M V KAMATH
We do not need to be told what poverty is: it is perpetual agony, devastating and unbearable. The poor, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, Christians or Sikhs need help as much as possible and as quickly as possible.
Poverty among Hindus is not more bearable than among Muslims and if the State intends to help the poor, it cannot discriminate on grounds of caste, creed, ideology or religion. That is why when Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh says that Muslim poor should get first preference in any State poverty alleviation programme, one can only feel sick in the stomach. No doubt Dr Singh means well.
Ever since Partition when the Muslim elite deserted their co-religionists to migrate to Pakistan, the poor among Muslims who stayed back in India must have felt like orphans. But who is to be blamed for such a situation? The Hindu majority? The secular State? The Hindus in India did not ask for political separation from Muslims. To them Partition was abhorrent. But the majority of Muslims asked for Pakistan and they got it. No one stopped them from going to Pakistan; the poor among Muslims stayed behind and they have now become a liability. Yes, they need help. Yes, they need support, moral as well as financial. Yes, they need sympathy and no one grudges them. But when the Prime Minister singles the Muslims community as needing all these on a preferential basis, he is playing politics. He should remember that if his idea is to get the Muslim vote he may also need to be told that for every one Muslim vote, the Congress may lose two Hindu votes. That is the plain truth. Questionable tactics seldom pay.
Economic discrimination, howsoever well meant, will only invite retaliation.
There is no single answer to the alleviation of poverty among any one class of people. The State approach has to be general. Does the Prime Minister know that there are over 20 lakh Self- Help Groups (SHGs) in India providing the basic grassroots-level institutional support to over 2.4 households? Micro-financing is now becoming the fashion of the day, like Grameen Bank's set- up in Bangladesh. Such banks are spreading in India but they have so far received little publicity.
In his thoughtful study of 50 years of banking development, Dr N K Thingalaya, himself a former bank official, has noted that bankers have accepted the expediency of extending micro-finance through SHG-bank linkage as a cost-effective means of reaching out to the poor. The Self- Help Groups need extensive publicity. Banks have been associated with the implementation of schemes under Small Farmers' Development Agency (SFDA) and Marginal Farmers and Agricultural Labourers' Development Agency (MFALDA) since 1971.
Surely Dr Singh does not need to be told that many innovations in farm credit had been introduced by none else than the government of India itself for involving banks in rural credit? Agricultural advances have been made to anyone interested in horticulture, floriculture, animal husbandry, poultry farming and fisheries. There is no such thing as Muslim jasmine or Hindu fish. Pineapple, grapes, papaya, mango and sapota are being grown as economic crops, especially in Karnataka where banks are reported to have lent as much as Rs 109.17 crore to 1,753 farmers growing horticultural corps.
Karnataka, in fact, has been leading in setting up Self Employment Training Institutes (SETIs). One bank had established as early as in 1980 a Rural Women Self-Employment Training Institutes (RUWSETI) with the sole purpose of promoting training to selected batches of women in tailoring and other need-based activities, providing even free boarding and lodging during the training period, after training, financial support was extended through branches of the bank wherever necessary.
Banks in Karnataka have also led in setting up organisations for training traditional artists to keep their hereditary skills alive and to make them self-reliant. What banks in Karnataka have done can surely be replicated in an ever-widening circle in other States too and everyone and that includes Muslims - can get the benefit of State-sponsored training? Rural Development and Self-Employment Training Institutes (RUDSETIs) are not a novelty. At least they have not been so in Karnataka. They have to be set up everywhere with speed. During the last 24 years, the existing RUDSETIs have trained 1.72 lakh rural youth in various vocations. Out of them 1,15,055 persons have apparently started their own self-employment ventures in different parts of the country. The success rate is reported to be 67 per cent at the aggregate level. It was over 70 per cent in two of the earliest RUDSETIs operating in Karnataka. According to Dr Thingalaya, the cumulative total of credit facilities availed of by the trainees from banks is Rs 204.77 crore.
Writes Dr Thingalaya: 'Two of the salient features of borrowings are lower reliance on borrowed credit and promptness in repayment... Those who have borrowed are invariably prompt in repaying loans.' The RUDSETI model has come to be recognised as a cost-effective instrument in creating self-employment opportunities in villages without dislocating rural youth from their environment. That does not mean that unemployed youth in urban areas or in Muslim ghettoes should be discriminated against. SETIs can be established in slum areas or predominantly Muslim wards, with the unemployed among Muslims regarded only as unemployed and not specifically as Muslims. No one should be made self-conscious regarding their identity.
It is sad to see Dr Singh, an economist of repute, falling prey to political manipulators. Self-employment training institutes do not ask - at least one hopes not - about the religion of the trainees, who are treated as human beings, not people belonging to this or that community, or religion. Small- scale industries or enterprises are presently championed by many banks through micro-financing. Banks enable the poor, the illiterate and the deprived to regain their self-confidence and self-respect.
Dr Singh should talk about
Muslims in a different context. They should be treated as trainees willing
to learn. What Muslims need is not dole but leadership. SHG experiments
have shown that they can make a sea-change to the socio-ecomonic well-being
of the poor. Don't pity the Muslims. They don't need that. Show them a
way out of poverty and suffering. This does not call for open discrimination.
It only needs scientific guidance. Think over it, Dr Singh. Be a guide,
not a scheming politician at the mercy of slogan-makers looking for votes
and shaming us all in the process. There are no Muslim or Hindu poor. There
are only poor Indians and they must all be treated alike, come what may.
And good luck to you.