a ‘convergence’—a signal that their condition is improving at the same pace as the rest of India, and at times, even faster. “A fresh look shows that for a range of social indicators such as health, education and income, SCs and STs have improved faster than national indicators. Even for Muslims, the indicators are up,” says Dr Santosh Mehrotra, who heads the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, a government body, which recently published the India Human Development Report, 2011, highlighting these changes.
“Literacy has no doubt improved, but the Muslim and upper-caste Hindu gap in higher education is widening.”Abusaleh Shariff, Economist, NCAER
This is a trend captured by data across many (but not all, it must be noted) social indicators—literacy, housing, monthly expenses, child labour rate, electricity, etc. For instance, the share of Muslims living in pucca houses is now the same as that of an ordinary Indian. The poverty rate for Muslims too has fallen from 43 to 32 per cent, a rate of decline similar to the national average.
Chalk it up to people like 50-year-old landless tiller Mohammad Gulshad of Kishanpur, 100 km north of Delhi. Until 2006, Gulshad’s home was a mud fence and two plastic sheets—one for himself, his wife and two children, the other for their buffalo. Every monsoon, this ‘house’ would dissolve, the children would fall sick, miss school, and medical expenses would wipe out savings.
Then Gulshad’s three younger brothers found temporary work on the outskirts of Delhi, and sent money home. Gulshad, too, drives a tractor and manages a landed farmer’s field. It took all their savings, a hospitalisation-free year, and an official grant of Rs 75,000—Rs 15,000 of which greased an official’s palms—for Gulshad’s family to build their first brick-and-mortar residence (worth Rs 3 lakh) three years ago. It may have makeshift toilets but it also has electricity. His children are enrolled in a free Urdu-medium school recognised by the state until Class 8 where, they say, they are taught English, math and science too.
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Gulshad’s children are part of a nationwide trend of convergence of literacy rates for Muslims, SCs and STs with the national average, as Mehrotra’s recent analysis reveals. He, however, warns that these numbers only show a quickening in the pace of improvement. “In real terms, employment, ownership of assets, access to health and education leave India’s Muslims, SCs and STs far behind national averages,” he says. The continuing neglect of sanitation is a case in point—only 51 per cent had access to toilets in 2009, and SCs, STs have started falling behind the country on this indicator. Still, the pace of change appears to have accelerated during the latter half of the previous decade, when several poorer states showed the first signs of rapid growth. Beyond 2009, the Economic Advisory Council to the prime minister notes, “there is strong evidence of ‘catching up’ by the lower income states.”
This good news, for Muslims in particular, comes exactly five years after the only other recent comprehensive study of their relative socio-economic status, the Rajinder Sachar Committee report. “Socio-economic miracles can conceal as much as they reveal,” avers Dr Abusaleh Shariff, an economist with NCAER who was member-secretary of the committee which in 2005 highlighted the more favourable sex ratio among Muslims and the steady decline in Muslim fertility rate compared to Hindus. “Similarly, recent improvements in literacy are undeniable, but if you turn the spotlight on higher education, you’ll find that the gap between Muslims and upper-caste Hindus is widening,” he says.
“There has been improvement in social indicators for SC-STs, and it is palpable.” Dr Anil Kumar, Prof, SD College, Muzaffarnagar
India’s communities and religious groups are notoriously difficult to order or rate by relative progress, because of the lack of data; but with Muslims, SCs and STs making up 42 per cent of the population, even relative improvements assume significance. “There has been an improvement in social indicators for SC-STs, and it is palpable,” says Dr Anil Kumar, who teaches political science at one of Muzaffarnagar’s two top colleges, S.D. College. What hasn’t changed, says Kumar, is employment.
In the last decade, nss data shows, the only sector where jobs have been created in large numbers is construction activity. Experts such as N.C. Saxena of the National Advisory Council say the brunt of low employment rates falls on the already disadvantaged. “The total number of jobs in the economy between 2004 and 2009 has gone up by only 1 million as against a target of 50 million, added to which, fewer women are working as per Census 2011. This is bad news,” he says.
Those who got jobs mostly gravitated to the construction sector, he points out. People such as Praveen Kumar, a 33-year-old resident of Rampuri, an urban sprawl on the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar. He failed to find a regular job in the city, and so moved to Delhi as an overseer at a private builder, Mittal Constructions, and now divides his time between Delhi and his family in Rampuri—“That’s the price of having a regular job,” he says. Indeed, his relatively better home—well-painted and outfitted with modern lighting and toilets—strikes a stark contrast with the rest of the neighbourhood: almost everyone else is a daily-wage labourer, and nearly all houses are semi-finished.
Saxena also points out that while it is certainly true that much more is being spent on socio-economic indicators, a wide inter-state disparity persists. Even the growth rates of states can mislead—for instance, Orissa’s shot up by 5 per cent a year, but this was mostly on account of the mining sector, not due to the trickling down of benefits or job creation. Similarly, Gujarat, though a high-growth state, has the worst nutritional and health status among women, children and tribals.
However palpable this change may be then, across-the-board reasons are a delicate matter. For people like Dr Anil Kumar, the professor in Muzaffarnagar, the role of the state is pivotal. “You won’t find the backward groups progressing without the state intervening directly,” he says. Unless, he says, the intervention amounts to a paltry Rs 32 per day per person living in a city.